Indian army soldiers march during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Jan. 26. (India's Press Information Bureau via Reuters)

NEW DELHI –The thick winter haze that settles over Delhi – a nasty mix of smog, vehicle exhaust and smoke from cooking fires – abated somewhat when President Obama arrived in India this week for talks. A bit of rain came and cleared the air. Even so, the air quality index hovered around 200 when the president arrived at the viewing stand to watch India’s Republic Day Parade on Monday. That’s approaching what’s deemed a “very unhealthy” level of the microscopic 2.5 particulate matter, which causes respiratory disease and other ailments.

[Read: On Obama’s India visit, climate-change deal unlikely as Modi boosts coal production]

The Americans were prepared. Delhi police had kept traffic to a minimum around the parade route, and the Embassy ordered 1,800 Swedish air purifiers in the weeks preceding the American delegations’ arrival. (It’s not clear whether any of those air filters actually made it into Obama’s special bullet-proof parade enclosure, as the Indian media had reported.)

Bloomberg published a story Monday titled “Mr. President, World’s Worst Air is Taking 6 Hours Off Your Life,” which argued that Delhi’s toxic air was so harmful that it could shorten the president’s longevity.


(The Washington Post)

“I think in Delhi, I think particularly at this time of the year, the air quality deteriorates,” John Podesta, counselor to the president, said to reporters in Delhi on Sunday. “But I think we weren’t concerned about bringing the president here for these meetings.”

The air in New Delhi is the worst in the world, according to a World Health Organization report last year. Environmentalists say that efforts to control it – such as a switch to clean-burning natural gas for auto rickshaws – have made little long-term impact as the city has sprawled, eight coal-fired power plants chugged out more power and more than 7 million cars clogged the roads.

The situation is hardly better in in other parts of the country. Earlier this year, a report by a Yale University research team showed that India ranked 174th of 178 countries in air quality, somewhere close to China and Pakistan.

On Sunday, the president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the two countries would work to battle pollution in India’s cities by implementing the Environmental Protection Agency’s international air quality forecasting system AIRNow. It’s part of an overall climate deal that includes a pledge for “concrete progress” on a pact to phase out a class of widely used refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons, and support for solar energy initiatives to help India reach its goal of expanding its solar energy capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2022, an amount equal to the energy of about 100 nuclear power plants.

Administration officials acknowledged that Modi-Obama did not produce a breakthrough like the deal with China on emissions last fall. But they said that it represented significant progress from a still-developing country that has long balked at agreeing to significant curbs on its emissions.

They say the rapport that seemed to develop between Obama and Modi during this trip – Modi served Obama’s tea, and Obama kidded him about being attacked by a crocodile – may go a long way in helping the United States achieve a strong a global climate agreement in Paris with India’s help later this year.

“This signals that India sees the Paris agreement as a priority, and establishes a direct channel that could prove absolutely essential to delivering the final deal,” said Elliot Diringer, vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington environmental group.

At a meeting with chief executives Monday, Modi called for “global action on renewable energy,” saying the world “should take a lesson from past efforts to tackle hunger and many diseases.”

However, other environmentalists expressed disappointment that the agreement between the two countries did not specifically target carbon emissions, especially as India doubles its coal production to try to  meet unrelenting power needs. India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the United States and China.


A girl carries coal in Chilkatand village. (Enrico Fabian for The Washington Post)

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, pointed to Modi’s somewhat short response to a reporter’s question about whether he felt pressured to agree to a China-style climate deal with the United States.

“The sad thing for India is that while in rejecting a China-type deal, Modi said, 'There is no pressure on us from any country or any person, but there is pressure when we think about the future generations and what kind of world we want to give them,' " Pierrehumbert said. “In attempting to provide adequate energy, if India goes with coal to the extent in current plans, Modi will be leaving future generations in India — already one of the hottest populous countries — to suffer under oppressive warming so severe that, according to some projections, mammals (and that includes people) will not be able to survive outdoors,” he said.

Katie Zezima contributed to this report.