In the News

November 12, 2021

OP-ED: Toxic Air Knows No Boundaries

The Air Quality Life Index warns that across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, the average citizen would live 5.6 additional years if air pollution was curbed to meet WHO guidelines.
Vivek Menezes

The very act of breathing is killing us

Precisely one week ago, China’s capital city went into high alert about its dangerously deteriorating air quality. The municipal government in Beijing immediately clamped down on unnecessary traffic, shut down some major highways, closed all children’s playgrounds, and warned citizens to stay indoors until the crisis could be brought under control.

Beijing’s administrative authorities responded with such alacrity because the AQI (air quality index) had soared to 220, which is considered to be just one step below full-scale emergency in that country.

Here’s the kicker. On that very same day, it was business as usual in New Delhi, even though its own AQI was hovering at an abysmal 313. And many other cities across the subcontinent were even worse, with Meerut peaking at an almost unbelievable 440.

All this was just one more lowlight, in an unremitting pageant of bad news for all of us in South Asia. There is no getting around the facts. When it comes to this most vital category of health — the literal air that we breathe — our part of the world performs worst, right across the board.

Thus, at the very moment of my writing — noon on November 11 — the worst AQI of any city on the planet is in Lahore (468), followed by New Delhi (265). Also, in the bottom ten are Karachi (175), Mumbai (162) and Dhaka (157).

According to IQAir, the Swiss technology experts who maintain the excellent AirVisual real-time air quality information platform (, amongst the 30 cities with the worst air quality in the world in 2020, an appalling 20 were in India alone, along with Manikganj and Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Lahore, Bawahalpur, and Faisalabad in Pakistan.

Aggregated slightly differently by country, which takes into account many additional locations outside the major cities, the IQAir results are not particularly different. The three worst polluted in the world are ranked like this: Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India.

Just a few weeks ago in September, the University of Chicago released its Air Quality of Life Index, which warned that all across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, the average citizen would live an astonishing 5.6 additional years, if air pollution was curbed to meet WHO guidelines.

If the levels of pollution persist at 2019 levels (actually they have become significantly worse) the residents of Delhi and Kolkata will lose 9 years of life expectancy. For Dhaka, that number is an equally unpalatable 7.7 years.

It doesn’t always have to be this way.

For an example of how to turn things around, we only have to look at Beijing. From being the international byword for toxic air at the turn of the new millennium, it has brought the situation well under control. In the 2020 data from IQAir, the giant Chinese capital isn’t even in the worst 100 cities in the world.

The same can happen everywhere, it takes only political will along with visionary leadership.

When the University of Chicago released its index earlier this year, Michael Greenstone, the director of its Energy Policy Institute, summarized the situation very nicely: “High levels of air pollution are a part of people’s lives in [South Asia], just as they were in the US, England, Japan, and other countries in the past. The last several decades have seen tremendous progress in many of these countries, but this progress did not happen by accident — it was the result of policy choices.”

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