(FILES) This file photo taken on November 8, 2017 shows Indian visitors walking through the courtyard of Jama Masjid amid heavy smog in the old quarters of New Delhi. India's capital has reeled under dense smog that has disrupted air and railway services and forced residents to stay indoors or wear protection when they venture outside. The city's poor, by contrast, are often unable to buy suitable protection and unaware of the health dangers of the toxic air. / AFP PHOTO / Sajjad HUSSAIN / To go with the photo package INDIA-POLLUTION-HEALTHSAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images
The courtyard of New Delhi's Jama Masjid mosque shrouded in heavy smog on Wednesday © AFP

As Indian politicians squabble over who is to blame for the thick smog that has descended over the north of the country this week, citizens have been looking enviously over the border at China, where particulate levels have been falling for years.

Many in India believe Beijing has been better able to combat its air pollution problem because it does not get bogged down in political infighting. They blame India’s problems on the country’s raucous but inefficient democracy.

But experts in China warn that after several years of improvement, pollution has begun to rise again, suggesting economic activity might have as much of a role to play as politics.

This week, pollution in Delhi literally went off the charts, hitting the top reading of 999 on the US embassy’s air quality index. Anything over a reading of 100 is considered unhealthy. 

By Wednesday afternoon, Delhi saw airborne levels of tiny damaging particles known as PM2.5 hit 833 parts per million, while in Beijing the level was 76. Anything over 50 is considered unhealthy, and anything over 300 hazardous.

The difference between the two cities reflects a broader divergence over recent years, during which Delhi has taken over from Beijing as the world’s most polluted megacity. 

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From 2013 to 2016, PM2.5 levels fell 27 per cent in the area around Beijing, according to a study by Peking University

No organisation has collated the same figures for Delhi. But Financial Times analysis of previously publicly available data suggests the PM2.5 levels rose more than 12 per cent during the same period. Those figures exclude last winter however, which saw Delhi’s worst smog in several years.

Meanwhile, the same thing is happening with sulphur dioxide. A study published in the latest edition of the journal Scientific Reports has found that since 2007, SO2 emissions in China have dropped 75 per cent, while those in India have risen 50 per cent.

This has caused frustration in Delhi, where many blame the country’s politicians for failing to tackle the problem. 

“The difference between India and China is that here it has become a much more political issue,” says Vikrom Mathur a senior research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “Before anything can get done there has to be a negotiation between politicians from neighbouring states and from different parties.”

This week, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, likened his city to a gas chamber, before closing schools and reintroducing a scheme which allows people only to drive their cars on alternate days. 

But Mr Kejriwal also ended up in a Twitter argument with his Punjab counterpart Amarinder Singh, who is a member of the rival Congress party, about how to stop farmers in Mr Singh’s state burning rice stubble — a major contributor to the smog.

China has found it much easier to formulate a co-ordinated political response to its problems, such as closing factories at little notice and cutting overcapacity in the steel and coal sectors. Authorities have ordered almost 50 per cent cuts in production this winter from the country’s top steel manufacturers.

Meanwhile, a recent wave of environmental inspections has led to the closure of tens of thousands of businesses producing commodities, from industrial chemicals to cement and rubber. 

Environmental campaigners say, however, that much of the drive to clean up Beijing’s air has come at the expense of nearby areas. In the past decade, the capital’s dirtiest factories having been moved to the neighbouring province of Hebei, worsening the air quality there.

“What I find very lamentable is that the [air quality] improvement this year is very concentrated in Beijing,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a Greenpeace campaigner on air pollution.

There is also evidence that the recent improvement reflects an economic slowdown in parts of the country. This year the economy has begun to improve once more and pollution has in turn worsened in a third of China’s cities, according to data compiled by Greenpeace.

For those living through some of the worst Delhi smog they have ever seen, even a temporary improvement would be a major relief.

“Indian politicians have this very weird idea that we will do something about pollution when we are developed, but we won't develop unless they invest in public health,” says TK Joshi, director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health in Delhi.

He adds: “Beijing has tackled this problem much better, but then it is much easier to control things in an authoritarian regime than in a democracy, especially one like India, where 50 per cent of the people are so badly educated about the problem.”

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