The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing focused environmental attention on pollution in China. But escaping the spotlight was Asia’s other tiger, India, where high pollution levels are at least indirectly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths a year. Its capital city is the most egregious offender—according to a 2007 report by the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi has the highest pollution levels of any major city in the country.Moreover, the Centre for Science and Environment reports that Delhi’s air quality has deteriorated sharply over the past two years.

The statistics are alarming. Two of every five residents of New Delhi suffer from a respiratory disease, and hospitalization rates are on the rise for pollution-induced conditions like asthma, lung disease, chronic bronchitis, and heart damage. Researchers have also found evidence that long-term exposure to the microscopic dust particles resulting from pollution can lead to weakened immune systems and lung cancer. Because 70 percent of Delhi’s air pollution comes from vehicles, those who work outdoors, including blue-collar workers and taxi drivers, are the most affected group.

The exponential growth of India’s economy over the last few decades is responsible for much of the problem. In the 1990s, the loosening of government regulations on foreign trade led to an influx of foreign capital. Many businesses in Silicon Valley and other tech loci began relocating their information technology services and call centers to India. This opportunity for increased prosperity has in essence created a new middle class with Westernized tastes and a budget to match. This hugely ballooning demographic is responsible for 39 percent of Indian consumption now; by 2025, this number will rise to 70 percent.

The direct consequence is the presence of more cars on the roads than ever before. From 1997 to 2006, the number of registered vehicles in New Delhi rose from 1.5 million to 4.5 million, and it continues to increase by an average of 963 private vehicles every day. Tata Motors also plans to begin selling its new “People’s Car” in late 2008 at the rock-bottom price of US$3,000. Market analysts predict that the car could expand the Indian car market by as much as 65 percent, with a corresponding increase in emissions. While the increased demand for cars is a tangible indicator of India’s continued economic growth, it will challenge India’s already gridlocked infrastructure and further increase levels of pollution and congestion.

The government has attempted to tackle the problem of air pollution in the past. A law ordering that all public transportation vehicles use compressed natural gas by 2001 resulted in a noticeable decrease in air pollution. Air quality, by one measure, improved nearly 60 percent from 1994 to 2005. However, recent increases in the number of private vehicles on the road, along with projected growth of the Indian car market, are counteracting this progress. Pollution is steadily creeping back up to pre-2000 levels, and city traffic continues to belch out over 2,000 tons of waste a day.

Yet there is still hope for environmental reforms. If current trends continue, by 2010 the majority of vehicles on the road will be fueled by diesel, a heavy emitter of smoke, particles, and nitrogen oxides. The government could use incentives like taxation to encourage the switch to petrol-fueled cars—which, although far from perfect, emit one-fifth of the pollutants. In addition, India must remedy its severe lack of infrastructure so that traffic is reduced and cars avoid wasting gas while idling. Further development of New Delhi’s Mass Transit System, which opened in 2002, could also help cut down on congestion. Currently, however, it only travels to three parts of the city and is in the midst of long-term construction that will not be completed until 2010.

There are yet more hurdles to overcome. Previous attempts at cutting down on major sources of air pollution—for example, a 1990 regulation shifting heavily polluting industrial plants out of New Delhi and a 1997 promise to phase out vehicles over 15 years old—failed in the midst of election season and protests from drivers. Even when such measures are passed, enforcement at the local level is problematic. Notorious corruption in the New Delhi police system makes it easy for big businesses and stubborn drivers to bribe their way out of trouble.

However, for the government to ignore the problem would be a huge oversight. India is understandably committed to technology and industrialization, as it forges its new place on the global economic stage. In the last few years, India has already begun to make much-needed reforms in helping to curb pollution, including the introduction of countrywide emissions norms to toughen up vehicle certification requirements. Conferences and public releases on the topic of air pollution abound. The future thus offers an opportunity to carry forward the programs being put in place today, as well as to act on the promises and possibilities offered by civil-minded scientists and politicians for tomorrow. When it comes to air pollution, India faces the challenging but vital task of cleaning up its act.