Battle for clean air has a long way to go - Hindustan Times
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Battle for clean air has a long way to go

Jan 15, 2024 12:27 PM IST

National clean air plan has made only limited progress. More funds, targeted utilisation can improve its impact

Blue skies and bright sun have been rare for large parts of north India that live in a heavy haze through the winter months. But poor air quality is a national phenomenon now. Even so, over the last five years, there has been noticeable recognition of air pollution as a matter of policy concern. However, a five-year assessment of the country’s national clean air programme (NCAP) reveals that strenuous efforts are needed to provide meaningful and lasting gains.

The Supreme Court said that people living in all parts of the country and not only those living in the Delhi-NCR (national capital region) are entitled to breathe clean air and a pollution-free environment. (PTI) PREMIUM
The Supreme Court said that people living in all parts of the country and not only those living in the Delhi-NCR (national capital region) are entitled to breathe clean air and a pollution-free environment. (PTI)

Launched in 2019, the NCAP was the first-of-its-kind approach to tackling India’s infamous air quality. The initial allotment of 443 crore from the Centre and 4,400 crore from the 15th Finance Commission was to lower pollution levels — primarily particulate matter (PM) concentrations — by at least 20% to 30% in the major cities. The plan set clear targets and stimulated the need for policy innovation, a market for clean air technology and a sharper focus on clean energy systems. However, there are several shortcomings.

An analysis of the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) – India’s countrywide network of air quality monitors – shows while progress is steady, there is a need for strategic and science-based changes to implementing the NCAP in its next phase. Out of the 131 non-attainment cities, data was analysed for 92 cities that had continuous monitoring and reported a functional monitoring station for at least half the time in a year.

For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) mandates the annual average limits for PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations as 5µg/m³ and 15µg/m³. Against that, Varanasi’s PM2.5 went from 96µg/m³ to 26.9 µg/m³, Agra saw a drop from 73 µg/m³ to 33 µg/m³, Jodhpur registered a drop of 50% (from 81.8 µg/m³ to 40.6 µg/m³) and Delhi saw a marginal drop from 108 µg/m³ to 102 µg/m³. PM2.5 data was available for 49 cities between 2019 and 2023. But out of these, only 27 recorded improvements in PM2.5 levels. Similarly, for PM10, data across five years was available for 46 cities and 24 saw improvement.

One could argue that 50% of the cities showing marked improvement indicates a successful rollout of the NCAP – and in many ways it is – but we are dealing with pollutants that lodge themselves in human tissue and can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions like hypertension and diabetes. PM2.5 can even cross the blood-brain barrier and be fatal under prolonged exposure. So, an even stricter rollout is critical from a public health perspective.

Another issue is that the NCAP has lacked a degree of coordination. Measures such as enforcing odd-even traffic, removing non-compliant vehicles from the National Capital Region (NCR), cracking down on outdoor burning of waste and sprinkling water on the roads to minimise dust all have their place. Yet, without an airshed approach, which involves strong measures across a wider region with similar sources of pollution, these measures will be inadequate. A clear example is Delhi where the onset of winter is marked by a thick layer of smog brought on by crop-residue burning in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The roughly 8 million vehicles registered in the city make it worse. The drop in temperature adds to the increase in the hazardous levels of particles that remain suspended in the air, all causing a dangerous cocktail that Delhi residents breathe for a few weeks each year.

Unless there is seamless coordination between the state governments, the issue will persist. The Graded Response Action Plan (Grap) is swung into action every winter in Delhi-NCR as a predictable response, but the objective must be to lower its baseline pollution load to the extent that Grap can be the one-off emergency response that it was designed to be. Outside of the NCR, our analysis shows that CPCB’s monitoring network is unevenly deployed and this adds a layer of discrepancies to the evaluation. A total of three monitors in some crowded locations (Muzaffarpur, Bihar) versus 37 stations spread across Delhi, 22 across Mumbai and 14 across Hyderabad can lead to variations in readings and false conclusions. Under a standardised monitoring approach, cities with comparable populations would have identical or at least similar numbers of air quality monitors, the locations would be based on a scientific understanding of the local pollution sources and the cities’ pollutant concentrations would be tracked across the same set of parameters. This would help build a granular understanding of their air quality trends.

Funding of air pollution efforts reveals a challenge as well. Delhi, with enhanced attention to the problem, got only about 38 crore and spent 10 crore. The question is one of streamlining funding, which is being applied for air quality measures. Greater Mumbai received 938 crore and utilised 660 crore.

Nevertheless, there are positive changes in the making, the first of which is the NCAP setting a more ambitious goal of a 40% reduction in PM10 concentrations by 2026. This needs to be extended to non-NCAP cities as well, such as Greater Noida (Uttar Pradesh) and Bhiwadi (Rajasthan), which reported very high pollution levels.

Furthermore, detailed sector-wise emissions will be essential for targeted corrective measures. Highly polluting point sources, such as brick kilns and construction and demolition projects need a different approach from cement and steel plants. Similarly, only Delhi NCR has banned petrol and diesel vehicles over a certain age. In the absence of a strict, countrywide pollution under control (PUC) system, having dual pollution standards will only shift the non-compliant NCR vehicles to other cities, adding to their pollution load. Most importantly, public health has to be the centrepiece of the NCAP. Every measure must be proposed, debated and structured around minimising the ingestion of air pollutants.

There is much to look forward to as we enter the second phase of the NCAP. Acknowledgment of the problem at the highest levels of the government has mobilised action. Continued political commitment will drive strong outcomes. There has been a rapid deployment of private, low-cost air quality monitors to boost the country’s monitoring capacity. This is important as it fills gaps in monitoring India’s air. Moving forward, better utilisation of funds, infusion of additional capital and addressing the programme’s operational shortcomings will sharpen its impact.

Aarti Khosla is director, Climate Trends. The views expressed are personal

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