Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Opinion | India’s new ‘attack’ on air pollution

The National Clean Air Policy lays down the road map for Indian cities to clean up their act in the next five years

A frank policy document is usually a contradiction in terms in India. Problem statements are given short shrift, achievements—especially those of the government of the day—are trumpeted, challenges are almost never addressed with any degree of transparency, failures are sought to be erased from public memory, learnings are ignored. If data is massaged, no one except the expert will know.

There was a desperate need for frankness in the National Clean Air Policy (NCAP), unveiled in January, following a string of alarming reports about the quality of air in Indian cities, led by the national capital Delhi, and its gory health implications.

The National Clean Air Policy lays down the road map for Indian cities to clean up their act in the next five years.

There’s no dearth of plans to combat air pollution, but the new policy attempts to pull them all together under a single strategy that focuses on improving the air quality in 102 so-called ‘non-attainment cities’ across the country.

Cities are declared ‘non-attainment’ if they consistently fail to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM10 (particulate matter that is 10 microns or less in diameter) or Nitrogen Dioxide over a period of five years.

The policy was launched by the environment minister, but it is massively cross-cutting, involving the ministries of road transport and highway, petroleum and natural gas, new and renewable energy, heavy industry, housing and urban affairs, agriculture, and health.

Also thrown into the pot for good measure are the government think tank NITI Aayog, the central pollution control board, experts from the industry, academia, and civil society.

The programme will partner with multilateral and bilateral international organizations, philanthropic foundations and leading technical institutions.

The policy document acknowledges that initiatives to combat air pollution have been in place “since long", with implications for the health of Indians, but its problem statement then falls back on familiar nationalistic rejection of any criticism.

“The reported perplexing statistics in various global reports, drawing correlation of air pollution with various aggravated figures on health, without validation on Indian population further complicates the issues by creating a flawed public perception," it complains.

This was quiet likely a response to an internationally publicized report published in the medical journal, The Lancet, in December last year that said 1.2 million deaths of Indians in 2017 could be attributed to air pollution.

TheLancet figure capped more than a decade of steadily mounting public distress at the dirtiness of Indian air quality. In response to both domestic and international criticism (the air in New Delhi took six hours off then US president Barack Obama’s life during a 2015 visit, Bloomberg famously reported), the government has made a beginning of sorts by putting in place a series of monitoring stations in towns and cities.

These stations measure air quality for standards laid down by NAAQS. The resultant Air Quality Index, or AQI, in turn is meant to alert citizens about the air quality for the day by five categories: public health emergency, severe, very poor, poor and moderate—part of what is called a graded response action plan, or GRAP.

“It is also clear that the actions listed in the poor category need to be implemented thoughout the year," says the policy document with refreshing candour. We are realistic enough here not to dream of ‘good’ air quality in our cities, at least not yet.

Can the National Clean Air Policy make a difference? It probably can, for the following reasons:

1. The media does its bit: In India, the media can be influential when it comes to public health issues, especially those that affect the middle classes and above, and air quality is an obvious campaign issue. Every winter, television news reports highlight the poor quality of air in cities. If they could wear air pollution masks and still be heard for their pieces to camera, reporters probably would. Regular reports appearing in the international press add to the pressure on authorities. As the policy document notes, “Incidences of episodic air pollution during winters in Delhi-National Capital Region in recent years have attracted significant media attention, thus bringing the entire issue of air pollution under regular public scrutiny."

2. The government is worried about the failure of previous interventions: The extreme caution in the wording of the policy document is a dead giveaway. “With… recent policy interventions, air quality has purportedly shown some minor improvement in some major cities in recent time which as of now cannot be called as trend." It says. “This is not sufficient and higher level of focused time bound initiatives at both city and rural level now appear obligatory to address the issue in comprehensive manner at national level."

3. There is a road map at the end of the day, and it’s not too bad: The boffins in government have clearly been hard at work, linking the various bits and pieces of long-running government interventions on air pollution. AQIs, for instance, are supposed to inform government response on a day-to-day basis. But it’s not easy. Take seasonal variations in Delhi. During the winter months, the share of pollution from vehicles, biomass burning, firecrackers (at Diwali), stubble burning after harvest, construction and secondary particles increase. During the summer, the influence of road dust and fly ash is high.

4. There is a clear target: It is to bring down particulate matter 10 and 2.5 levels in the 102 non-attainment cities by 30% by 2024.

And the problem? The obvious one with any scheme in India: implementation, implementation, implementation. The policy has no teeth, it’s not legally binding. It does have a “three-tier mechanism for review of monitoring, assessment and inspection for implementation" under which trained manpower and regular inspection drives will be ensured for “stringent implementation". But this, disappointingly, is the perhaps the weakest section of this document, too short and vague on specifics.

But in a desultory landscape, it’s a start. Whether it manages to restore the air quality in India without the backing of the law, remains to be seen.

The starting point is quite simple after all: the quality of air probably can’t get any worse.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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