Recently, China’s capital city went on 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 air quality index had soared to 220, which is considered to be just one step below full-scale emergency in that country.

Here is the kicker. On that very same day, it was business as usual in New Delhi, even though its own air quality index 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 air quality index 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).

Subcontinent’s air quality

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.

It should be noted these awful findings exist on a continuum, where very few cities or countries can legitimately claim they are doing a good job at managing air quality. For years, the World Health Organization has been warning that over 90% of children in the world are compelled to breathe air that fails to meet safety guidelines.

But even by those very poor standards, air quality is especially bad – and only getting worse – in South Asia and the roots of that problem are exactly the same as most of our other problems: poor governance, lack of accountability and the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of the vast majority of our citizens.

If you are looking for a pithy bottom line, it is this: poverty kills.

This is why, on releasing the World Health Organization data in 2018, Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalised people bear the brunt of the burden”.

“If we do not take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development,” he said.

He was being remarkably polite. In fact, our reality of murderously toxic air quality puts the lie to every national claim to progress and betterment. What is the point of any soaring stock exchanges, or burgeoning imports and exports and ramped-up consumer data, if the very act of breathing is killing us?

Make no mistake, that is where we have reached.

Health hazard

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 World Health Organization guidelines.

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

It does not 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 is not 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, summarised 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.”

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.