Harder to Breathe

India's Pollution Crisis—And What To Do About It

A traffic police officer directs traffic in front of India's presidential palace amid dense smog in New Delhi, November 2012. B Mathur / Courtesy Reuters

Just a few days before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in India in January this year, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi recorded an Air Quality Index reading of 222, a level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes as “very unhealthy,” nearly “hazardous.” In fact, the pollution level was so bad that the embassy purchased 1,800 Swedish air purifiers ahead of the president’s arrival.

A year before Obama’s visit, New Delhi surpassed Beijing as the most polluted city in the world. As a whole, India’s air quality lags far behind that of the other BRIC countries. The country has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world and, along with China, the highest average exposure to cancerous fine particles, which, because of their small size, can lodge deeply into human lungs. In 2010, India’s Central Pollution Control Board found that the particulate matter in 180 Indian cities was six times higher than World Health Organization standards.

Air pollution is an urgent public health crisis. More people in India die of chronic respiratory diseases and asthma than in any other nation in the world. According to a 2015 study conducted by Michael Greenstone, an economist at the University of Chicago, the 660 million people who live in India’s most polluted cities will lose an average of 3.2 years of life because of toxic air; all together, that is 2.1 billion lost years.

And dirty air is just one of India’s many environmental problems. In addition to poor air quality, groundwater pollution, river contamination, indiscriminate mining, and the destruction of forests have severely comprised the health of the country and its citizens. If India does not change course—and soon—the country will be facing disaster.


India’s environmental crisis is not just endangering human lives, but is also holding back the country’s economy, which relies heavily on agriculture. Over the last four decades, air pollution, degraded lands, depleted forests, and declining biodiversity have cut agricultural yields

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