A people-centric agenda for clean air

Set more aggressive targets; act on available information on polluters; expand focus to rural areas; build institutions to operate across an airshed; and make air quality a poll agenda
Demand for clean air will grow when citizens experience a palpable change in quality of life. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Demand for clean air will grow when citizens experience a palpable change in quality of life. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Dec 21, 2021 08:17 PM IST
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ByArunabha Ghosh and Tanushree Ganguly

Northern India is suffering another severe air pollution crisis. Once again, commentators and citizens have pointed fingers at farmers. An unhelpful blame game ensues but few notice that, even after stubble burning has stopped, the air remains toxic. Even fewer remember that air quality is bad all year round. Thinking about air pollution for six weeks a year is like diabetics complaining about sugar levels in their birthday cake, rather than watching their diet on the 364 other days.

This cycle of apathy, inaction, reaction, and accusation cannot deliver a lasting solution to the air crisis. A people-centric agenda for clean air must counter these symptoms.

First, we need more aggressive targets for clean air. The metric of success for any intervention must be pollution abatement. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) aims to reduce particulate concentration by 35-50% by 2025-2026. But, particulate concentrations rely on both emissions and meteorology. Rather than relying on better weather to reduce concentrations, the focus must be on tonnes of emissions, reduced by interventions. This would entail monitoring and reducing emissions from large-scale emitters (industries and power plants). Targeting polluters, wherever they emerge, will demonstrate that the authorities are serious about reducing pollution.

NCAP is expected to be introduced as a new mission in 2022. India has already demonstrated that it can act at scale if political signals, policy clarity and administrative capacity align. At 47,000 megawatts, India has surpassed its targets for solar power by more than double (the original aim was 22,000 MW by 2022). When this target was set, very few believed it was possible. Now India has stunned the world with a target of 50,0000 MW of non-fossil fuel power capacity by 2030. India must showcase similar commitment towards its mission to provide clean air for all.

Secondly, we must act using available information. CEEW recently undertook a pollution-mapping exercise for Agra. With a four-person team, we mapped over 3,000 dispersed sources across 98 wards in the city in less than 10 days. Such exercises can produce ward-level intelligence needed for targeted action on polluters. Active monitoring and interventions can deliver tangible results even without detailed source apportionment studies, which might take longer for the long list of non-attainment cities in India.

Demand for clean air will grow when citizens experience a palpable change in quality of life. This will only happen when they see the authorities acting against offenders. The California Air Resource Board’s Community Air Protection programme focuses on highly impacted communities, giving grants to local organisations to build capacity to identify pollution sources and find solutions at the community level.

Thirdly, we cannot focus on urban settings alone. Rural households face a double whammy: Indoor pollution from traditional cookstoves and polluted outdoor air from stubble burning or poorly designed brick kilns or industries that have been shifted out of city limits and closer to rural areas. Data from our low-cost sensors deployed in rural Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (UP) suggest that villages are also exposed to unhealthy pollution levels.

Rural health facilities are far fewer in number and concentration and often ill-equipped to handle public health challenges from prolonged exposure to poor quality air. Responding only to urban complainants distorts the narrative, making it seem as if only rich urbanites care about clean air, and distorts resource allocation within an airshed.

Therefore, fourthly, effective institutions are needed to operate across an airshed. The one-year-old Commission on Air Quality Management (CAQM) got flak for not communicating with the public during a disastrous November for the National Capital Region.

Yet, CAQM has strong powers: Deciding parameters for air quality and emissions discharge, directing temporary closure of polluting industries and construction sites, planning and executing programmes on pollution abatement, directing relevant government authorities, and inter-state coordination.

CAQM must exercise surveillance and enforce action year-round. It must issue notices in advance of deterioration in air quality. Monthly press briefings to demonstrate actions and progress will give citizens confidence. If effective, it can be given a wider mandate to implement NCAP beyond NCR.

Finally, air quality must become an electoral agenda. All parties included air pollution commitments for the 2020 Delhi elections. Punjab and UP go to polls next year. Improving public transport, creating cleaner jobs by supporting energy transition in small industries, and distributed renewable energy-based livelihoods in rural areas could deliver environmental as well as political dividends.

Thus far, we’ve followed an ineffective strategy thanks to two tiresome responses from polluters: “Why me?” and “You first”. This pass the parcel game must stop. We’re all culprits and we must all act. So that our children can play.

Arunabha Ghosh is CEO and Tanushree Ganguly is programme lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Ghosh is co-chair, World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Clean Air. Follow

The views expressed are personal

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Monday, January 24, 2022