India’s air pollution worse than China’s

India traffic

In the previous post, we warned you about the foul air in China’s cities where levels of air pollution are so high that breathing is extremely hazardous to your health. People who have respiratory illnesses and chronic asthma are advised not to spend a lot of time in Beijing.

What I did not know is that the air quality in many cities in India is even worse. In fact, India now has the worst air quality on the planet (see NYT article: India overtakes China, now has world’s most polluted air). I found out just how bad the pollution was in India after coming down with a painful sore throat, a hacking cough and what seemed to be a bad cold when I visited the cities of Kochi, Madurai and Chennai this week. What really surprised me was that my ailments were just as severe in the beach community of Mahabalipuram, where, staying at a beach resort, the air smelled of smoke day and night and I could hardly sleep because I kept coughing and wheezing.

How did I know it was not just a cold and a sore throat? Well, these symptoms went away when I spent a few days in the hill towns of Munnar and Periyar, where few people live and there is little traffic, and where mercifully, the residents were not burning mountains of trash. But once I got back to the lowlands where most people live, the sore throat and cough came back.

You think the air quality is bad only in megacities like Mumbai and Delhi, but really the air is terrible even in the small towns and villages because people burn stuff (trash, palm fronds, wood, etc.) day and night. And because India is so densely populated, it’s not just one or two piles of rubbish burning, it’s hundreds of them.

According to the NY Times article:

It is not just India’s big cities which are grappling with air pollution, said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of India’s Centre for Science and Environment, a non-profit organization which was not involved in the study. Air pollution also is worsening in smaller cities, she said. The main culprit, Ms. Roychowdhury said, is the growing number of vehicles in India. While the country still has far fewer vehicles per capita than developed nations, India’s cars are more polluting, Ms. Roychowdhury said. Other air pollution experts also cite India’s reliance coal and polluting industries like brick-making that are located close to densely-populated areas.

Most people, including myself, associate China, not India, with air pollution. When we think of Chinese cities, we think of factories. When we think of India, we do not imagine factories even though India has a large manufacturing sector that makes everything from cars to shoes. We picture overcrowded cities clogged with traffic and overwhelmed by the chaos of tuk-tuks, motorcycles, cars, and ancient smoke-belching buses, weaving their way through cows, dogs, and potholes. But we also imagine more rustic scenes of farmers plowing the fields with water buffalo and taking their produce to the markets in carts pulled by oxen. That still exists, yet, it is the sheer number of motor vehicles, the age of those vehicles (especially the smoke belching ones), added to the factories and the burning piles of trash that cause much of the air pollution. As the NY Times article points out, even in small cities, the air quality is terrible. The pollution in Mahabalipuram, a beach town in Tamil Nadu with 12,000 residents, was, to me, just as bad as the pollution in Madurai (pop.: 2 million) and Chennai (formerly known as Madras, pop.: 6 million).

My advice: if you have asthma or have chronic respiratory illnesses, you should consider spending as much time as possible in hill towns like Munnar and Periyar and avoid the cities, even the small ones. Bring an inhaler or other asthma medication.


About Esme Vos

Esme Vos is the founder of Mapplr, a travel site featuring boutique hotels, luxury resorts, travel guides and restaurant reviews. You can find her on and Twitter.


  1. Yes I agree with that today India on top in Air pollution. It’s not only in metro city actually the air is terrible even in the small towns and villages because people burn stuff (trash, palm fronds, wood, etc.) day and night. That’s why India`s air pollution worse than China`s. So we should support Air clean societies and organization. PALS is a ‘Pure Air Lovers Society’ working for preventing air pollution. For more detail visit: