Wed, Dec 16, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Beijing and Delhi: Two cities, two ways of dealing with smog

By Tim Sullivan  /  AP, NEW DELHI

Two cities. Two very polluted cities. Two very different ways of dealing with twin public health crises.

When Beijing’s air was forecast to reach hazardous levels for three straight days earlier this month, the government issued a smog “red alert.” The result: Half the city’s cars were off the roads within hours, schools were closed and construction sites shut down. Less than three days later, pollution levels had dropped by 30 percent.

When New Delhi’s winter air grew so bad that a high court warned that “it seems like we are living in a gas chamber,” the city’s top official declared that cars would be restricted starting on Jan. 1, with odd and even license plates taking turns on the roads.

However, police officials quickly announced that they had not been consulted, and said they would have trouble enforcing the rule. Plus, no one could fully explain how the already overstretched public transit system could absorb millions of additional commuters overnight.

So, well, maybe the whole plan is to be scrapped.

“If there are too many problems, it will be stopped,” New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said in a speech a couple days after his announcement. “We will not do anything which will cause inconvenience to the public.”

Long famous for its toxic air, Beijing is struggling to lose that reputation, bowing to pressure from a growing middle class to keep pollution under control. Traffic is regularly restricted in the city, factories have been moved and the central government is anxious to ratchet down the nation’s use of coal-burning power plants.

In New Delhi, which, by many measures, now has far more polluted air than Beijing, the environmental court — which has only quasi-legal powers — has ordered that no diesel cars be registered in the city for the next few weeks, and has discouraged the government from buying diesels for government fleets. Officials have suggested everything from car-free days to planting more trees to dedicated bus lanes.

It amounts to little more than vague promises and is resulting in increasingly angry headlines.

“As Delhi debates, Beijing declares war on pollution,” a Times of India headline read on its front page last week, when Beijing announced its red alert.

“Delhi has started very late” in the fight against air pollution, said Vivek Chattopadhyaya, who studies air quality for the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. “Many people in Delhi are not even aware that what they see in the morning is not fog; it is smog. They do not realize what kind of pollutants they are breathing.”

Only in the past couple of years has air pollution become an issue at all in India, except for a tiny circle of scientists and environmental activists. Desperate to grow its economy as quickly as possible, environmental concerns are still largely ignored until the impact makes life uncomfortable for the wealthy and the powerful.

In New Delhi, that time has come. In winter, when winds die down in northern India, a cloud of pollution now often clings to the capital. Blue skies are rarities. Respiratory illnesses have spiked, doctors say, and the stink makes it impossible to confuse pollution anymore with fog.

“It is not safe at all,” said Ankur Jain, a 35-year-old father of two, whose New Delhi neighborhood is regularly rated the most polluted in the city.

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