Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Excuses, Excuses: Lessons from the Commonwealth Games--Pollution Story

Two more lessons from the Commonwealth Games
1. We are worried about the wrong athletes
2. If you lack a convincing argument, look for a good excuse.

This year, for the first time in 44 years, the Queen will not be attending the Commonwealth Games.  The papers say it is due to her heavy workload, but one has to wonder if other factors could have been involved; the announcement did, after all, come on the heals of news that several Canadian athletes are pulling out of the games due to Delhi's unsafe levels of air pollution.

The CWG-Pollution story hit the papers back in May, when the good people at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) announced the results their study of Delhi pollution to a meeting of experts from various government agencies.  According to the CSE's assessment, Delhi's levels of air pollution are very high and this may cause problems for athletes during the Commonwealth Games.  The CSE makes some very good points, and their plan calls for both long term and short term pollution reduction steps.

In the weeks since the CSE report, the CWG-Pollution story got a lot of attention. The Times of India quoted a doctor as saying, "Athletes, who breathe deeper and longer, can find themselves very uncomfortable. Higher level of suspended material could increase their stress level, and in turn affect their performance."  A leading sports scientist urged athletes from New Zealand to avoid training in Delhi as much as possibleThe UN praised the high-tech pollution monitoring system that will be used during the Games.  Following the CSE report, the Delhi government quickly announced a list of measures aimed at cutting pollution in time for the CWG.

I agree with the CSE: Delhi's air is a mess and it needs to be cleaned up.  The dust from all the construction, coupled with the stuff coming out of the tailpipes of millions of vehicles, is quite literally, deadly.  You don't need a hyperlink, or a quote from a doctor, or a report from an NGO to tell you that.

But the way this story is being told is making my blood boil.  First of all, with all this talk about how hard our air will be on athletes, you could almost forget that Delhi is a city that is being built and run, to a great extent, by people who use their bodies as machines: women who carry pots of water or stacks of bricks on their heads daily; cycle rickshaw wallas who haul heavy loads;  the workers who dig trenches by hand.   Do these people not breathe deep and long? Are they not athletes in every relevant sense of the word?  Are they not being caused "discomfort" every day?  Do they not die of cancer by the thousands?

And what of all of our children?  Who doesn't know at least one child not suffering from asthma?  I'm sorry about those Canadian marathoners.  But whether they run in October or not is really a small matter compared to the health of the millions of people who live here year round.

When you look at the Delhi government's plans to reduce pollution during the Games, most of what they plan to do will have a short term impact: temporary closure of power plants and traffic reduction, though a variety of means, including mandatory closure of schools.

These measures will make a difference, but their affect won't last long: no matter how tempting it may be, you can't solve the pollution problem by closing schools forever!  And unless you install a lot more solar power, it's hard to imagine power plants closing for very long. A few solar powered cycle rickshaws or light bulbs won't be enough, I'm sorry to say!

It is true that construction will probably slow naturally after the Games. But nobody can seriously believe that the Delhi government is going to do anything long term to reduce traffic; after all, they've spent most of the last five years building roads and flyovers!   In fact, it was not even three years ago that The Hindu ran an article titled, "Pollution-free by 2010, says Sheila."  Part of the CM's pollution reduction strategy? Flyovers!  Yes, flyovers were supposed to make our city more beautiful and while at the same time cutting idle time and thus reducing pollution.  Of course, that's not how the world works.  There is plenty of research that says when when you build more roads, you get more traffic!  And more traffic means more pollution!

This brings us to the second thing that's been bothering me about the Commonwealth Games-pollution story.  You see, for years, we've had massive transportation budgets justified in the name of the Commonwealth Games.  In fact, roads and transportation got 38 percent of the most recent Delhi budget. Now I'm not saying that all that was wasted; certainly the investment in public transportation is important. But overall, it seems terribly strange that we've built so many flyovers and widened so many roads in the name of the games, especially since, as we now learn, we could have solved the CWG-related traffic problems by reducing traffic in other ways!  In fact, that's what we are going to have to do anyway, because of our levels of pollution have gotten so out of hand!

Which just goes to show that the massive investment in roads and flyovers never really had much to do with the Commonwealth Games.  The games were just an excuse to do something that would have been politically impossible, otherwise.  And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. 

In a city where millions of people don't have adequate housing or water, you'd have a hard time convincing people that transportation should be the top priority for government spending. Lacking a convincing argument, our leadership turned to the next best thing: a good excuse.  Call it what you will--old-fashioned politics or sleight of hand--but you have to admit Sheila Dikshit has played this game--these Games--brilliantly.

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