new delhi smog SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

India’s Deadly Air

Complacency has turned a pollution problem into a high-cost public health crisis. The Indian public, so easily distracted by issues of identity politics like temple-building and rewriting history, should be demanding something far more fundamental: the ability to breathe.

NEW DELHI – A friend of mine, a diplomat returning home after less than three years’ service in India, was asked at his exit medical examination how many packs a day he smoked. When he protested that he was a staunch non-smoker, the doctor commented that X-rays of his lungs showed otherwise. But my friend had never lit up. All he had done was breathe Delhi’s air, three smoggy winters in a row.

It really is that bad. When November comes, India – and particularly its capital city – begins to choke on a thick blanket of smog that chokes lungs, corrodes throats, and impairs visibility.

It’s not just Delhi’s notorious diesel fumes from car and truck exhausts. There are also industrial factories spewing smoke, charcoal braziers on the sidewalks keeping pavement dwellers warm, coal stoves used by roadside chaiwallahs (tea-sellers), and even the agricultural stubble burned by farmers in the nearby states of Punjab and Haryana. All of these air pollutants sweep into the capital city, with vehicular emissions adding to the dust that Mother Nature has already bestowed on Delhi in abundance.

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