A decade ago, the capitals of Asia’s two largest countries both had some of the dirtiest skies in the world. On the worst days, millions were enveloped in thick gray canopies of smog that darkened the sun and besieged the lungs.
Since then, one of those cities has made significant improvements. After the Chinese government declared a war against pollution in 2013, Beijing pressed ahead with a multiyear, $100 billion effort to clean its air. The authorities clamped down on factories, forced old vehicles off the road and shifted from coal to natural gas. While more still needs to be done, Beijing officials say the city now has over 100 more days of clear skies each year than when the campaign began.
But in the other city, New Delhi, the air this autumn has been as foul as ever. The onset of air pollution season brought weeks of haze to the city, prompting officials to briefly halt truck traffic, close schools and ask people to work from home. Those who still ventured out coughed into their masks and rubbed their eyes. The air felt bitter on the tongue.
Every year, the skies in the Delhi region turn acrid from pollution generated by millions of vehicles, the burning of stubble on surrounding farms and the use of open fires for heating and cooking in rural homes. And every year, residents are left to ask why nothing changes.
The diverging fortunes come down, in no small part, to differences between China’s authoritarian system and India’s huge and messy democracy.
Overall, China ranks relatively low on international indexes of environmental performance. But in the case of Beijing’s pollution, the Chinese government tackled it with single-minded focus when its scale became too daunting to ignore, forcing rapid, coordinated action in response to public anger.
India, experts say, has lacked both political resolve and public pressure to address the issue. Voters have more pressing concerns in a country where tens of millions still live in poverty. Politicians use the crisis to attack adversaries, rather than seek solutions.
“A lot of it has to do with the political will and the coordination between the various governments,” said Avikal Somvanshi, a data specialist for the Clean Air Campaign at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
“The infighting,” he lamented, “keeps happening.”
Take, for instance, a recent exchange between local and national leaders in India, who have perennially traded blame over who is responsible for the capital’s poor air quality.
An official in the party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared Delhi’s chief minister — a member of an opposition party — to Hitler, saying the minister had “converted his city into a gas chamber.”
The chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, swiped back on a television show, asking why “the central government is sitting in hiding, locked up in a room.”
In China, the one-party system brooks no opposition; when the central government prioritizes an initiative, local authorities fall in line. That happened in the case of Beijing’s pollution, as the capital worked in tandem with regional officials and neighboring cities, said Zongbo Shi, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Birmingham in England.
In India, where local governments are run by an array of parties, coordination is “really complicated,” Professor Shi said. In the absence of political will, economic interests win out; Delhi is surrounded by regions that are home predominantly to farmers and blue-collar workers who typically prioritize urgent economic needs over the environment.
India is much less wealthy than China, which has enjoyed four decades of rapid growth, so Delhi cannot invest as much in environmental cleanup. India’s economic output was $2,300 per person last year, while China’s was $12,500.
“It’s very hard to trade off air pollution with money — money is likely to win that fight,” said Michael Greenstone, the head of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “There are dual and conflicting goals here: reducing air pollution and growing the economy.”
Indian leaders have little incentive to bridge the divides in part because cleaning the skies is low among voters’ priorities. Even as air pollution has been known to kill more Indians than any other risk factor, voters ranked air quality as their 17th most urgent concern in a countrywide survey before the 2019 election, well behind jobs, health care and infrastructure. Only about 12 percent of respondents called air pollution a priority.
In China, by contrast, residents — especially a growing middle class — made their frustration known even within the authoritarian system. Some in Beijing began to call the most toxic bouts of smog an “airpocalypse.” Alarm grew as studies showed that air pollution was contributing to more than one million premature deaths across China each year. (Today, censorship makes it harder to express complaints on all issues, including environmental ones.)
“The people’s will can have a great influence on what happens,” Professor Greenstone said. “Until there’s consistent demand, it’s very, very hard to get real improvements.” In India, he added, air pollution “has not taken the same central political priority as it has in China to date.”
With no unified effort, experts say, Delhi officials have taken limited action.
In recent years, the city has closed two coal-burning power plants and required factories to switch to piped natural gas from coal, and there are plans to deploy at least 8,000 electric buses by 2025, said Jasmine Shah, a vice chairman of the Delhi government think tank that helps create the city’s air pollution policy.
But officials have also turned to more dubious solutions. On a recent afternoon, giant fans fitted at the bottom of a green “smog tower” threw out cool, filtered air near an imposing Sikh temple in the heart of Delhi. Nearby, an “anti-smog gun” attached to a truck sprayed water into the air.
Ishmeet Kaur, a 19-year-old college student, considered the smog tower from across the street. “A cosmetic effort by the government,” she said, “to make us feel better.”
“If only the politicians took our health seriously and did something real about this problem,” she added as she coughed into a black face mask. “We will have to rely on the weather gods.”
When China acted on its own pollution problem, it took on a crisis decades in the making.
Since the 1980s, rapid industrialization and urbanization had driven China’s extraordinary rise as an economic power. But its reliance on energy-intensive heavy industry to fuel that growth came at an immense environmental cost.
In 2013, Chinese officials released a new national air action plan, began publishing important air-quality data and publicly raised alarms about the pollution problem.
As part of the national plan, Beijing was required to reduce its pollution by 25 percent. China then undertook an array of steps, experts said: It tightened industrial emission standards on some factories and phased out or upgraded other outdated ones; discarded 20 million old vehicles; upgraded 200,000 industrial boilers; and switched to natural gas from coal as the source of electricity for six million households.
In some cases, the decisive action came with a cost: When officials removed the coal boilers, for instance, some homes were temporarily left without winter heating. “A clear example of a poor execution of a plan to make a massive difference,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, based in Helsinki, Finland. “It caused major suffering for a lot of people.”
Nonetheless, researchers found that the tough policies worked. From 2013 to 2017, the concentration of dangerous fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere declined by roughly a third.
Beijing’s air is still far from perfect, especially in the winter. For more than 100 days last year, the air was considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups of people” or carried a worse rating. According to Professor Greenstone of the University of Chicago, Beijing’s average level of microparticle pollution in 2020 was three times that in Los Angeles. This weekend, Beijing’s smog reached levels classified as “very unhealthy.”
But while the city has seen improvement overall, in Delhi, the concentration of air pollutants remained at roughly the same hazardous levels between 2013 and 2020, according to the Energy Policy Institute.
India has long known how to fix Delhi’s air pollution. A 1997 government white paper identified vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions as the main culprits and suggested sweeping action. During the 1990s, the city tightened emission standards, relocated polluting industries and required thousands of its buses and auto rickshaws to switch to compressed natural gas from diesel fuel.
But Delhi continues to struggle with poor air quality.
On a recent Monday, the sky was a lovely light blue. But the tint was misleading. The air quality was classified as “poor,” according to government data, which gave it a “very unhealthy” index score of 294. Anything 50 or under is considered satisfactory.