Climate Change / Sustainable Development

Air pollution battle in India needs a sense of urgency

If India takes the top place in GDP growth globally, why we have such lower targets in meeting air quality over five years, particularly considering the fact that it is the 65 percent of India’s young population would be the main victims of the worsening air quality, writes Rajendra Shende for South Asia Monitor . 
Rajendra Shende Jan 14, 2019 ThumbImage/delhismog.jpg
There is striking similarity between Paris Climate Agreement and India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) launched recently.  The Paris Agreement is an agreement by the countries to map a global action to keep global warming two degrees centigrade below pre-industrial level. It utterly lacks teeth to deal with issues, among others, non-compliance and the essential  need for finance and technology transfer for achieving that target. Volunteerism is the undercurrent on which the shaky edifice of Paris Agreement rests. 
India’s NCAP is a similar story. It is a plan to make a plan to keep the air quality that meets the norms of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) deserves all the appreciation and encouragement to get going on the job, though quite late, and definitely five years behind schedule of another highly polluted country, China. Non-recognition of the nation-wide threat seems to be the undercurrent on which this well-intended and much-needed national programme rests. 
To be fair, the anti-pollution measures have already begun in India over the last decade, though in pieces and through jerks, mainly in setting air quality and vehicle emissions standards, national air quality monitoring programme and indices, fuel quality norms etc. 
Even after 42 measures issued earlier by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and graded response action plan that addresses the seasonal and level of severity for Delhi and other cities, air pollution remains a national challenge of Himalayan proportions. 
The only major action that has been effective in providing the immediate benefits is extraordinary and accelerated level of penetration of LPG-use in the household and in public transport like buses and auto-rickshaws. Energy efficiency measures through use of LED bulbs, efficient fans, refrigerators and air conditioners have helped in reducing the consumption of fossil fuel in generating extra electricity and the air pollution.  Credit certainly goes to the present government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal. Sadly, India still remains on top of the list of the countries where majority of the mega cities have air quality which is a hundred times worse than the norms of WHO. 
Nearly 50 percent of the top most polluted 30 cities are in India. Delhi is now more known dubiously as the world’s air-pollution capital rather than the political capital of India. Out of the seven million deaths that take place globally, as per WHO,  due to outdoor and indoor pollution, nearly 1.25 million deaths ( 2017) take place in India.  About 51 per cent of these deaths were of people younger than 70. More than four decades of the efforts on ‘Smokeless Chulha’ (domestic cooking stove), first by the government and then by the mushrooming national and international NGOs, the deaths in 2017  due to indoor pollution caused by the burning of the solid fuel in cooking stoves stands at  half a million, as per one report. That in a country where clean environment and pollution-free air and water are constitutionally mandated. 
India’s efforts at the highest level really started more than four decades back when The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, was enacted under Art. 253 of the Indian Constitution to enhance well-being of its citizens which is now deep-rooted in India’s development philosophy and strategy. The 106 pages of  the NCAP with nearly 63 pages of substantive text  and rest containing broad strategies and annexes represent, at best,  good intentions and a structured way to move forward. The document, however, grossly overlooks the nation-wide emergency and drastic measures needed to redress the grim, dangerous and fast-deteriorating situation. In a country where emergency measures are not unfamiliar, one wonders why the NCAP sounds like any other plan that embodies elephantine speed of execution. 
The goal of the NCAP is to meet the prescribed annual average ambient air quality standards at all locations in the country in a stipulated time-frame . It recognises that internationally, the successful actions had been city-specific rather than country-wide. It also recognises that 35–40 per cent reduction of pollutants in five years for cities, such as Beijing and Seoul, particularly in regards to particulate matters ( PM 2.5 and PM 10) concentrations. Hence target of 20–30 per cent reduction in such concentration by 2024 is proposed under the NCAP ( 2017 as base year). 
Recognising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proclamation that 21st century is going to be India’s century, it is not clear why the target in NCAP is lower than what is achieved in Beijing and Seoul. If India takes the top place in GDP growth globally, why we have such lower targets in meeting air quality over five years, particularly considering the fact that it is the 65 percent of India’s young population would be the main victims of the worsening air quality. 
Air pollution in India is now a national security issue. It needs as much attention and budget provision and a sense of urgency as is shown in the procurement of defence equipment for the country.  
(Rajendra Shende is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre  and former Director, UNEP. He can be contacted at

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