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India now has the world's dirtiest air

People commute through smog in New Delhi.
People commute through smog in New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Sharma/India Today Group via Getty Images

According to a recent WHO analysis, Indian cities are now the most polluted in the world, accounting for 14 of the 20 cities with the worst air pollution. This is not shocking news: Indian cities, including the capital, New Delhi, make international news for their choking smog every winter.

Why it matters: Air pollution is one of the world's leading causes of death. Fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) is linked with a wide range of health issues, especially heart and lung disease but also diabetes, hyperactivity and autism. Per Lancet, these health issues are on the rise in rapidly developing middle- and low-income countries, with the largest increases occurring in India and Bangladesh.

The Delhi government has put in place a number of short-term policy measures — including restricting driving to alternate days based on license plate numbers — to reduce traffic emissions when other factors such as low winds, garbage burning for heat and stubble burning on farms north of the city become a problem. Even though these measures reduce daily concentration, they have not had a lasting impact. And Delhi is just the tip of the iceberg: Smaller towns and cities such as Kanpur are even worse off.

What's next: Based on the available data, Indian scientists and policy advisors have made a number of recommendations, many of which have gone unheeded since the 1990s. If rich cities like Delhi can’t manage pollution, the prospect for poorer ones is dim. Perhaps Indian politicians need to take a page out of the Beijing playbook and learn how China's government has managed to dramatically improve air quality through a combination of tough industrial and traffic control measures.

Tanvi Nagpal is acting director of the International Development Program and practitioner in residence at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

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