A Report Confirms That Delhi Is Winning a War Against… Itself

A survey reveals that Gurugram has toppled Beijing to win the most polluted city medal, while New Delhi is the most polluted capital in the world.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
March 6, 2019, 12:57pm
New Delhi most polluted capital city in the world
Death in the time of smog in Delhi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Among other great things that this Indian region is known for, the Delhi-NCR is now leading the pack in a crisis that has prompted mass environmental activism across the world: air pollution.

On March 5, a report titled 2018 World Air Quality Report (Region & City PM2.5 Ranking) was published by Greenpeace and IQ AirVisual, a Swiss-based group that gathers air-quality data globally. And just like any prologue that precedes an apocalypse story, this report reveals terrifying statistics on air qualities across regions and sub-regions around the world in 2018. As of 2018, New Delhi is officially the world’s most polluted capital city, taking the lead over 61 capital cities across the world that were monitored.


While the report may not establish drastically new (or even alarming) info for most Indians, it definitely puts things in fresh(er) perspective for a population that is reminded, almost everyday, of the deathly grips of this problem. As a former resident of New Delhi, I myself have gone through—first-hand—the panic which caused major outlets running out of pollution masks in the city, followed by recurring chest pains, lethargy and aggravated breathing that made me give up my morning jogs. The pattern has reportedly been encountered by a majority of population in the Delhi-NCR region. When I moved to Mumbai, I found it almost laughable that people would complain about the pollution out here—that’s how low my standards were.

“Polluted air presents the world’s 4th leading contributing cause of early deaths, and burdens the global economy with an estimated annual cost of $225 billion (USD),” says the report.


Photo: Flickr

Of the 3,000 cities that have been monitored, 64 percent of them exceed the World Health Organisation’s annual exposure guideline for PM2.5 (fine particulate matter). Out of those, 95 percent of the cities are in Southeast Asia, and 89 percent are in East Asia. The city ranking also shows Asian cities dominating the highest 100 average PM2.5 levels in 2018, with India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the top 50. Another fun fact: 7 of the top 10 polluting cities around the world are in incredible India.

While in East Asia, the increase in air pollution is strongly correlated with rapid economic development—with mainland China showing great improvements in curbing its problem—in Southeast Asia, burning of biomass, vehicular emissions and transportation are the leading sources of air pollution.


South Asia is the most problematic region in the world, considering four out of the five most polluted cities in the world are right here. “Of the 84 cities monitored in this area, 99% failed to meet the WHO annual guideline for PM2.5. As a whole, cities here average a PM2.5 concentration of 60 µg/m³, 6 times the recommended limit of 10 µg/m³,” says the report. Common sources of PM2.5 pollution in this region include vehicle exhaust, open crop and biomass burning, industrial emissions and coal combustion.

“Of the cities included in South Asia, it is interesting to note that, although Delhi typically receives most media coverage as one of the world’s “pollution capitals”, the Indian capital “only” ranks 10th for annual PM2.5 concentration. Other cities across Northern India and Pakistan have a higher recorded annual PM2.5 level, with nearby Gurugram narrowly resulting in the highest annual concentration of any global city recorded here during 2018,” the report says.

“The question which remains to be answered is whether there is enough political will to aggressively fight the health emergency India faces today and move away from polluting fuels and practices,” Pujarini Sen, spokeswoman for Greenpeace India, told Reuters in the light of this report.

“Air pollution steals our livelihoods and our futures, but we can change that,” said Yeb Sano, executive director of Greenpeace South East Asia, in a statement, “In addition to human lives lost, there’s an estimated global cost of $225 billion in lost labour, and trillions in medical costs. This has enormous impacts, on our health and on our wallets.”

In India, this report comes close on the heels of previous reports, like this one published in December 2018, which highlights how PM2.5 in Delhi leads to about 80 deaths every day. Yet another blamed air pollution for causing lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive lung disease, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and lung cancer, which have led to deaths, disease burden and life expectancy reduction.

Even though the Delhi government is taking some measures to catch up, it looks like it will take more than just policies to save ourselves. In the meantime, perhaps take the actions of these Indians (and this writer) as cautionary tales: a possibility of mass out-migration.

Follow the live visual map of air pollution index across the world here .

Pallavi Pundir is on Twitter.