NEW DELHI — For years, this sprawling city on the Yamuna River had the dirtiest air in the world, but few who lived here seemed conscious of the problem or worried about its consequences.
Now, suddenly, that has begun to change. Some among New Delhi’s Indian and foreign elites have started to wear the white surgical masks so common in Beijing. The United States Embassy purchased 1,800 high-end air purifiers in recent months for staff members’ homes, with many other major embassies following suit.
Some embassies, including Norway’s, have begun telling diplomats with children to reconsider moving to the city, and officials have quietly reported a surge in diplomats choosing to curtail their tours. Indian companies have begun ordering filtration systems for their office buildings.
“My business has just taken off,” said Barun Aggarwal, director of
BreatheEasy, a Delhi-based air filtration company. “It started in the
diplomatic community, but it’s spread to the high-level Indian
The increased awareness of the depth of India’s air problems even led Indian diplomats, who had long expressed little interest in climate and pollution discussions with United States officials, to suddenly ask the Americans for help in cleaning India’s air late last year, according to participants in the talks. So when President Obama left Delhi after a visit last month, he could point to a series of pollution agreements, including one to bring the United States system for measuring pollution levels to many Indian cities and another to help study ways to reduce exhaust from trucks, a major source of urban pollution.
One driver for the change is a deluge of stories in Indian and international news outlets over the last year about Delhi’s air problems. Those articles, once rare, now appear almost daily, reporting such news as spikes in hospital visits for asthma and related illnesses. One article about Mr. Obama’s visit focused on how, by one scientist’s account, he might have lost six hours from his expected life span after spending three days in Delhi.
“We felt this was an issue we should take up, and we have taken it up,” said Arindam Sengupta, executive editor of The Times of India, whose campaign against air pollution has helped give prominence to the problem.
But Nicholas Dawes, a top editor at The Hindustan Times, said the media coverage was just one reason for the attitude shift. “I think the people of Delhi are increasingly unwilling to tolerate tough circumstances,” he said.
More Coverage on Air Pollution in India
At least so far, that has not translated into much meaningful action by the government. In fact, the problem is likely to get worse as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi works to reboot the economy. His government recently promised to double its use of coal over the next five years.
But Dr. Joshua S. Apte, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied Delhi’s air pollution since 2007, said recognition was a start. “The thing that gives me greatest hope is the huge increase in awareness that I’ve seen in Delhi just in the past year,” he said.