In January, the government unveiled the National Clean Air Program, a five-year plan to reduce air pollution in 102 cities by up to 30 percent from 2017 levels. But environmentalists said the initiative was underfunded and lacked clear mechanisms for achieving its goals.
Nandikesh Sivalingam, a campaigner for Greenpeace in India, said it was unclear whether the measure was a mere “random initiative” or something that would truly cut into pollution figures.
As India prepares for national elections, which are expected in April and May, politicians have been mostly silent about the toxic air. And many Indians see pollution as a problem confined to the capital region.
“We’re still in denial,” said Jai Dhar Gupta, the founder of Nirvana Being, an Indian company that sells pollution masks. “The priority for 99 percent of Indians is necessities: food, shelter and clothing. Health and environment are not even in the top 10.”
Like other developing countries, India has struggled to improve infrastructure and strengthen industry without battering its environment.
China, an authoritarian state, has made strides toward cleaning up its cities in part by bringing criminal charges against polluters. Among the Chinese cities featured in the report, average concentrations of PM 2.5 fell 12 percent from 2017 to 2018, with figures for Beijing, the country’s famously noxious capital, reduced more than 40 percent since 2013.
But India is a messy, inefficient multiparty democracy, and environmental rules are often ignored or go unenforced. For those reasons, Mr. Gupta said he worried that the country’s alarming pollution figures would persist unless something dramatic happened.
“In the past, tipping points have typically been millions of people dying,” he said. “I’m really saddened to say it, but I think that’s what it’s going to take.”