Air Quality and Delhi Commonwealth Games

Sudhir Gota

Nearly 6.5 billion USD is being invested in Delhi within a short period of time for the Common wealth games.  Transportation investments form a significant chunk of the total investment. Though the exact investment for transport is still being debated by experts, reports claim that nearly 35% of total budget has been allocated for the transport sector – this means whooping 2.2 billion USD. In fact, the Delhi city budget for 2010-11 has contributed 38% of its total budget i.e. nearly 1 billion USD on building transport infrastructure. I would not hesitate to make apples to orange comparison and state that “the proposed scale of investment is so huge that its equivalent to transport investment needs for next twenty years of 14 small cities having a population of less than 0.5 million!!”

One of the biggest impacts of such measures would be definitely on Air Quality.  Unfortunately, Delhi is being daily terrorized by Air pollution. The impact is huge and people call it as India’s Asthma capital!!

However, news of arrival of many athletes to Delhi is doing wonders to air quality agenda and researchers are hoping that city would strive to get rid of choking pollution which is damaging people’s health.  In order to throw more light on the air pollution and Commonwealth games, I managed to catch up with Dr. Sarath Guttikunda who has worked on Air pollution in Delhi and Commonwealth games in his new research. The paper can be found here..

Dr. Sarath Guttikunda 

      Why such a big fuss over Air Quality and Commonwealth games? Does it matter to the citizens and should it matter?

Sarath - Games, for that matter any big event tends to bring a lot attention to the city - infrastructure, architecture, greenness, people, cleanliness, and air. We saw this end in flying colors in Beijing, which transformed itself, as far as the infrastructure goes and did very well in the clean air category, at least during the Games. The people and the media noticed that - general people noticed that the clean air is possible (in Beijing) and it is a fresh idea that matters the most in the long run. An added incentive of the city officials to focus on clean air is athletes health - for the outdoor games; and a good PR. 

2.       Why Air Quality is not a big agenda in City newspapers and other media reports?

Sarath- At least in case of Delhi, this can be attributed to lack of information (not enough monitoring; no set dissemination strategy; and lack of resources on emissions). The media can always report, "today traffic is very heavy, hence the pollution is bad or the winter inversion is low, hence the thick fog". Then, by how much, what is the scale, what are we comparing. The media can play a much bigger role in raising awareness on air quality, which is a growing problem in the city, if the right information is provided to them in the form that can disseminated in an easy to understand form.

3.    What kinds of actions are being proposed?

Sarath - The actions so far are dominated in the transport sector, including new CNG buses (AC and non-AC), closing down schools to reduce school traffic, new fleet of radio taxi's, banning trucks from entering (even at night) if the final destination is not Delhi, and dedicated lanes for the athletes movement to cut down on vehicle emissions along those corridors. Non-transport measures are possible closing of some industries (yet to be decided), more natural gas usage at the power plants, and even closing of coal based power plants. A measure that the planners are heavily banking on is the use of the new metro lines, with an incentive of free metro pass with every Games ticket.

4.    Huge investment with nearly 35% of total games funds are allotted on transport measures. Are the measures good enough? What would be the long term impact?

Sarath- All these measures are designed to address short term goals - clean air during the Games. Only measure with a long term vision is the sleek buses on roads, in addition to the metro lines connecting ~190 km across the city. If the athletes stick to the dedicated lanes, they will probably see a smooth sail, with no traffic and minimum exposure to pollution. The regular traffic will get diverted to other corridors, and it is a wait and see game for general public on how this plays in terms of congestion, additional fuel losses, extra pollution, and increase in exposure times. A lot of pavements are being done or repaired across the city, which is a good sign and hope that the city authorities will pick up this pace to support the non-motorized movement in the coming years.

5.   Would Delhi win the race to Clean Air?

Sarath - City currently experiences ~100 micro-gm/m3 daily average for PM2.5, compared to India's ambient standard of 60. Even if all the measures are in place, we can garner benefits only along the dedicated lanes and not for the city as a whole, which averages above the WHO standards for health effects (which they now say has no threshold at all).  The authorities need to address more of the low hanging fruit, for the Games period and long term, such as road dust, open burning of garbage, and public transport (put more buses on the road). Above all, we need to open access to information that shows where we are on the polluted or clean air charts.

Clearly, Delhi needs to find urgent solutions to its pollution and transport problems. Delhi lost a golden opportunity in 1982 Asian games when the strategies resulted in development of huge infrastructure but gave birth to several traffic externalities.  Let’s not make the same mistake again!!  

 “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience” - George Bernard Shaw