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A man walks pasts a thermal power station in the western Indian city of Nagpur December 7, 2009. The biggest climate meeting in history, with 15,000 participants from 192 nations, opened in Copenhagen on Monday with hosts Denmark saying an unmissable opportunity to protect the planet was "within reach". REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY)

ARKO DATTA/REUTERS

Voting in India's historic national elections ends on Monday. Jobs, infrastructure and tourism are the mantra of Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial front-runner for the Bharatiya Janata Party. But he along with the rest of the candidates have ignored what could be the biggest problem facing the world's largest democracy: pollution.

The World Health Organization released a report last week ranking New Delhi's air pollution as worse than Beijing's. Indian cities are in the second, third and fourth positions on the WHO's most polluted list. (Peshawar, Pakistan, ranks first.) India's air is, in other words, among the worst in the world. More people die of asthma in India than anywhere else. Half of all doctor's visits are triggered by respiratory problems.

The WHO findings echo those of the recent Yale Environmental Performance Index, which ranked India 174th out of 178 countries on air pollution. Yet most Indian politicians never acknowledge any kind of pollution problem, much less address the inability of authorities to enforce environmental policies that may hinder industrialization. Government officials issued a flat denial of the latest WHO data: "Delhi is not the dirtiest… certainly it is not that dangerous as projected," said one official from the Central Pollution Control Board of India.

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When it comes to dealing with air pollution, India's strategy is in many ways the exact opposite of China's. There, public and government concern over air quality has begun to spur significant policy change and, arguably, cleaner air. Beijing has closed major highways and issued urgent health advisories in the face of smog. The government has moved to fix quotas on the number of cars sold in one year and even proposed limiting the number of private cars on the road. The city has cracked down on outdoor grilling – a major contributor to air pollution – and is replacing coal-burning boilers with those run on cleaner energy. Pollution data is readily available to the public, and regularly reported by state-controlled news media. It is generally considered accurate. China's air is terrible, but it is taking steps to get better.

In Delhi, by contrast, one is hard-pressed to find reliable pollution data. Factories flouting environmental rules rarely face consequences. In the past, efforts to reduce India's air pollution have been led by the Supreme Court, which, for example, ordered Delhi's taxis and buses to convert to compressed natural gas. But Indian politicians need to play a role, tackling pollution with strong legislation that will improve the air quality in its dirtiest cities. A good first step for India, and whoever becomes its leader, is to admit there is a problem.

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