Sri Lankan sportsmen found themselves gasping for air over the weekend in New Delhi.
In a cricket match-up against India, the two South Asian teams met on the field of Feroz Shah Kotla Ground in the capital of the world’s most populous democracy.
The Indian capital has been battling fierce pollution for decades. This year has been among the worst on record. Air quality rankings from the beginning of November far surpassed the cutoff for “severe,” as residents took to wearing surgical masks and strived to minimize their time outdoors.
Bans, regulations, and restrictions have been tried, with mixed results.
Crop burning in the neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana – long singled out as among the main contributors to Delhi’s miserable air – was taken to task. Officials tried creating incentives for farmers to not burn agricultural waste.
Factories around the outskirts of the city were asked to cease operations. An old scheme – commonly referred to as Odd-Even – was brought back into consideration, stipulating that only cars with odd license plate numbers could drive on certain days, while those with even numbers could drive on others.
The last time Odd-Even was tried – some three years ago – city officials found themselves mocked. Fraudulent license plates were being manufactured and sold at underground bazaars and brazenly along street-sides.
But courts stopped Odd-Even from coming back into fall swing.
Skies filled with smoke, smog, and dust were commonplace. Delhi landmarks like India Gate were obscured, enveloped by a dense cover that seems to come at the beginning of each winter.
Hookah pipes were regulated, too, though a brunt of bars and restaurants found creative ways to circumvent the ban.
But for the cricket-crazy nation of India, seeing the rival Sri Lankan team gasping for air may have been a blow too far. The team took the ground at Feroz Shah wearing anti-pollution masks, a day after they’d refused to play due to the atrocious air quality.
Back in November, when air pollution was rated “Very Severe” by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, health experts estimated that simply breathing in the Indian capital was equivalent to smoking some 50 cigarettes per day.
Smog cover was so thick around the city that a 20-vehicle pileup occurred on a highway linking New Delhi with neighboring Ghaziabad.
Despite December’s resurgent spike in pollution, neither the Indian fans nor the players at Feroz Shah seemed too concerned. The home team strode onto the grounds without wearing face masks, even as Sri Lankan players complained of vomiting in their locker room.