Under a canopy of a horrible toxic smog. Beijing has improved its air pollution problem. Why can't New Delhi.

A decade ago, both the capitals of Asia's two largest countries had some of the dirtiest skies in the world. On the worst days, millions were enveloped in thick gray canopies of smog that darkened the sun and besieged the lungs.

Since then, one of those cities has made significant improvements. After the Chinese government declared a war against pollution in 2013, Beijing pressed ahead with a multiyear, $100 billion effort to clean its air.

The authorities clamped down on factories, forced old vehicles off the road and shifted from coal to natural gas. While more still needs to be done, Beijing officials say the city has over 100 more days of clear skies each year than when the campaign began.

BUT in the other city, New Delhi, the air this autumn has been as foul as ever. The onset of air pollution season brought weeks of haze to the city, prompting officials to briefly halt truck traffic, close schools and ask people to work from home.

Those who still ventured out coughed into their masks and rubbed their eyes. The air felt bitter on the tongue.

Every year, the skies in the Delhi region turn acrid from pollution generated by millions of vehicles, the burning of stubble on surrounding farms and the use of open fires for heating and cooking in rural homes. And every year, residents are left to ask why nothing changes.

The diverging fortunes come down, in no small part, to differences between China's authoritarian system and India's huge and messy democracy.

OVERALL, China ranks relatively low on international indexes of environmental performance. But in the case of Beijing's pollution, the Chinese government tackled it with single-minded focus when its scale became too daunting to ignore, forcing rapid, coordinated action in response to public anger.

INDIA, experts say, has lacked both political resolve and public pressure to address the issue.

Voters have more pressing concerns in a country where tens of millions still live in poverty. Politicians use the crisis to attack adversaries, rather than seek solutions.

''A lot of it has to do with the political will and the coordination between the various governments,'' said Avikal Somvanshi, a data specialist for the Clean Air Campaign at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

''The infighting,'' he lamented, ''keeps happening.''

The World Students Society thanks authors Suhasini Raj, Matt Stevens, John Yoon and Keith Bradsher.


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