INDIA: Bogus Beijing Story Fogs Attention of Delhi’s Real Pollution Problem

AUSTIN SZABO WRITES – A misleading story about Beijing’s virtual sunrise earned more press than Friday’s report naming New Delhi the world’s most polluted big city.

The Daily Mail’s inaccurate story claimed that China’s government digitally simulates the sunrise on television screens throughout Beijing since its pollution blocks natural sunlight. Major media outlets around the world proceeded to pick up the tale, though the story was debunked shortly after its publication. Time issued a meek and unapologetic correction three days after airing its story, saying the original left out that the sunrise was aired daily, not in the absence of a natural sunrise, but as an advertisement for tourism, “regardless of atmospheric conditions.”

Meanwhile, a new report from Yale has declared New Delhi to be the most polluted major city in the world. The news quickly appeared and disappeared off the front pages of the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, replaced by articles detailing denial by government spokespersons. But competing data from Delhi officials is inconsistent and inaccurate, leading many to side with the research of Yale’s Dr. Angel Hsu.

The India Gate monument in New Delhi, India, enveloped by a blanket of smog
The severity of Dheli’s Pollution. Photo credit: Manish Swarup/AP

Her results show catastrophic amounts of air pollution in Delhi, at levels much higher than Beijing’s. On an average week, according to the study, Beijing’s air will measure 273 PM2.5 (particles of matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, considered especially dangerous). This amount is similar to the results published by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Stories about Beijing’s pollution have been extremely popular in the West, even fake ones published by tabloid-like Daily Mail. Meanwhile, Delhi’s average weekly PM2.5 is 473, more than twice as high as that of Beijing.

Why is Delhi’s pollution problem not as important to the West? When discussing the two stories in tandem, there seems to be no rhyme or reason in prioritizing one polluted city over another. Both have high rates of lung related illnesses and children with breathing problems, with many studies linking their current conditions to lung cancer later in life. One should be concerned about the inhabitants in both cities, so why is there only talk about Beijing?

The answer begins and ends with the United States. Beijing’s pollution problem became a major story when the U.S. Embassy there began to release its own data on the city’s air quality. The smog story immediately spread around Western outlets, allowing American commentators to rail against China’s incompetent government, saying its reckless drive for economic growth is hurting the population. Although air quality is measured in Delhi, the results are not released publicly. The Delhi U.S. Embassy claims that English results are available from the city itself, and that the embassy has no need to publish anything. But the city’s data continues to be mistrusted.

Determining whose smog problem receives more global attention should not be done at the whim of U.S. foreign policy. As economic and political competition between China and the United States heats up, the American government releases any data that harms China’s global image. Western media outlets eagerly turn against China by publishing the data in a condemnation of China’s domestic policy. This tactic has resulted in various articles (with various levels of truthfulness) denigrating China’s pollution problem, with little coverage of New Delhi’s worse problem.

Additionally, New Delhi’s government continues to do nothing about smog, people are beginning to grow aware of the problem, and the sick will continue to be untreated.

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