Air pollution is a problem that every developed nation has had to deal with at some point in their history, albeit some more than others. As economic development progresses, educational standards are achieved, and the standard of living is raised for the population at large, citizens will begin to demand cleaner air and environmental protection. For both India and Mexico, a legislative push to protect the environment emerged in the 1980’s to early 1990’s. Mexico City was named the most polluted city in the world in 1992, but while Mexico was cleaning up, Delhi went on to achieve this same title in 2013. Why is it that two federal democracies, whose efforts to curtail air pollution have both been significant and began at roughly the same time, have had such drastically different outcomes with respect to environmental regulation? It is hypothesized that these different outcomes are primarily the result of critical institutional, legal, and socioeconomic differences between Mexico and India. Each country’s capital city will be used as a proxy for this comparison.


The United Nations named Mexico City the most polluted city in the world in 1992, bringing international focus to the horrible environmental conditions within the country (United Nations Environment Programme 1992). The city, topographically circumscribed within a valley, had such terrible air quality that birds would drop dead in flight. Smog was so intense that, from within the city, you couldn’t see the mountains around it. Extreme concentrations of particulate matter decreased the life expectancy of its inhabitants and posed a severe public health risk. At the local and state levels, ecological concerns had consistently taken a backseat to the rapid economic growth and industrialization that Mexico experienced for the decades leading up to the United Nations report. For the federal government however, shaping governmental institutions to adequately address these problems had begun two decades prior, but it was only until this institutional capacity reached a critical mass in the early 1990’s that substantial progress could finally be made.

For about thirty years, Mexico went through a period of institutional shuffle as environmental issues became more and more important to the people. This began in 1972 with the creation of the “Secretariat for Environmental Improvement” under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health and Welfare. In 1982, the Federal Environmental Protection Act created the Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDESOL). These developments were followed by the creation of the National Water Commission in 1989, the National Institute of Ecology (INE), and the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), which were then consolidated into the Ministry of Environmental, Natural Resources, and Fisheries (SEMARNAP) in 1994. In 2000, the fisheries subsector was moved into the Secretariat of Agriculture and the institution was once again restructured, leading to the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) that we know today (SEMARNAT 2013). The creation and dissolution of this myriad of governmental agencies may seem overwhelmingly complicated and inefficient today, but this reflects a history of commitment to environmental preservation. The federal government of Mexico has constantly refined and streamlined the institutional structure of SEMARNAT and its predecessors to ensure responsiveness in the face of growing ecological concerns, and to ensure that the institution possessed an effective set of tools to confront these problems before they grew so large that they could not be managed.

The environmental regulatory framework has been largely defined by the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA) of 1988 (SEMARNAT 2014). This piece of legislation clearly defined the role of all three levels of government in regulating air pollution, and laid the basis from which the PROAIRE program could derive its resounding success over the following two decades. LGEEPA dictates that the federal government is responsible for “formulating and conducting national environmental policy,” with this power legally exercised by the president through SEMARNAT. There are other federal responsibilities under this law, such as issuing environmental standards and defining reporting mechanisms, but the role of the federal government that is outlined is limited to primarily management of state and local entities. The law also gives individual states, in addition to the federal government, the power to design and implement their own “economic instruments” to encourage and discourage certain environmentally relevant activities and to “promote greater social equity in the distribution of costs and benefits associated with the objectives of environmental policy.” It is the role of the states and of municipalities to develop emission reduction plans in their respective jurisdictions, and to then submit these to SEMARNAT for review and approval (Ley General Del Equilibrio Ecológico Y La Protección Al Ambiente 1988). In practice, the state and municipal authorities have engaged the “academic, private, and non-governmental sectors of each city,” so as to formulate policy that works for all parties involved (SEMARNAT 2014). The LGEEPA structure provides accountability, intuitive delegation of authority, and a pathway for escalation that gives the state strength in enforcing these regulations.

            The PROAIRE program that was implemented through the original LGEEPA legislation gave states and municipalities a significant amount of breathing room to develop their own plans and to determine what would work best in their locales. Mexico City took a particularly aggressive approach to combat dangerous levels of pollution within the city, and this has resulted in substantial reductions of dangerous pollution as well as a large reduction in CO2 emissions. From 1989 to 2015 SEMARNAT found that the PROAIRE program reduced PM10 (particulate matter less than ten microns in diameter) from 175μg/m3 to 40μg/m3, airborne lead from 1.4μg/m3 to 0.05μg/m3, and carbon monoxide from 7ppb to 1ppb. Monitoring of PM2.5 began in 2004, and since has been reduced from 25μg/m3 to 20μg/m3 (Secretaría del Medio Ambiente 2015). These emission reductions are despite a 9.3% increase in the federal district’s population during this time. The city was able to use the legal and institutional framework to, among other things, force power plants to move outside of the densely populated areas, institute a “no-drive-day” once per week, create a bike-sharing program, and convert the entire city bus fleet to natural gas. In addition to this, and as mandated by the LGEEPA legislation, the city has continually devoted a significant sum of resources to a public information campaign (C40 2013). This focus on education will continue to foster a public sentiment that values a clean environment and results in the citizens doing their part as well.


In the same United Nations report that named Mexico City the most polluted city in the world in 1992, Delhi was considered to be at risk of further deteriorating air quality. Despite the extremely limited atmospheric monitoring infrastructure, upward trends had begun to expose themselves, providing a glimpse into a dismal future. These trends were driven by “increasing motor vehicle numbers” and a “rapid rate of industrial expansion.” The report concludes “epidemiological data are urgently needed,” referring to a “high incidence of tuberculosis” that had been linked to pollutants, signifying that by the early 1990’s air pollutants had become a major public health concern (United Nations Environment Programme 1992). Like Mexico, though, the federal government had begun to take action to two decades prior, passing legislation to create regulations that would presumably curtail these problems.

In contrast to Mexico, India has involved itself very little of this “institutional shuffle,” and has addressed the pollution problem mostly through the creation of new environmental law. The environmental conscious of India was sufficiently pricked with respect to environmental preservation with the passage of the Stockholm Declaration at the international level in 1972, of which India was a signatory. This prompted parliament to add two articles to the constitution, saddling the government with a mandate to “protect and improve the environment.” This was followed by the passage of the Water Act of 1974, the Water Cess Act of 1977, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the Air Act of 1981, the Environment Act of 1986, the National Environment Tribunal Act of 1995, and several others. Of these, it is perhaps the Water Act of 1974 that was most institutionally significant, as it was responsible for the creation of the Central and State Pollution Control Boards; the first governmental agency that had the responsibility to enforce environmental legislation (Agarwal 2005). Even after the creation of the Department of Environment in 1980 and its later transformation to the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1985, the pollution control boards have seemed to remain the de facto institutions to identify and reprimand offenders (Indian Institute of Science 2014). The hierarchical structure, as well as the responsibilities, of these boards has largely remained the same since their creation decades ago.

Much attention to air pollution in India over the past two decades has, perhaps strangely, come from the judiciary. The Supreme Court has frequently, in times of regulatory or executive inaction, taken on a very active role to institute entirely new environmental regulations in the form of what are called “Supreme Court Action Plans” (SCAPs) beginning in 1996. What makes the history of these SCAPs slightly peculiar lies in the ability of the Supreme Court to bring a public interest suit against the state itself; i.e. the court is granted automatic standing under Indian environmental law (Greenstone and Hanna, Environmental Regulations, Air and Water Pollution, and Infant Mortality in India 2013). When the government has caved to pressure from industry or the public, the Court has often stepped in to force the government to follow through with environmental plans they had already indicated would be implemented. The Supreme Court has acted as a bulwark against this adverse political influence from industry, and its actions have been particularly effective (Narain and Bell 2005).

            Historical air pollution trends are uniquely difficult to quantify for India, due to the lack of data. The CPCB first instituted the National Air Monitoring Programme (NAMP) in 1984, but because resources have been so limited for this program, the proliferation of an adequate number of monitoring stations has been incredibly slow (Central Pollution Control Board 2003). There are still an insufficient number of monitoring stations in 2015, and the lack of regular processing and reporting of these figures produces very low-resolution trends. Technology is not installed to differentiate between PM2.5 and PM10 at many of the sites, a necessity to accurately study air pollution and the public health effects of it. It is known that PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations have continued to increase in Delhi over the past several decades, driven by a rapidly increasing population and increasing numbers of personal vehicles, and currently sit at levels that constitute a major health risk. The most recent data puts Delhi’s PM10 concentration at 286μg/m3 in 2013, up from 148μg/m3 in 2004. PM2.5 concentration stood at 153μg/m3 in 2013, the highest of any major city in the world, up from approximately 135μg/m3 in 2010 (World Health Organization 2015). These significant concentrations of respirable particulate matter have been linked to a decrease in life expectancy for Delhi residents of approximately 3.2 years (Greenstone, Nilekani, et al. 2015).

India’s greatest success thus far has been the reduction in lead and carbon monoxide to levels that are negligible, mostly due to the implementation of the Bharat vehicular emissions standards and the mandated use of catalytic converters on personal vehicles. The implementation of these policies is attributable to the Supreme Court, after the Ministry of Environment and Forests reneged on their prior commitment (Narain and Bell 2005). India has undoubtedly made progress in curtailing some pollutants throughout the country, but the problems are growing faster than their capacity to mitigate them.


            One major contributing factor to the difference in performance between environmental regulation in India and Mexico is the fundamentally different institutional structure of the regulatory agencies. The Ministry of Environment and Forests of India is a ministry that has no presence in the Council of Ministers, as the head of this department is a “Minister of State” as opposed to a “Minister.” This means that the head of the Ministry of Environment and Forests cannot take part in cabinet meetings and has no cabinet minister in the union government that oversees him or her. Though the ministry itself possesses executive authority, they do not answer to a president, and instead ultimately answer to the Indian parliament. SEMARNAT of Mexico is a department within the executive cabinet, with the secretary being appointed by the president himself. The Secretary of Environment answers to the president of Mexico, and in practice is typically allowed to engage in more independent policy making without excessive fear of political blowback, especially in the case of a lame duck president. Because the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests is subservient to parliament, and parliament would presumably be more fearful of political backlash as a result of harsher environmental regulation, we should not expect this ministry to engage in as much rule or policy making, even despite its executive power.

Lower levels of governance, when left to their own devices, are less likely to institute ambitious environmental protection regulations when compared to federal-level agencies for fear of political scrutiny, due to their proximity to the community they will affect. This problem is exacerbated in India, where the state pollution control boards are comprised exclusively of individuals that have been nominated and confirmed within the state legislature. This naturally produces boards that will have more difficulty remaining objective, as they are presumably subservient to the legislature that put them in their positions. This diminishes their sense of independence and to some degree their autonomy, making them particularly vulnerable to powerful political pressures from industry. The members of these boards do serve three-year terms, but are eligible for re-nomination in perpetuity (The Air Prevention and Control of Pollution Act 1981). In this context, the organization of the pollution control boards create an incentive structure that is more akin to a political position rather than a administrative-bureaucratic position. This is very different from the environmental regulatory agencies that exist at the state level in Mexico. Mexican state governments are structured very similarly to that of the federal government, meaning that each state has its own environmental secretariat, with the secretary being appointed by the governor and the rest of the organization being highly bureaucratic (Constitution of Mexico Article 116 1917). The resulting institution is one that is highly impersonal compared to India’s numerous pollution control boards; a desirable trait for regulatory agencies in particular. In the disciplinary field of comparative politics, it is accepted that the degree to which institutions are impersonal have a positive relationship with the resulting strength of the state unto which it is a part (North, Wallis and Weingast 2009). Insofar as this is true, this would imply that Mexico, at least at the state level, possesses more institutional capacity, and a higher propensity to enforce regulations that are in place.

            Confrontation of environmental issues in India seems to lack a congruous and unified approach among jurisdictions. It is indeed the duty of the Central Pollution Control Board to “plan and execute a nationwide program for the prevention, control, or abatement of air pollution,” and “coordinate the activities of the States,” but much of what has seemed to occur at the national level is simply setting concentration standards for pollutants and instructing the states to ensure they are met (The Air Prevention and Control of Pollution Act 1981). The environmental secretariat of Mexico instituted the first nationwide program, PIICA, in 1990. Following this, it instituted the aforementioned PROAIRE program in 1996 and has renewed this program twice since (Álvarez, Lara and Moreno 2009). Programs like PIICA and PROAIRE serve to do three things. First, by synthesizing all relevant environmental regulation and pollution standards, they present clearly defined goals through a standalone doctrine. Secondly, they have the ability to capitalize off of nationalist sentiment to create the aforementioned unified and consistent approach across jurisdictional lines. Lastly, these programs raise awareness throughout the bureaucracy and the populace, helping to influence public sentiment and make citizens more sympathetic to the overall cause. India has no such comprehensive nationwide program, opting instead to pass over 200 different pieces of environmental legislation but never integrating these regulations into a program that the country can rally around to spur rapid progress (Agarwal 2005). It stands to reason that this is due to a lack of capacity, resources, or political capital.

            A substantial amount of variability in environmental outcomes is certainly attributable to the wealth disparity between Mexico and India. In 1990, which is approximately when pollution mitigation became a national focus in both countries, GDP per capita in Mexico was $3,068 (2015 dollars), whereas GDP per capita in India was $375. In 2014, the GDP per capita of Mexico was $10,230, with India growing to $1,595 (The World Bank 2015). On a percentage basis, India has vastly outperformed Mexico and most other countries in real GDP growth over the past twenty-five years, but in per capita terms India still falls quite short. Given their comparative lack of wealth, this would indicate that India simply has different priorities than a country like Mexico. There are still large numbers of impoverished people in India, some without enough food to eat or access to electricity. From a governmental humanitarian standpoint, it would make little sense to direct any meaningful amount of resources to advanced air pollutant reduction technologies, and with regard to air pollution specifically, there is little doubt that clean water programs would take priority anyways. From a civil society standpoint, the people of India would presumably be naturally drawn to pool their resources and time to address the shortages of these basic human needs rather than the curtailment of air pollution.

Even considering all of the legislative efforts that India has made to clean up pollutants and mitigate the emission of them, the country has wrangled for years with the lackluster enforcement of existing environmental law. Take, for instance, an experiment that was conducted several years back in the Gujarat state. Pollution control boards are legally required to carry out inspections of industry to ensure they are not in violation of any environmental regulations, but because of a lack of resources the board had instead been requiring that firms hire their own inspectors. The effects of this conflict of interest were exposed with this experiment, when the board employed inspectors themselves. As a result, it was found that emissions had been systematically understated in the past, inspectors began reporting truthfully, and firms began reducing their emissions of pollutants (Duflo, et al. 2013). This study exposed in real terms the cost of an insufficient amount of institutional capacity.

Legally, the pollution control boards possess the power to completely shut down firms if they are in violation of environmental law, or even have firm managers arrested and charged criminally, but these laws are rarely enforced. There is a possibility that pollution control board members feel a strong connection to their community, and do not want to be the ones responsible for putting so many people out of work in a country that has a significant amount of unemployed and low wages to boot. Because advanced social welfare programs are so limited, this is a serious humanitarian and political risk that few would ever be willing to take. Furthermore, in the context of foreign investment, harsh environmental regulations or enforcement thereof would only serve to deter multinational corporations from locating in India. It is clear that India has attempted to establish a very broad scope of activities that the government is to be involved in, but lacks the institutional strength to adequately enforce these regulations. India may be better suited to pursue a more modest regulatory approach to satisfy the balance between state scope and strength in a more sufficient manner.


            India and Mexico are two countries that share a fair amount of similarities when viewing them through a wide lens. However, upon further examination regarding the dramatically different environmental outcomes, one can begin to hone in on numerous institutional and socioeconomic differences that may explain Mexico’s relative success and India’s struggle. Strong bureaucratic regulatory agencies in Mexico have utilized their executive authority to implement sweeping national programs, and are better suited and more likely to enforce existing regulations due to the political independence of the institutions. Most importantly, the relative wealth that Mexico possesses compared to India better positions Mexico in their fight against air pollution; allowing them to direct more resources at the infrastructure they need, public information and awareness campaigns, and enforcement activities. Though both countries have made laudable efforts to curtail air pollution, it was Mexico that possessed a sufficient amount of state capacity to make genuine progress, and it was India that “spread its butter too thin.” Like many cases in the field of comparative politics, the reasons for the difference in outcomes here is nuanced, and consists of both governmental and socioeconomic factors.


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