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Airpocalypse Now
New Delhi Suffocates Under Smog

India continues to catch up to China on a not-so desirable metric: smog pollution. Over the past week, an immense smog crisis in New Delhi has disrupted the life of the city, shutting down schools, power plants and commercial activity. The New York Times offers the view from New Delhi, and it isn’t pretty:

Open a window or a door, and the haze enters the room within seconds. Outside, the sky is white, the sun a white circle so pale that you can barely make it out. The smog is acrid, eye-stinging and throat-burning, and so thick that it is being blamed for a 70-vehicle pileup north of the city.

If in past years Delhi’s roughly 20 million residents shrugged off wintertime pollution as fog, over the past week they viewed it as a crisis. Schools have been ordered closed for three days — an unprecedented measure, but not a reassuring one because experts say the concentration of pollutants inside Indian homes is typically not much lower than outside.

Levels of the most dangerous particles, called PM 2.5, reached 700 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday, and over the weekend they soared in some places to 1,000, or more than 16 times the limit India’s government considers safe. The damage from sustained exposure to such high concentrations of PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day, experts say. 

The crisis has caught India’s government off guard. As the Times notes, the city of Delhi has issued a series of emergency measures and health guidelines, but they have come too late to forestall the worst consequences. Public anger at the smog conditions is mounting, but there is no obvious point person to blame, given the diffuse nature of responsibility for the crisis among various city, state, and federal bodies.

We have been sounding the alarm bells about air pollution for some time now: as we noted in September, a new World Bank study estimates that premature deaths from air pollution cost the world $5 trillion annually. And the problem is only accelerating in India, whose death rate from air pollution is set to outpace China’s. The damage from air pollution is widespread, whether it is measured in premature deaths, rising health care costs, or lifestyle changes.

China has moved much quicker than India to address the problem, but even with its strong central authority Beijing has struggled to adequately enforce its top-down directives. The problem will only be more difficult in India, but perhaps the latest crisis will serve as a wake-up call for India to take stronger action.

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