It was crassly insensitive, even if coincidental, for a drive to popularise football among parliamentarians to be announced by the minister for sport when still “raw” were the wounds resulting from FIFA’s announcement that the poor air quality in the Capital made it impossible to schedule Under-17 World Cup matches there after Diwali “festivities”. There was painful symbolism to both sides of the picture: one a grim reminder of how the city came close to suffocation a few months back, the other a confirmation that ~ despite judicial cautions ~ the Central and state governments have pathetically failed to give citizens decent air to breathe. Football is indeed a “physical” sport and FIFA’s concerns for the participants in the prestigious event are entirely valid: hence the selection of New Delhi as the place to initiate promotional activity underscores the indifference of “government” in general, and the sports ministry in particular, to the deteriorating quality of the air in the city ~ from which the sports minister hails. This year Diwali will be celebrated on October 19, and the last Delhi match in the competition will be played three days prior to that. It is true that Kolkata has always had more passionate football followers than Delhi ~ even if a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal fixture no longer merits comparison with a Chelsea-Tottenham “London Derby” ~ but the capital does boast a top-class venue in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (the Modi government has yet to think in terms of a name-change), and it amounts to huge disgrace that it will not be used in the knock-out stages of the competition. That is something that the Dilliwallah will have to learn to live with, as he/she has been forced to inhale air rendered toxic by auto-emissions, the burning of crop-stubble in the hinterland, smoke belched out by obsolete thermal power stations…. The football schedule ought to embarrass, but will it? Other red lights have flashed, the excessively sarkari city has brazenly ignored them.
Could the FIFA action lay down a revised template for international events to be hosted in New Delhi? The post-Diwali season is when the summer heat abates, and a check of the calendar will confirm that major multinational conferences, seminars, conclaves, etc., have favoured the late-October to March time-frame. True the cool climate also suggests the end of the “dust” of summer; now it has been replaced by what is even more discomforting ~ smog. And much of that is “man-made”, the remedial action has been limited to headline-catching moves like the “odd-even” scheme for motor vehicles, restrictions on vintage car rallies, while even within city limits the burning of waste continues. Will FIFA’s waving the “red card” shame the Capital into a clean-up?