India’s Air Pollution: Is It Worse than China’s?

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Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum

Scenes from around Khumbarwada, the Gujarati potters' district, show open kilns in the alleys in Mumbai in 2006. The kilns, which burn cloth scrap, contribute to air-particle pollution

India may have just gotten the wake-up call it needed to start getting serious about its growing pollution problem. A study put out this week by Tel Aviv University reports that Indian megacities are seeing a faster increase in pollution than the cities in the classic environmental villain to the east, China. According to the paper, from 2002 to 2010, Bangalore saw the second highest increase in air-pollution levels in the world at 34%, and Indian cities including Pune, Mumbai, Nagpur and Ahmedabad, among others, also saw double-digit increases. Because the pollution measured reflects a combination of industrial and weather-related particles like dust, it’s not possible to say this is entirely a man-made problem. But the fact that India’s population grew faster than China’s in the past decade means that the air in India’s cities is doomed to get worse before it gets better.

It doesn’t seem fair that China gets both the job-supplying manufacturing sector and the relatively better pollution news. (It’s increasing in Chinese cities too — just not as fast.) But no one in India could claim the information to be much of a shock. Though this is my first winter in New Delhi, everyone keeps telling me that it’s “normal” this time of year for the Indian capital to get smoggy. But how smoggy is normal? So smoggy that companies spam my phone with texts for Ayurvedic asthma cures? Apparently so, because I’ve gotten them. When winter kicks in, the cooler temperatures and still air always bring an annual period of haze to the city, but the pervasive murk that enshrouded the city for the first few weeks of November raised more concerns than usual, and not just mine. According to researchers at India’s Centre for Science and Environment, levels of respirable particulate matter (PM10) in mid-November were up 47% over what they were that time last year, and nitrogen-dioxide levels were up 57%.

(MORE: Serious Air Pollution in Beijing Is Leading to Social Unrest)

Officials have been on the defense, and they should be. New Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit announced the state had commissioned one of India’s best universities to study the causes of this year’s bad smog, in addition to proposing a series of quick fixes to help clear the air, like restricting diesel-generator use and banning trucks not bound for New Delhi from entering the city. She also has blamed the burning of straw in neighboring states of Haryana and Punjab, a claim that officials there dismissed, correctly pointing out that if that were the problem, they’d be covered in smog too.

The gray cocoon that enshrouded the city earlier in November is at bay for now, which means we can see the sky. That’s a nice change. But it’ll be back. In a study released earlier this year, India ranked last out of 132 countries surveyed by Yale and Columbia in terms of air quality and effects on human health. Because of its high-emissions vehicles and heavy reliance on coal, the country has particularly serious levels of high-particulate matter, which leads to respiratory infections, and the problem is seen both in cities like New Delhi and smaller cities around the nation.

“You always have an increase in respiratory cases this time of the year, partly because of the worsening air quality and partly because of the seasonal changes,” says Dr. S.K. Chhabra, head of the Department of Cardiorespiratory Physiology at the Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute in New Delhi. He says he’s been seeing more asthma and bronchitis patients in the past few weeks, as well more cardiac patients with angina, which is aggravated by the lowered oxygen levels during heavy pollution. People with pre-existing lung or heart disease, smokers, young children and the elderly are particularly susceptible. “When the wind starts again, there will be less cases.”

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That doesn’t make it O.K. The New Delhi government has taken steps in the past that have helped control the city’s pollution levels, like rolling out vehicles that run on natural gas to reduce emissions, building a metro system to encourage public transportation and limiting the amount of commercial traffic coming through town. Last week, the Centre for Science and Environment called on officials to do much more, including enforcing emissions checks on private and commercial vehicles, banning open fires in the city and using a smog-alert system to let citizens know when the pollution is particularly risky. Earlier this month, the city announced it would expand monitoring, install electronic displays charting air quality around the city and issue smog alerts and health advisories, according to the Hindustan Times.

Those are steps that have a proven track record in other cities. Growing up in the 1980s in Los Angeles, we used to have regular “smog days,” when public schools would cancel our physical-education classes because the city advised it was unhealthy for kids to be outside. (Some amazing pictures of the bad old days in L.A. here.) L.A. has mostly cleaned up its act through a combination of citizen activism, better technology and better regulation. The alerts were good public-health practice, sure, but they did more than that. They were a reminder that heavy air pollution, even if it was the norm, was not normal. They are also a reminder to citizens that if officials aren’t doing all they can to get things back to normal, they’re not doing their job. If India’s private sector can send me regular text messages about Ayurvedic cures for asthma, surely I could get a courtesy note from the government I pay taxes to when air-pollution levels might give me an asthma attack.

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25 comments
DewittBooker
DewittBooker

Air pollution is ranked the 5th killer in India, it is far more serious than any other countries. Perhaps the Indian government could encourage the use of latest technology. I heard that the Schaeffler has launch their concept car Efficient Mobility future India specifically targeted the India market, it is a modified Maruti Suzuki Swift with new start/stop system and electric clutch management system, with an increase 10% fuel efficiency and decrease in emission. Maruti Suzuki has already started shipping such cars to India, if the government can sponsor or lower taxes on such green vehicles, I believe more citizens can enjoy the true benefits from them.

Grizzlybear1900
Grizzlybear1900

I am an Indian and I agree that India has a lot of problems , some really bad! But living in the USA I see a lot of problems in this country too - poverty (was shocked to see homeless people considering the fact that USA is a developed country), crimes, crazy mass shootings, drugs, guns, high divorce rates , high debt, high rates of obesity etc. - not worse than India but certainly a lot of problems.  So, my point is before people point fingers at others they should take a look at their own homelands !

JoanEli
JoanEli

In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians. I don't know how cultural the filth is, but it's really beyond anything I have ever encountered. At times the smells, trash, refuse and excrement are like a garbage dump. Right next door to the Taj Mahal was a pile of trash that smelled so bad, was so foul as to almost ruin the entire Taj experience. Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to a lesser degree were so very polluted as to make me physically ill. Sinus infections, ear infection, bowels churning was an all to common experience in India. Dung, be it goat, cow or human fecal matter was common on the streets. In major tourist areas filth was everywhere, littering the sidewalks, the roadways, you name it. Toilets in the middle of the road, men urinating and defecating anywhere, in broad daylight. Whole villages are plastic bag wastelands. Roadsides are choked by it. Air quality that can hardly be called quality. Far too much coal and far too few unleaded vehicles on the road. The measure should be how dangerous the air is for one's health, not how good it is. People casually throw trash in the streets, on the roads. The only two cities that could be considered sanitary in my journey were Trivandrum--the capital of Kerala--and Calicut. I don't know why this is. But I can assure you that at some point this pollution will cut into India's productivity, if it already hasn't. The pollution will hobble India's growth path, if that indeed is what the country wants. (Which I personally doubt, as India is far too conservative a country, in the small 'c' sense.)

AnumakondaJagadeesh
AnumakondaJagadeesh

Air pollution in India is a serious issue with the major sources being fuel wood and biomass burning, fuel adulteration, vehicle emission and traffic congestion. India has a low per capita emissions of greenhouse gases but the country as a whole is the third largest after China and the United States.The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act was passed in 1981 to regulate air pollution and there have been some measurable improvements. However, the 2012Environmental Performance Index ranked India as having the poorest relative air quality out of 132 countries.Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

ItsOnlyMe
ItsOnlyMe

Checking the weather for Delhi at weatherchannel.com it lists "smoke" as the present condition. Go ahead, try it!

techpint_
techpint_

@TIME @timeworld Ultimately it's the people of respective countries who r getting effected

TomGillilan
TomGillilan

"L.A. has mostly cleaned up its act through a combination of citizen activism, better technology and better regulation."

LA has cleaned up its act somewhat only because car exhaust has become much cleaner.

 With one million Los Angeles homes using their fireplace to heat their homes, even though every home has electricity and clean burning natural gas, and hundreds of thousands of people who now cook with charcoal and wood as their primary cooking method year round, not to mention the thousands of hamburger style restaurants pumping tons of smoke into the air every day, living in LA is like living in a toxic smoke polluted toilet.  In fact, just last week they were forced to call a no-burn alert for huge parts of the basin. Other parts of the LA air are now covered in toxins to the point that huge sections are now under Prop 65 cancer warning. 

Probably one of the biggest reasons these conditions exist now is because of the army of no-brainers who always remember "the bad old days" and refuse to address the current toxic situation.

IF YOU TRAVEL TO LOS ANGELES BRING YOUR OWN AIR AND A GAS MASK

TomGillilan
TomGillilan

IF YOU TRAVEL TO LOS ANGELES BRING YOUR OWN AIR AND A GAS MASK

TOXIC SMOKE POLLUTION EVERYWHERE

DOCTOR DEATH IN CHARGE OF AIR POLLUTION IN LA

ScottWan
ScottWan

India presents the issues on a scale that will fascinate Gardiner Harris for the rest of time: revolting waste on a scale that will make news, insufficient and dirty water, inadequate food, violently troubled borders between nuclear states troubled by religious hatred, troubled medicine and politically unjust education, massive over population, totally dysfunctional and corrupt democracy, race hatred on a grand scale, marauding monkeys by the millions in the street, cat, dog and rat dominion to boot, a religion that suggests reincarnation, that every cow walking hosts the soul of a departed relative, endemic corruption, threat of nuclear war with either of two neighbors, one a client state of other, unstated, with the other the only more populous nation on earth, equally corrupt, theoretically communist, a violently capitalistic mess to the north, unparalleled urban filth, utter degradation of women, children raped, exported and enslaved, other illicit games in capitalism, the most disgusting habits in farming, in short - the problems of humanity on a planet where conscience has vacated, ethic is forgotten, and give me mine has assumed control.

PRajaram
PRajaram

@Grizzlybear1900 I'm too, annoyed at how the western media reports on India, always the negative news and very rarely, if any, positive news.  However, sometimes, it is good to have an outside opinion which can act as a wake up call for us.  We all know how much more of infighting we have in our country.  This prevents any objective look at the problem which is the necessary first step to fixing it.

Pollution is a serious issue, which has the power to kill slowly but steadily and it doesn't discriminate between rich and poor.  All the other problems which you have listed, while serious, their effects can be lessened, if people take steps in an individualistic sense.  The same cannot be said about pollution.

JaySit
JaySit

@JoanEli You make valid points about the lack of civic sense by 75% of Indians in contemporary India, but let's not get carried away with the nonsense about men dropping trou' and taking a dump in the streets.  

artzpb
artzpb

@Tara Wood Couldn't agree more. Hope there is a reversal in coming decades by legal and humane ways 

jocelynn
jocelynn

@TomGillilan  Thanks for your post, Tom. I'm in Seattle and I hear ya. Real engineerings' been outsourced with bad product QC and stuffed in "Halliburtons" safe. Then we are all told we are helpless. plz

JaySit
JaySit

@ScottWanMarauding monkeys by the millions in the streets?  What have you been smoking?

ItsOnlyMe
ItsOnlyMe

@ScottWan This is probably the best, most accurate description of India I have ever read. The writer captures in one brilliant paragraph most if not all of the elements that make up the Indian condition. Thanks Scott!

ashterix21
ashterix21

@ScottWan  Wow! What a well thought-out and lucid argument ..And really efficient too. You got India AND China at one-go (and in a single sentence for that matter). For your sake, I hope you are old and thus unlikely to have a long life ahead of you .. Otherwise the coming decades might be too painful for you given your hate for both these countries who are projected to be the leading nations of the world in this century. You could take pleasures from their problems and stumbles on the way but if they do fulfill their current promise; your life will feel like an unending sentence, much like your post.

goodgenie4u
goodgenie4u

@ScottWan 

Like Mitt Romney, India's high castes look down their noses at the masses. They see it as their manifest destiny. so they beg and toil and live in squalor. It's third world mindsets leading the way. It may take a 100 years in a world we hardly recognize today, that India, just may have a chance at forging forward. The current template for progress is mired in chaos.

Grizzlybear1900
Grizzlybear1900

@PRajaram : Hi ! My comment was in response to one of the idiotic immature comments below (ScottWan) . This person obviously lacks knowledge in not only other cultures but also his own !

Anyway, I agree with you .But I do feel pollution can be mitigated if strict laws and regulations are enforced. We Indians do have the common sense when it comes to reduce/reuse/recycle but unfortunately India suffers from lack of strict regulations for large scale industrial pollutants (needs to be fixed by our younger gen) !

Solrider
Solrider

@JaySit @JoanEli  Even if "the nonsense about men dropping trou' and taking a dump in the streets." is a stretch, India is still a cesspool that will get much worse and Indians will soon (if not already) begin living like rats in the sewer..All because of denial by folks like you, not acknowledging a deficiency and using the criticism to better one's self.  I am a proud Indian immigrant but disillusioned by witnessing the steady decline in the quality of life after every visit since the eighties.  India has made an indomitable impact on human civilization and culture and will continue to do so but the denial and slow rot is heart wrenching...

An environmental engineer who began his career by helping clear Los Angeles' smog..


artzpb
artzpb

@ashterix21: Cleverly put, but fact remains India has to get her act together. Sadly many points mentioned above are true. I am an Indian. First step towards improvement is, accepting that there is a problem. No need to points out other's problems. Let's accept what is not correct and work towards it. Painfully to accept, India has to control population very strictly. Population is the reason of all problems. Let's take good and leave bad aside. 

ashterix21
ashterix21

@artzpb I am Indian too. I have lived in India for a long time and am currently living outside India, and agree about India having many problems. I have no issues with what you said and, in fact agree with your post; especially the point that accepting a problem is the first step to addressing it. I do not believe in false jingoism and hence I do not shout about India's potential success as if it is a given ( which is why I wrote "IF they do fulfill their current promise"). The only reason I was driven to post at all (and maybe that was unnecessarily dignifying this rant with a response) was the "criticism-for-insult-sake" nature of the post with clear ill-intent, and even more clearly, ill-information - Comments in the original post such as "race hatred on a grand scale" "marauding monkeys by the millions" "a religion that suggests reincarnation, that every cow walking hosts the soul of a departed relative"  ably supported thereafter  by the 'India expert' who gravely intoned his expert opinion "India's high castes look down their noses at the masses. They see it as their manifest destiny. so they beg and toil and live in squalor. It's third world mindsets leading the way." Thank you Sire for your enlightened words from the developed world to us people, living in the dark corners of human existence. 

What rubbish! Both in terms of understanding of India and, more so, in terms of relevance to the point of the article. Anyway, as I said, I might just have been better off not dignifying it with a response but could not resist leaving a counterpoint when I saw such prejudice spewed here.