Indian cities and air pollution: It’s time to get into mission mode

New Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world, handily outranking Dhaka in Bangladesh.
New Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world, handily outranking Dhaka in Bangladesh.


  • Air quality may seem like a local problem but we have 42 Indian cities among the world’s 50 most polluted, which shows that the problem of air-quality neglect is a pervasive national issue. We must reduce air toxicity through inter-state and state-local partnerships.

India’s air pollution standing, in the recently issued 2023 edition of the World Air Quality Report should have been an important national election issue, but it is not. As everywhere in the world, air quality is location- specific and therefore assigned to state or local governments. Even so, having 42 Indian cities (splayed over 10 states) among the 50 most polluted cities in the world clearly shows that the problem of air quality neglect is a pervasive national issue.

If this does not surface in national elections, or indeed elections at any level, is it because voters do not care? Is that because urban air pollution is perceived as an unavoidable concomitant of growth and jobs? Without surveys, it is impossible to say. But one of the reasons why rural migrants to cities prefer to be temporary migrants and not move with their families is because of the saaf hawa (clean air) in their villages. Their frequent trips home are driven as much by an escape to clean air as the stated reason (family events or harvest). And their rural residence is where they vote. If they could get rozgaari (employment) there, that is where they would probably prefer to reside.

Air quality is not specifically mentioned in the Indian Constitution. But public health, encompassing air quality, is in the 12th Schedule listing of urban municipality functions, though less specifically in the 11th Schedule listing of rural panchayat functions. Before these new schedules were introduced by a Constitutional amendment 30 years ago, public health was, and still is, among the listed state functions in Schedule Seven.

New Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world, handily outranking Dhaka in Bangladesh. Delhi as a Union territory (with its own legislature and duly elected government) is not quite a state, and has to navigate its own tortured path between assuming charge for functions assigned to states, while remaining in step with the Union government at the Centre, within whose umbrella of governance it lies.

On air pollution, there should ordinarily have been no conflict of purpose between the central government and the Delhi state government. But the states surrounding Delhi remain unable or unwilling to tame the burning of kharif crop stubble during the months of October to December. Despite an outpouring of solutions offered in academic papers and reports, the Delhi air remains mired in failure to work out a deal with neighbouring states.

The 15th Finance Commission’s (FC) final report covering 2021-22 to 2025-26 made a valiant attempt to incentivize air quality in city municipalities with an intricately structured set of qualifying conditionalities for their statutory grants. But the key assumption underlying that approach is that the city has access to all levers impacting its air quality, which may not quite hold in practice, as the above example of Delhi shows.

Some years ago, a promised fiscal reward to Punjab farmers for not burning their post-harvest standing stalks made the key error of targeting individual farmers (posing verification problems) rather than panchayats covering a defined area, whereby the panchayat carries out the task of enforcement and earns the fiscal reward.

Within Delhi, the only initiative towards controlling the vehicular pollution that is a key year-round contributor has been the introduction of electric powered buses, which often run empty through city roads since their routes have not been rationalized.

The 15th FC’s air quality conditionality targeted only cities/urban agglomerations with one million population or more (called the million-plus challenge fund, MCF, because it posed a performance challenge). The total amount up for grabs in the just concluded fiscal year 2023-24 was 2,431 crore for all cities on the MCF list. Delhi, Chandigarh and Srinagar, as cities within Union territories, are not covered by the MCF since Finance Commissions prescribe transfers from the Centre only to independently governed states.

The Patna Urban Agglomeration (ranked No. 20 in the World Air Quality Report list of most polluted cities) is on the MCF list. For an MCF city to meet the conditions for 100% of its allotment in 2023-24, it would need to have shown a 15% reduction in particulate matter relative to an agreed base year benchmark, and a 15% increase in the number of days of better than moderate air quality (less than AQI of 200), also similarly benchmarked. If Patna qualified in 2023-24, it would have got its prescribed allotment of 113 crore, a reasonable reward to strive for. But Begusarai, the most polluted city in the world, was not on the MCF list, along with 39 other Indian cities too small in population to figure, although a few might have been part of urban agglomerations on the MCF list.

Big or small, cities with dangerous levels of air quality rob us of that most fundamental of human rights, the right to breathe non-toxic air. This is not one of those environmental targets commonly perceived as elitist, like preserving the tiger population. The poor are the worst sufferers from air pollution. Reliance on 15th FC-type incentives, welcome though that was, may not be enough. We need to move towards reducing air pollution in mission mode through inter-state and state-local partnerships. This is a life and death issue.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.