A five-point agenda for cleaner air in India

Fixing air pollution requires consistent and long-term focus from all sections of the society. Disseminating awareness of air pollution among people through data sharing and regional collaboration is a way forward to involve the public. Citizens should act as a watchdog to inform non-compliant activities in their vicinity.

September 08, 2020. By Manu Tayal

One out of every two Indians breathes air that does not meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), according to a study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Health studies warn that air pollution shortens life expectancy. Experts have also confirmed a deadly connection between high exposure to air pollution and the likelihood of getting infected by COVID-19. The World Bank estimates the health cost of air pollution in India as high as 3 per cent of the GDP in 2013. Besides health costs, air pollution also imparts an added burden on the economy in the form of lost workdays and reduced crop yields.

The pandemic-driven economic slowdown has pronounced a dramatic effect on emissions, offering a temporary reprieve from air pollution. Several Indian cities recorded a decline of 20-50 per cent in their PM 2.5 levels. The lockdown has shut industries, reduced traffic volumes and power demand, and briefly dialed down most anthropogenic emissions. It showcased the scale of effort needed to make our air breathable. In the post COVID scenario, India should adopt a multi-pronged approach to fix its air.

First, Indian cities need robust clean air plans as they guide air quality management in cities. India has stated a goal of 20-30 per cent reduction in particulate concentration by 2024 under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). The NCAP lists charting and implementing city specific clean air plans as one of the primary strategies. A CEEW assessment of 102 city specific clean air plans submitted under NCAP informs that most plans lack key components like information on emissions and the cost-effectiveness of actions. Over 75 per cent of plans do not contain information on source contributions. Even among the plans that contain data on sources, the information does not translate into targets set for the execution of the actions. Prioritisation of measures in the plan cannot happen without information on the contributions of different sources. A mapping of polluting activities in the city can provide spatial distribution of polluting sources and identify areas where action has to be prioritised.

The feasibility of mitigation actions depends on their cost-effectiveness. About 90 per cent of the plans have no budgets outlined for execution. All plans should account for financial requirements needed to execute the proposed actions. This will help cities and states determine their expenditure and identify potential revenue streams.

Second, mainstream innovative technologies to bridge data gaps. Air quality monitoring network in India stands at a low density of 0.17 monitors per million population compared to 1.2 monitors per million population in China and 3 monitors per million people in the United States and European countries. Setting up a Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Station (CAAQMS) requires a heavy capital investment of INR 1.5-2 crore. Use of satellite and low-cost sensor data can complement CAAQMS and help plug in data gaps due to vast geography.

Similar to the Test-Trace-Treat formula that contained the spread of COVID 19, a paradigm of Trace-Track-Treat should be framed to identify and clamp down polluting sources. Satellites can be instrumental in tracking such non-compliant sources remotely. Best examples are monitoring forest fires and crop residue burning using satellites. Keeping a tab on SOx and NOx products of satellites can allow enforcement agencies to demarcate the non-compliant regions that are otherwise carried out through physical reconnaissance which is labour intensive. State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) can collaborate with the State Application Centres (SACs) to build this ecosystem.

Third, India should proactively decarbonise its stationary and mobile sources. Our research recognises that sustainable development measures including enhanced public transport, increased use of cleaner cookstoves, and improved waste management can deliver NAAQS-compliant air quality to about 85 per cent of the Indian population. Decommissioning old and inefficient power plants can also help curb emissions. Industries should shift to cleaner fossil fuels like natural gas. Procurement of buses should be accelerated, as enforcing social distancing norms in view of COVID 19 will require 50-80 per cent more buses.

Fourth, stringent enforcement and compliance is the need of the hour. In the absence of stringent regulations, CEEW-IIASA study projects the possibility of an increase in PM2.5 emissions from the industrial sector by a factor of three following increases in industrial production by 2050. This applies to all sectors that contribute to air pollution. SPCBs and other state nodal agencies – the custodians of enforcement – are highly understaffed in India. The performance audit of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (2016) by the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) reports an availability of only 30 personnel at Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) to deal with air pollution over a sanctioned strength of 131. A similar shortfall was also highlighted in other states. This impedes their capacity to conduct frequent inspections. More trained manpower has to be recruited to build capacity. Moreover, execution of measures listed in the clean air plans also warrant inter-departmental coordination. Our assessment of 102 city clean air plans finds that over 40 per cent of the action points listed fall under the realm of multiple agencies without clear guidelines on ensuring coordination. Specific duties should be delineated among participation agencies to avoid fragmenting the accountability.

Finally, India’s fight for clean air needs improved data transparency and public engagement. Data is key for collating conclusive proof of positive impact created by any mitigation policy. One way to monitor the progress made by NCAP is to follow the air quality trend in non-attainment cities. But, our analysis finds that about 77 out of 122 non-attainment cities identified under NCAP have zero CAAQMS. This makes it all the more important for the responsible agencies to identify trackable indicators for each action to oversee progress. For instance, SPCBs can maintain a public dashboard of the number of inspections that have been carried out per industry plus improvements made through subsequent inspections.

Further, emission information must also be revealed publicly. Data reported by Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems (CEMS) installed in the 17 categories of highly polluting industries can help track the quantum of emissions by industrial units and the units’ compliance with emission standards. Our review of the online pollution monitoring portals of SPCBs revealed that only eight out of the 29 SPCBs in India have made CEMS data publicly available. Disclosing pollution information can allow the public to be cognisant of who is violating the norms and create pressure.

Fixing air pollution requires consistent and long-term focus from all sections of the society. Disseminating awareness of air pollution among people through data sharing and regional collaboration is a way forward to involve the public. Citizens should act as a watchdog to inform non-compliant activities in their vicinity.

Through coordinated and sustained effort, actively involving all sectors, India can make the brief respite from poor air permanent.

- L.S. Kurinji, Research Analyst, Council on Energy, Environment and Water

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