India’s air pollution plan falls short

The government has still not come to terms with the pollution crisis facing the nation’s cities, writes Joydeep Gupta

Over the past few years reporting on India’s air pollution crisis has dominated the news. The state of its capital city, Delhi, and the health costs of living in it, have been declared a “national crisis”.

Not only that, but scientists report that air pollution is now set to affect weather patterns, including the monsoon, which provides the critical rainfall that South Asia depends on.

The problem, of course, is not just India’s. Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, is also struggling with the menace of air pollution. And in Pakistan, a lack of measuring stations means there is still limited understanding of the crisis.

In India, air pollution peaks just before winter when the burning of stubble blankets Delhi in smog. But the problem persists throughout the year, and not just in Delhi. Air pollution may be an even bigger problem in smaller cities. But with limited data collection, and even less media attention, the problem out in the provinces is largely ignored.

The Clean Air Programme

In this context, there were high hopes for the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), drafted by India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

It is open to public comments until May 17. Unfortunately, the draft is so poorly conceived that it will need a fresh look after consultations with independent experts, as well as the victims of air pollution. This is especially important at a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that of the 15 cities in the world with the worst levels of air pollution between 2010 and 2016, 14 were in India.

Of the 15 cities in the world with the worst levels of air pollution, 14 were in India

A significant part of the 19-page draft NCAP is taken up with contesting and belittling studies such as the WHO’s, especially those that are carried out by international organisations. When it comes to air pollution, the Ministry, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and state pollution control boards are still largely in denial.

With more and more Indians falling prey to respiratory diseases, and doctors in cities drawing a direct correlation between heavily polluted areas and such diseases – especially among children and the elderly – these denials lack credibility.

Even more surprising, is that a medical doctor now heads the ministry; his own experiences as a practitioner and discussion with colleagues should convince him that no one is overstating the air pollution problem.

It was encouraging that the environment ministry formed a team with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to focus on health impacts of air pollution. But now, the draft NCAP says, the report of the team is to undergo further scrutiny by the environment and health ministries. While studies are clearly important, they should not be used as an excuse to delay action. Unfortunately, the draft NCAP leaves the impression that the studies are being used for this purpose.

When it comes to air pollution, the Ministry, the Central Pollution Control Board and state pollution control boards are still largely in denial

The draft contains a discussion of ways to monitor and measure urban air pollution, and to apportion responsibility for pollution loads in a more detailed way than at present. It also covers the recent development of a National Air Quality Index (NAQI). This is all necessary, but still insufficient. There is already plenty of data available on pollution load and pollution sources to warrant immediate action.

This is where the draft NCAP fails. The only immediate action it suggests is to plant more trees on roadsides to absorb pollutants. Again, it is necessary but not enough.

Weak implementation

India has many laws, rules and guidelines to control air pollution. The problem is they are not implemented with anywhere near the level of stringency that is required. The only significant idea that the draft NCAP has on implementation is the need to expand and train officials of the Central Pollution and Control Board and state pollution control boards for this purpose.

Again, this is clearly necessary, but it is bound to be a long-term process, and lacks the urgent response required by the air pollution problem. Even the 42-point action plan for the CPCB fails to reflect a sense of urgency.

Apart from this, the sections on implementation in the draft NCAP refer mainly to measures that are already in place, with little appreciation of which measures work or do not, and why. An example is the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for Delhi and the National Capital Region.

Although the plan is controlled by a highly dedicated group of experts, their attempts at implementation are confronted by lobbies on behalf of factory owners, realtors, transporters, vehicle manufacturers, farmers and even sundry ministries in the central and state governments. The result is partial implementation, at best. The draft NCAP is silent on how this situation can be improved in the short-term.

Political will required

It is difficult to tackle air pollution in India, especially in the Gangetic plains, a large valley with relatively little wind that helps disperse air pollutants. But other – albeit much smaller – valleys have been cleaned up in other countries, most notably the area in which Los Angeles is located. Theoretically, there is no reason why the same measures should not work in India. What is needed is political will to implement them.

It is perhaps too much to expect that a draft prepared by a ministry will talk about the need for political will. But it could surely have talked about the need for more active citizen participation.

In many Indian cities, especially in the northern parts of the country, there is now a situation in which residents talk about the terrible air pollution, then jump into their diesel sports utility vehicles and drive off to buy air purifiers for their homes.

Delhi is perhaps the only city in the world where a Bus Rapid Transport corridor project failed because motorists refused to abide by the rules. There is an urgent need to take on such behaviour.

Just as urgent, is a need for the bureaucrats and technocrats to accept citizen science on air pollution. In Beijing, air pollution was brought under greater control only after residents downloaded simple pollution monitoring applications on to their smartphones and started sending the results to all and sundry.

In India, incipient attempts to do the same have elicited sharply hostile reactions from the ministry and the CPCB, whose officials doubt the accuracy of models and claim they are not calibrated properly.

What the technocrats miss is that the exact concentration of a specific pollutant is far less important than the fact that the air quality is bad enough to badly harm people. Of course, the officials need data in order to tackle pollutants and their sources. But by embracing, instead of contesting, what people are telling them, they will be in a far stronger position to implement the rules.


An earlier version of this article appeared in India Climate Dialogue