New Delhi: The Indian government is now set to undertake a major overhaul of its strategy with a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) which includes setting up of nearly 600 new air quality monitoring stations covering regions across India including rural areas as well.

A draft concept note of NCAP was prepared by Harsh Vardhan led Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The note was accessed by Greenpeace using a Right to Information (RTI) application which made it public on Monday.

Sunil Dahiya, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India, praised the move stating that the draft note on NCAP is a “big step in the right direction to achieve breathable air across the country".

He, however, said the “fact that this concept note is not even available in the public domain raises concerns on how the government is going to make the NCAP a truly participatory initiative".

“It’s important that all discussions and documents regard to NCAP to be available in the public domain and people are informed of planning, implementation and progress made. The draft needs more thinking and clarity in terms of articulating interim milestones for completing source apportionment studies to reduce 35% & 50% pollution in three and five years respectively along with specific targets for polluting sectors such power and industry," added Dahiya.

In past few years, the issue of air pollution has gained centrestage due to Delhi facing toxic levels of air pollution in winters. But of the 4,000 cities in India, only 300 (only 7.5%) are covered by the manual air quality monitoring network.

As per the note, the government plants to increase manual air quality monitoring stations from 680 at present to 1,000, increase continuous air quality monitoring stations from 55 stations in 40 cities right now to 268 stations in 67 cities and 50 stations in rural areas.

The plan in draft concept note of government is an admission of the fact that pollution is not an urban problem or a region specific problem and thus a comprehensive action is required on national scale—something that activists have been pointing out for years.

The draft noted that air quality in “rural areas remain a neglected issue so far" and also put a huge emphasis on monitoring of “indoor air pollution". It also discusses the need of extending monitoring of one of air pollution’s most deadly constituent—PM 2.5 (Particulate Matter).

“The common belief is that rural areas are free from air pollution. On the contrary, air quality in rural areas all over the world and particularly in the developing countries may be more polluted than some of the urban areas. Rural areas suffer from outdoor air pollution as well as indoor air pollution," the draft note observed.

The emphasis on rural region is significant as experts and environmentalists—from past few years—have repeatedly advocated for a national holistic policy for pollution stressing that it is not just a problem of Delhi-NCR area or of other metros but a nationwide issue.

A recent study had revealed that coal combustion, dusts, transport, diesel, and brick kilns were the other major contributors to air pollution in India. Of the total 1.1 million air pollution related deaths in 2015, the burden falls disproportionately (75%) on rural areas.

The draft plan also reveals how upset Indian government is with foreign studies that report data on mortality due to air pollution using “extrapolation techniques" noting that “probably may not be realistic". It batted for indigenous studies with authentic Indian data.

“While there is no denial on serious health implications, attributing one to one correlation and number of deaths due to air pollution needs to be further investigated and supported by indigenous studies. More authentic Indian data and studies may further strengthen our efforts and public participation in improving air quality," the draft plan added.

The draft note of NCAP also discussed setting up of a 10 city super network.

“This network may capture overall air quality dynamics of the nation, impact of interventions, trends, investigative measurements etc. The cities may be identified for capturing possible variations (metro city, village, mid-level town, coastal town, industrial location etc). Each city may have one well equipped monitoring station representing the city background. IT should generate high quality controlled data and will represent national air quality dynamics," the draft note added.

The draft plan also called for setting up of an “air information center", need of an "air quality forecasting system", carrying out an “extensive plantation drive" to combat pollution, setting up of a “national emission inventory" for accounting pollutants discharged into air, extensive awareness drive and review of the ambient air quality standards.

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