Think twice before taking a deep breath in New Delhi, where worsening air pollution has drawn comparisons with Beijing, the world’s pollution poster child.
On bad days in India’s congested capital, the air is so murky it slows traffic to a crawl. Conversations are punctuated with rasping coughs. Weak bands of sunlight filter through a grainy sky.
Air monitoring sensors around the landlocked Indian capital have routinely registered levels of small airborne particles at “hazardous” levels in recent months—three to four times New Delhi’s own sanctioned limit, rivaling Beijing.
While it’s uncertain which city has worse smog—there are various toxins to measure and methods differ, among other things—one thing is clear: China’s capital is taking steps to improve air quality but New Delhi hasn’t done much in recent years to tackle the problem, largely because there’s been little public outcry.
Doctors overwhelmingly agree that more people in New Delhi are getting sick from the air pollution, although there is scant data to show it. Air pollution is proven to exacerbate chronic lung ailments, and there is mounting evidence it also leads to stress, coronary diseases and inflammation.
“It seems incredible that the politicians and judges living in Delhi would not be worried about how their families and children are suffering from the bad air,” said Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, head of the Public Health Foundation of India. “People have to recognize the extent of the damage happening. That’s where the outrage will come in. That’s when the action will happen.”
This week, Reddy co-chaired the first meeting of a new Health Ministry committee, formed two months ago with academics, officials and health workers, tasked with recommending ways to protect the public from dirty air.
Their report is due in a year.
Comparing pollution levels between the two megacities, home to a combined 29 million people, seems natural given their iconic status representing Asia’s opportunity and growth. They both have gone through breakneck economic development that has transformed their landscapes within a generation, raising living standards but also spewing out loads of pollution.
Decades of policies that favored economic decisions over environmental concerns have taken their toll. Cars now represent the middle-class dream for thousands digging out of poverty, and decades of booming construction has kicked up countless clouds of dust.
There are various ways to measure pollution, but comparisons have generally focused on the microscopic particulate matter, sometimes called black carbon or soot, which can lodge in a person’s lungs and fester over time.
In New Delhi, levels of PM 10—particulate matter that is 10 micrometers in size—have routinely bounced around 400 micrograms per cubic meter the past several months. That’s four times the city’s legal limit of 100, and well above the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 20. In 2011, the average level rose to about 280.
In Beijing, average annual PM 10 levels have declined to just above 100 last year, according to the Center for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based research and advocacy group that crunched the official numbers.
The Chinese capital is way ahead of its Indian counterpart in terms of in informing citizens about the dangers of pollution. Beijing has launched a health alert system that advises caution on smoggy days, and the term PM 2.5—particles even smaller than PM 10 and considered more dangerous to health—has become a common part of the vocabulary among citizens.