Delhi loses air pollution control race to Beijing: Centre for Science and Environment

Delhi faces the same challenge of cleaning up its air as Beijing, but lacks aggression and stringency of action needed to protect public health

Published: Wednesday 29 January 2014

Since 2000, at least one study a year has been published in Delhi to give clinching evidence of air pollution's toxic risk (CSE photo)

Delhi is fast replacing Beijing in notoriety as the iconic face of the Asian growth story and its pollution aftermath. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) assessment of the available air quality data for Delhi and Beijing and the review of air pollution control measures in the two capital cities shows that Delhi is losing the race very fast – it is already more polluted than the Chinese capital.

Both the cities face serious pressures to clean up their air; both have unique challenges. But Delhi seems to lack Beijing’s scale, stringency and frenetic pace of action. After years of consistent and aggressive efforts Beijing has evidence to show improvement in its air quality. But Delhi has lost its air quality gains.

Which city is more polluted?

CSE has reviewed and compared the available air quality data from the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and the Central Pollution Control Board. The highlights of the CSE analysis are as follows (see graphs).

Air pollution trend in Delhi and Beijing: snapshots

PM10, NO2 and SO2 trend in Beijing and Delhi (in µg/cum)


  • Beijing: PM10 levels have decreased by about 40 per cent from 2000 to 2013.
  • Delhi: PM10 levels have increased by about 47 per cent from 2000 to 2011. PM10 levels in Delhi are nearly double that of Beijing.

Trends in daily PM2.5 levels (in µg/cum)


  • Beijing: The daily PM2.5 levels available for 2013 show that these varied from less than 50 to as high as 400 microgramme per cubic metre (µg/cum), but have largely remained below 250 µg/cum. Thus, even their winter peaks have not exceeded 400 µg/cum.
  • Delhi: CSE has analysed winter pollution when levels are higher than in other seasons. The continuous daily average PM2.5 data for the period November 2013 to January 2014 shows that average levels have been about 240 µg/cum which is about four times higher than the Indian standards. During this period, the peak levels have hit as high as 575 µg/cum – nine times higher than the Indian standards.

Action taken report

CSE has also reviewed the action taken by the two cities and found a lot more is happening in Beijing compared to Delhi.

  • Controlling car numbers: To control vehicular pollution and congestion, the Beijing government has already fixed the number of cars that can be sold in one year in the city at 240,000. This year onwards this limit will be lowered further to only 150,000 new licences annually to further lower the sale of cars. Beijing government has also proposed banning half the private cars on roads based on odd and even licence plate numbers if the red alert on pollution persists for three or four days.
  • No dieselisation of car segment: As the Chinese government does not allow a wide difference between petrol and diesel prices, dieselisation of the car segment is absolutely negligible at one per cent, as opposed to more than half in Delhi. Beijing is introducing Euro V standards.
  • Public transport: Beijing has scaled up as well as integrated its public transport and fares have been reduced to improve usage.
  • Beijing has adopted air quality index and a health alert system: This is to inform and warn people about the severity of daily pollution and the need for precaution. This year, the smog has forced Chinese cities to close some of the large factories. Smog episodes in Beijing have also led to restrictions on highway movement. In some provinces smog episodes have forced schools to suspend classes. People were advised to wear masks.
  • Local governments in China are now liable to pay a fine if air pollution levels hit critical rank. Local governments in eight cities in northeast China’s Liaoning province have been fined of US $8.9 million.
  • State-of-the-art advanced testing facilities for in-use vehicles. Stringent action taken to seal oil vapour leakage from petrol refuelling stations.
  • Range of action on polluting industry and other sources

What has Delhi done?

Stringency, scale and enforcement remain weak in India's national capital as following facts reveal.

  • Vehicles in Delhi follow Euro IV emissions standards as against Euro V standards being introduced in Beijing.
  • All buses and three-wheelers and a part of taxis run on CNG.
  • Public transport augmentation plan (metro and new buses) begun but scale is not yet adequate.
  • 15-year-old commercial vehicles taken off roads.
  • Incoming freight traffic partially restricted.
  • Simple in-use tests for vehicles implemented under the pollution under control (PUC) programme.
  • Polluting units relocated, control on power plants tighter, generator sets to meet standards, open burning of leaves banned.

Cost of inaction: our health

CSE says that since 2000, at least one study a year has been published in Delhi to give clinching evidence of smog's toxic risk. Many of these studies have been carried out by doctors — from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute, St Stephens Hospital and others. Over the years, they have widely reported prevalence of chronic respiratory symptoms, increase in emergency room visits during winter for asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease, and acute coronary event. The reports show the genotoxic effects of vehicular fumes, vitamin D deficiency among Delhi children in polluted localities, which increases risk of developing rickets, and significant increase in eye symptoms and disorders in polluted areas (see 'Air pollution and health impact evidences').

As per the Global Burden of Disease report released last year, air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India. WHO has classified air pollution as a class 1 carcinogen –though policy response to all this information is very poor.

Act now

All soft options are exhausted for Delhi, says Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director for research and advocacy and head of its air pollution team. The city needs aggressive and time-bound action to meet clean air standards and reduce public health risks, she adds.

Delhi will have to fulfill the 12th Five Year plan target of meeting the ambient air quality standards by the end of the plan period. This requires time-bound action plan for each source of pollution, especially vehicles that emit toxic fumes in our breathing zone. Agencies will have to be made accountable for meeting these targets. Restricting car usage, upgrading public transport with walking and cycling access, and leapfrogging vehicle emissions standards to Euro V and Euro VI and controlling dieselization are now the only options left for us.

In the Supreme Court of India civil original jurisdiction i.a. no. Of 2012 in writ petition no. 13029 of 1985 on air pollution in Delhi

Study on ambient air quality, respiratory symptoms and lung function of children in Delhi

Epidemiological study on effect of air pollution on human health (adults) in Delhi

Multi-pollutant emissions inventory for the National Capital Region of Delhi

Role of meteorology on urban air pollution dispersion: a 20yr analysis for Delhi, India

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