What is India missing in its battle against air pollution?

  • Quick fixes such as smog towers are ineffective in tackling pollution. Even the National Clean Air Programme faces serious challenges. The new Delhi-NCR commission is an improved approach but it remains unclear how it will translate on the ground

Tauseef Shahidi
Updated30 Nov 2020, 08:35 AM IST
Economic measures do not get much weight in city plans in national clean air programme.
Economic measures do not get much weight in city plans in national clean air programme.

If Google search results are a proxy for public interest in a topic, air pollution would qualify as a November issue in India.

Policy action also reflects this winter bias. Most announcements on combating pollution typically occur during the October-January period.

Source: Urban Emissions, Mint compilation

It is unsurprising then that the impact of these announcements have been limited so far. In the absence of concerted efforts for the rest of the year, governments tend to resort to quick-fix measures such as smog towers in the winter months. The Delhi cabinet allocated 20 crore for a smog tower last month.

A ‘mini smog tower’ with a capital cost of 7 lakh was installed in Lajpat Nagar in January by East Delhi’s member of parliament (MP), Gautam Gambhir, followed by two other such smog towers in other parts of the city.

Smog towers are perhaps an acknowledgment by politicians that something needs to be done but are unlikely to have any impact. They might work for closed spaces such as power plants and subway tunnels but they are ineffective elsewhere.

If Delhi were to clean its open air through smog towers such as the one in Lajpat Nagar, it would need 5 million such towers during winters, with an outlay of 3.5 trillion.

The other announcement last month by the central government to set up a Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas holds more promise. But much will depend on collaboration between the states of this region and the centre.

The new body will replace the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) that has been around for over 20 years. EPCA members were Delhi government officials and Delhi-based civil society representatives. The new Commission would have representation from the central government, concerned state governments, the scientific community, and civil society.

The mandate allows this commission to override decisions of the central pollution control board, state pollution control boards, and other state-level statutory bodies.

Santosh Harish, a fellow at the Delhi-based think tank, Centre for Policy Research, sees the commission as an effort in the right direction as it recognizes air pollution as a regional problem. But it is still heavily driven by the central government, at least in terms of appointment of its members and funds allocation, he said.

More importantly, this regional authority will do little to solve the air pollution problem of cities, towns, and villages outside the Delhi-NCR region. There is indeed a national programme underway to tackle pollution in major cities, but experts remain sceptical about that programme.

Under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), the central government had approved the clean air plans of more than 100 cities in 2019. The programme aims to cut down pollution levels in these cities by 20-30% by 2024 (with 2017 as the base year). But there are serious questions about NCAP’s effectiveness.

The Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and Urban Emissions conducted an analysis of NCAP plans by 102 cities to find that there is no legal framework for reviewing and updating plans. The plans also lack a clear delineation of responsibilities. 45% of activities planned under NCAP have more than one responsible agency. What is everyone’s business often ends up being nobody’s business, and we could see something similar here.

The other big drawback with the city planning approach is its limited scope. As roughly 30% of air pollution is contributed by sources outside the city, it warrants an airshed approach or regional coordination among cities and states, similar to what is being planned for Delhi-NCR.

Transport emissions typically garner the greatest attention in most plans followed by industrial emissions and dust. These are indeed major contributors to air pollution across most cities. However, the share of each polluting source varies across cities, and most city plans miss out on these local differences. Barely one-fourth of city plans had data on their local emission sources.

Around three-fourth of activities committed under the city plans fall under planning, monitoring, training, and related activities. Less than 25% of activities require on-ground action. Economic measures such as congestion pricing receive scant attention in these plans. Planned investments in building physical infrastructure such as installing pollution monitors also remain limited.

The lopsided pattern of the plans could be because of limited budgetary allocations as well as limited planning abilities at local levels. The central government approved these plans with an initial budget of INR 300 crore for 2019-20, but this amount is too little against the financial requirement of all cities. For instance, Dimapur alone would need 90 crore for its three-year plan.

India’s fight against air pollution needs much greater focus and year-long commitment than what we see today. There are no shortages of global examples, even among emerging economies.

In the 1980s, Mexico City was notorious as the most polluted city of the world. Last year, the average annual PM2.5 it recorded was 21 μg/m³ against 99 μg/m³ in Delhi.

“The improvement in air quality of Mexico City is the result of a coordinated effort of the federal government and local authorities, with drastic change beginning in 1992-93 and continuing until early 2000s,” said Beatriz Cárdenas, director, air quality, World Resources Institute, Mexico. The reduction in pollution has been more gradual since then.

The city took some difficult measures, Cardenas said. It shut down a refinery within the city that used to be a major pollutant. Several polluting industries were phased out, which led to a change in the land use pattern within the city. The average age of the fleet of vehicles in the city has declined, and many former industrial areas of the city have turned into residential and commercial zones, said Cárdenas, who also headed Mexico City’s air quality management office during 2017-18.

After Mexico City, Beijing began garnering global attention and notoriety for its high level of pollution but it too has made progress in bringing down pollution in recent years. Beijing implemented a Clean Air Action Plan in 2013 and brought down average PM2.5 concentration levels by 35% in four years. The major reductions came from shutting down coal-fired power plants and boilers, transitioning to clean energy in residential spaces, and phasing out polluting industrial outlets. More than a fifth of the decline in the city’s PM2.5 concentration was because of emission reductions in surrounding areas.

In recent years, Delhi and other Indian cities have attained global notoriety for their extraordinarily high levels of pollution. Can they turn this shame into fame and emerge as the next global example?

This is the concluding part of a two-part series on India's pollution problem.

The first part examined the causes of pollution in Delhi and other Indian cities and its human toll.

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First Published:30 Nov 2020, 08:35 AM IST
HomeNewsIndiaWhat is India missing in its battle against air pollution?

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