Everyday Asia

Home » Discovering difference » The good, the bad and the ugly – India’s air pollution exposed by Obama’s visit

The good, the bad and the ugly – India’s air pollution exposed by Obama’s visit

Global views


Why does it take the visit of the US President Barack Obama to highlight that India has a serious air pollution problem?

Some may have missed a small footnote in the excitement over the US President’s visit. It was initially suggested Obama, chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade, should remain indoors as the air quality levels is hazardous to his health?! Naturally you can’t be chief guest at an outdoor parade without being… well.. outdoors! But at last there followed a series of articles in the press about just how bad pollution levels are in India.

On a normal day though, pollution is not recognised as an issue. Whereas in Shanghai, my friend daily checks the pollution count. If it is too high, the doors to her lovely balcony and windows are firmly kept shut.

Shanghai Air Pollution (Aqicn.org)

Shanghai Air Pollution (Aqicn.org)

When I first moved to India from 1995-96, I lived in Delhi at a time when the air pollution was so bad I did not see one single puffy white cloud or star for 1.5 years! It was then one of the top most polluted cities in the world.

In 2001, Delhi cleaned up its act by forcing polluting industries to shut shop in the city and move elsewhere (ostensibly with better controls), petrol was switched to CNG for all buses, rickshaws and even many private vehicles converted under incentive schemes and the lure of cheap CNG.

I returned to Delhi to look up and gasp! Blue skies and clouds? Stars at night?!

Mumbai was never as bad as Delhi thanks to the sea breeze. However with that comes complacency. Unlike Delhi that at least made an effort to improve, Mumbai has instead steadily, slowly, quietly deteriorated without protest or fuss.

Unfortunately, Delhi has also returned to dangerous levels – flip-flopping between ‘Unhealthy‘ and ‘Very unhealthy ‘ and occasionally ‘hazardous’ depending on the time of year and where you are. Within ten years all the progress made in 2001 was lost as diesel vehicles clogged the city’s air.

Delhi Air Pollution (aqicn.org)

Delhi Air Pollution (aqicn.org)

And yet is there a hue and cry about it?

Only  recently – to highlight that the places Obama plans to visit are 3 times India’s safety standards and 9 times the WHO’s limits. According to Greenpeace,  Delhi is 2.5 times worse than Beijing – a city known in China for unacceptably high pollution levels.

While I simply need to get out from time to time just to give my lungs a break, most folks do not have a choice.

Or they make the difficult decision to move. Exactly what a friend did recently as his youngest son suffers from severe asthma and could not run about and play, instead needed heavy medications just to get through a regular day in Bombay. In his new home? No medication and no restrictions!

Mumbai Air Pollution (aqicn.org)

Mumbai Air Pollution (aqicn.org)

And just how bad is this unspoken issue?

By one measure (PM2:5 levels), India is ‘winning’ in the contest for most polluted cities in the world!

WHO 2014 Report

WHO 2014 Report

Personally this is one ‘top prize’ I hope India starts to lose soon! My lungs really would prefer to stop involuntarily smoking 2 – 3 packs of cigarettes a day without drawing one single puff!

In the meantime, back in my home town of Winnipeg? The level is ‘Good‘ at only 18… So don’t be surprised if I spend a lot of time on my next trip to Canada just breathing!

Winnipeg Air Pollution (aqicn.org)

Winnipeg Air Pollution (aqicn.org)

And just what is the difference between good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous?

Air Quality and Pollution Measure (aqicn.org)

Air Quality and Pollution Measure (aqicn.org)

What about your city? Why not look it up here? Are you breathing free with a sigh of relief or hacking your lungs out in misery?

For more information, check out the articles below:




  1. Marta says:

    As you mentioned, air pollution is also a serious issue in China! I check every day the aqicn.org app 😛 We haven’t had a “green” day in ages…

    Damn I just checked and currently in Suzhou we have 324!!!! Hazardous!!! It is the worst day in months!!!

  2. It is really interesting how the bad air quality in India is barely in the news. Last year when China had once again some record numbers one German newspaper publishes the stats from India which were even more horrible but no one seemed to care.

    I think the pollution in China is always on the news because many western nations are trying to find as many negative things as possible. Rarely there are any good news about China in the news, and come on, not everything is all that bad there 😛

    Those stats are really interesting. Hamburg, second biggest city in Germany and also full of industries, only had a value of 25 or so 😮

    • So true! I suspect general education levels also play into it… and India overall doesn’t do great in terms of safety controls or paying attention to rules of any kind. I’m not surprised Hamburg rocks with ‘good’ air quality despite having industries. It IS possible to achieve with the right focus, money and checks in place. Alas… not a priority at all here!

  3. expatlingo says:

    My lungs are thanking me for taking a break from Asia. Here in Utrecht the air is a crystal clear. It was already really clean, but as of Jan 1st they’ve also banned older, polluting cars from the city center.

    • I’m most envious of you right now! Have a cold and know it will be weeks or even a month before can shake completely unless I pop down to Goa to bake it out! It was part of the reason why I didn’t hesitate to hop that plane to The Netherlands in November! My lungs were very happy with me too! 🙂

  4. BerLinda says:

    Gosh, hard to believe it’s worse than Beijing! My friend lives there and can’t even go outside a lot of the time! Berlin is ‘good’ 🙂

    • I’m thinking next trip will be to Berlin to get a little lung respite! 😉 But yeah… it really is that bad yet awareness is abysmal or perhaps it is the public acknowledgement and will to change.

      I remember in 2000 when there was a huge push to improve and then the court case ruled polluting industries needed to exit and all public vehicles convert to CNG. I was hopeful but sceptical.

      School kids were encouraged to go in brigades to the roads, stop polluting cars and try to persuade them to switch to CNG too. Those same kids have now grown up and are doing nothing. And as they have kids, I really wonder… will they still remain complacent?

  5. thewriteedge says:

    Wow. Just…wow. I knew the air was bad in India, but I didn’t realize it was this bad.

  6. When I stepped out of the airport in Delhi, the first thing I noticed was the pollution. You could taste it, stir it with a straw. It is sad to see the gains made in Delhi were lost!

  7. Tim says:

    After my first time in Delhi and Mumbai I found myself coughing like crazy. The pollution in both cities was horrendous, as you point out.

    • Sigh… It is particularly nasty if you get a cold as much more difficult to shake. Once I had a throat infection that was so persistent that after half a year of misery, I had to go on long term antibiotics and eventually leave the city for a bit to shake. Ugh!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,658 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: