I seem to recall Professor Smitka mentioning in class sometime last week that, despite all the outcry over Beijing’s smog problems, New Delhi’s are actually far worse. Well Professor, the New York Times has vindicated you: over the weekend, the Times published a story claiming that “lately, a very bad day in Beijing is an average one in New Delhi.” In fact, on the night of January 15th, when the density of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 µm in diameter, especially harmful to the lungs) in Beijing rose above 500 µg/m3 for the first time, the US Embassy located there sent out dire warnings. Yet by that point, New Delhi had already experienced eight such days–with no word from the US Embassy in that city (for context, the WHO recommends daily mean exposure limit of 25 µg/m3).
Moreover, during the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak concentration of this fine particulate matter was calculated at 473 µg/m3, more than twice Beijing’s average of 227 µg/m3. I can attest to New Delhi’s health hazards personally: after spending just two weeks in the city in early 2010, I developed severe bronchitis requiring medical treatment–something I had never suffered from before, and have not suffered from since. The Times‘ report was followed by a flurry of others, including from Slate, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Economist–which noted that India’s average lung capacity is far worse than than China’s.
So why do India’s air-quality problems receive far, far less attention than China’s, both domestically and from abroad? It is the general consensus among economists that an economy’s pollution levels follow a Kuznets curve–first increasing, and then decreasing as the economy develops. So it has been for the US (as Los Angeles can attest). As of 2012, China’s income-per-capita (adjusted for PPP) was 3.75 times that of India, so perhaps as Indians begin earning better livings, they will become more vocal about their air quality. But I will avoid claiming that it is really quite that simple (many other issues may be at play here–geopolitics, media bias, etc.).