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Here’s What India Is Doing To Manage Its Massive Air Pollution Problem

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Air pollution in India is no longer a problem, it is a hazardous disease that is inseparable from our daily lives. The problem of poor air quality has been festering India for quite some time now. And it could be worse than what we think. In 2014, when Delhi was declared the most polluted city in the world by WHO, a separate study conducted by US and Indian scientists the same year found that the levels of PM 2.5 were 50 percent higher on Delhi’s roads during rush hour than during ambient air quality readings. The levels of Black carbon, considered to be a major air pollutant, were found to be three times higher.

The hazardous levels of air pollutants weren’t just restricted to the national capital. In 2015, cities like Patna, Gwalior and Raipur followed Delhi into the list. That year, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world came from India. WHO report also stated that Delhi air was laden with 153 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre. The figure stood at 149 micrograms for Patna, 144 micrograms for Gwalior and 134 micrograms for Raipur. In case you are wondering where these figures should ideally stand, according to WHO, PM 2.5 levels shouldn’t exceed 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

With pictures of smog choked streets making the front page of national and international newspapers, and rise in health issues, the awareness regarding air pollution and its impact on our lives has become commonplace. But when we see such images, or read data about unbearable air pollution levels and poor air quality in our cities, we often wonder- how do we bring this to an end?

An emerging nation like India with its developing urban spaces, tech parks and industrialisation, powered by a population of 1.3 billion people, and crippled by a dysfunctional public transport system, can it even afford to relook its strategy of tackling poor air quality? The answer is yes, because now we don’t have an option. Remember that WHO list from 2015? We somehow managed to make things worse for ourselves. According to a 2021 report, India accounts for 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world. That is nearly three-fourth of the most polluted cities in the world packed into one nation.

Just as air pollution is a multifaceted problem, the solution cannot be focussed on one aspect. On an individual level, we may focus our attention on improving indoor air quality in our homes. On a communal level we may join forces with others around us to ensure that the air we breathe in shared indoor spaces like offices, society lobbies, gyms etc isn’t “poor” in quality. But what is being done on a national level to tackle this problem? What kind of measures is the Government of India taking to improve air quality in the country, especially in cities where it isn’t just bad, it is hazardous. And are these measures being implemented homogeneously across the country? For instance, Delhi moved from BS3 and BS4 grade fuel to BS6, which is touted to be much cleaner, in April 2018, followed by the rest of NCR in Jan 2019. But the rest of the country followed suit a year later in April 2020.

Perhaps it was these questions, and more, that led to the unveiling of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) in 2019.

What is NCAP?

NCAP is a long-term, time-bound, national level strategy to tackle the air pollution problem across the country. It aims to bring a 20 to 30 percent reduction in Particulate Matter concentrations (both coarse and fine) by 2024, keeping 2017 as the base year for the comparison of concentration.

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Where is this programme being implemented?

Over 122 cities across the country that have fallen short of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for over five years were identified as non-attainment cities across 23 States and Union Territories for this programme.

The list includes metro cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Bengaluru, and tier two cities like Nagpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Agra, Kanpur, Ghaziabad, Ahmedabad, Bhopal and Patna.

Looking at the list state wise, the list features 17 and 15 cities from Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh respectively- the highest in the tally. On the other hand, the programme features no cities from states like Goa, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Kerala and Haryana.

How does the government plan to execute this programme?

If you look at the problem of pollution in India, you realise that there are multiple large components here, and thus to execute this programme, the government has brought on board various ministries and government agencies for a collaborative effort. Thus the Ministry of Health, NITI Aayog, Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Ministry of Heavy Industry.

In 2021 it was announced that several urban local bodies, state pollution control boards and institutes of repute have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to help execute NCAP. The institutes of repute set to participate are IITs, NITs, various Council of Scientific & Industrial Research institutions.

What measures are planned under NCAP?

Here is the sector wise action plan scheduled to be executed under NCAP:

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1. For pollution from road dust, construction and demolition (C&D) work-

1. Introducing mechanical sweepers on the basis of feasibility study in cities.

2. Evolve Standard Operating Procedure for addressing the specific issue of disposal of collected dust from mechanical sweeping, taking into consideration all the above cited factors.

3. Stringent implementation of C&D Rules, 2016, and Dust Mitigation notification, 2018, of Government of India.

4. Wall-to-wall paving of roads to be mandated.

5. Stringent control of dust from construction activities using enclosures,fogging machines, and barriers.

6. Greening and landscaping of all the major arterial roads and national highways after identification of major polluting stretches.

7. Maintenance and repair of roads on priority.

8. Sewage treatment plant-treated water sprinkling system along the roads and at intersecting road junctions and spraying of water twice a day before peak traffic hours

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Image Credit: Good News Network

2. For Power sector Emissions-

1. Stringent compliance by all Thermal Power Plants with respect to the emission norms according to the timelines upto December 2022 and as per the action plan prescribed in the direction dated December 2017 issued under Environment Protection Act 1986.

2. Central Gas Distribution network distribution shall be taken up on priority within the country, emphasizing on 102 non-attainment cities.

3. There is need for optimizing the use of the existing power plants by prioritizing capacity utilization of natural gas/ clean fuel-based thermal power plants.

4. Phasing out older coal-based power plants and converting specific coal based power plants to natural gas.

5. Emphasis on improved power reliability in urban areas to eliminate the operation of Diesel Generator sets.

6. Emphasizing the expansion of renewable power initiatives prioritizing the use of the existing framework of the National Action Plan for Climate Change in non-attainment cities.

7. Need to explore the possibility of Fly-ash utilization in extensive way in 102 non-attainment cities.

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Image Credit: Times Of India

3. For Industrial Emission-

1. Introduction of gaseous fuels and enforcement of new and stringent SO2/ NOx /PM2.5 standards for industries using solid fuels.

2. Stricter enforcement of standards in large industries through continuous monitoring.

3. Full enforcement of zig-zag brick technology in brick kilns.

4. Elimination of DG set usage by provision of 24x7 electricity.

5. Control by innovative end of pipe control technologies.

6. Evolve standards and norms for in-use DG sets below 800 KW category.

7. For DG Sets already operational, ensure usage of either of the two options:

(a) use of retrofitted emission control equipment having a minimum specified PM capturing efficiency of at least 70%, type approved by one of the 5 Central Pollution Control Board recognized labs; or (b) shifting to gas-based generators by employing new gas-based generators or retrofitting the existing DG sets for partial gas usage.

8. Adopt third-party audits for polluting industries for enhancing implementation(States)

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Image Credit: The Guardian

4. For Transport Sector Emission-

1. Stringent implementation of BS VI (Bharat Stage Emission Standard) norms all over India since April 2020. The central government has mandated that vehicle makers must manufacture, sell and register only BS-VI (BS6) vehicles from April 1, 2020. At fuel stations, only the low-sulphur fuel that complies with Bharat Stage-VI emission norms will be sold; so will cars at stores, whose engines meet the stricter norms. This has by far been the biggest achievement against air pollution for the nation.

Green Mobility

1. Stringent implementation of National Biofuel Policy with respect to ethanol and biodiesel blending target of 20% and 5%, respectively by 2030.

2. City action plans to review the extension of Mass Rapid Transit in cities/towns.

3. Improvement and strengthening of inspection and maintenance system for vehicles through extension of Inspection & Certification centres.

4. Stringent implementation of PUC certificate through regular inspection and monitoring.

5. Fleet modernization and retro-fitment programmes with control devices.

6. Reducing real-world emissions by congestion management.

7. Review the Green Corridor Project and feasibility of its extension with reference to 102 cities.

8. To review the scaling up of Pilot project of Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas for introducing CNG in 2-wheelers and ensure timely implementation.

9. Scaling up of R&D on use of Hydrogen as transport fuel.

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E-mobility

1. Formulation of a national-, state-, and city-specific action plan for e-mobility.

2. Rapid augmentation of charging infrastructure in the country focusing on 102 cities.

3. Central government offices fleets older than 15 years to be shifted to electric vehicles.

4. Government-run buses for public transport, private buses, and 3-wheelers to be converted to Electric Vehicles.

5. Gradual transition to e-mobility in the 2-wheeler sector.

6. Specific allocations for creating a venture capital fund.

7. Investment in R&D and pilots focusing on the indigenization of battery manufacturing, cheap alternate resource to lithium and cobalt, resource efficiency associated with a circular economy, re-use and recycling for lithium batteries, etc

5. For Agricultural Emission:

1. Evaluate the status of implementation of the above scheme in the states and impact on reduction of air pollution in Delhi and the NCR.

2. Evaluate the socio-economic feasibility for implementation of ex-situ options like production of Prali-Char, biochar, pellets, briquettes, bioCNG, bioethanol, etc., as ex-situ solutions for management of crop residue burning especially with NPB in place.

3. Extending the initiatives for addressing the issue of crop residue burning from the NCR to other part of the country and from paddy to sugarcane and other crops.

4. Coordination with ISRO for regular availability of Remote Sensing Monitoring data for crop burning by the farmers.

5. Evolve plan for management of agricultural emissions from fertilizers and livestock waste on the basis of strong R&D. The R&D for the purpose to be supported.

6. Implement plan for management of agricultural emissions

7. The capacity-building initiatives for Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) shall be Strengthened.

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6. For Emission from Unsustainable Waste Management Practices

1. Use the smart cities framework to launch the NCAP in the 43 smart cities falling in the list of 102 non-attainment cities.

2. Transform our centralised waste disposal infrastructure to a sustainable decentralized system in 102 cities.

3. Source segregation into dry and wet waste to be made mandatory through involvement of municipalities and the Residents Welfare Association.

4. Mandatory Training and capacity building of municipalities and the RWA.

5. Transitioning towards a zero-waste pathway through an integrated solid waste management strategy, including targeting waste prevention, recycling, composting, energy recovery, treatment, and disposal.

6. Waste reduction schemes such as ‘polluters pay’ principle, recycling projects, composting, biomethanation, RDF plants and co-processing to be supported under an integrated solid waste management strategy.

7. Construction of decentralized composting plant, biomethanation plant and C&D waste plants.

8. Deployment of fixed compactor and doing away with dhalaos.

9. Focus on training municipalities and State Pollution Control Boards to be on national and international technologies for integrated waste management options.

10. In line with the National Biofuel Policy, promote technologies which can convert waste/plastic, Municipal Solid Waste to energy resulting in reduction of traditional fuel use.

11. Stringent implementation and monitoring for extended producer responsibility for e-waste and plastic waste.

12. Strict implementation of existing six waste management’s rules on solid, Hazardous, Electronic, Bio-medical, Plastics and C&D waste.

13. The Swachh Bharat Mission and National Mission on Sustainable Habitat to be used as a platform to push the objectives under this sector.

7. For Indoor Air Pollution management

1. Building specific guidelines and protocols on monitoring and management of indoor air pollution.

2. Extend Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna in 102 cities/towns and the associated village areas.

3. Guidelines and provisions for building designs that define proper ventilation, clean cooking, and living areas to maintain healthy air quality inside the house to be integrated with the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY)

Check out how cities around the world are tackling the problem of air pollution here. Which practices out of these do you think can be adopted in India?

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Air Quality Monitoring Under NCAP

Monitoring of air quality is one of the key components of NCAP which aims at adoption of manual, continuous, sensor & satellite based techniques for the same all over the country. Why is monitoring air quality so important? Because it would not only help us understand the efficacy of NCAP, but also help concerned authorities keep an eye on the implementation of various actions suggested under the programme. After all, no other parameter can effectively and starkly convey the success of the programme or its shortcomings than Air Quality Monitoring.

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So here are some actions points suggested under NCAP for Air Quality Monitoring

1. To increase the number of manual air quality monitoring stations across the country to 1500, from the existing 703.

2. To Increase the number of Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations across the country, especially in cities spread across the states of Assam, Bihar,Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.

3. To use Application of Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD) from indegenous satellite-based observations for assessment of Particulate Matter levels.

4. Development/ Validation of alternative cost-effective technology for source and ambient air quality monitoring in consultation with the IIT, CSIR, and other such institutes as NEERI.

5. Development of a rural air quality monitoring network, with establishment of 75 stations for the same in rural areas.

6. Augmentation of PM 2.5 monitoring stations from the existing 167 in 80 cities to all stations under NAMP.

7. Development of a 10 city Super Network to capture the overall air quality dynamics of the nation, impact of interventions, trends, investigative measurements, etc.

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A road full of challenges

While the NCAP is extensive in its goal, its implementation on ground level has been a struggle for the government. NCAP itself has admitted that lack of regular monitoring and inspection are the major reason for non-compliance. It assured that “trained manpower and regular inspection drive will be ensured for stringent implementation.”

Aside from compliance, finding effective ways on city, town and village levels to drastically bring down pollution levels is not easy, as one size doesn’t fit all.

In Delhi, the megacity at that has been at the centre of India’s pollution debate, the state government took various measures like erecting smog towers, spraying bio decomposer on crop manure, installation of anti smog guns to sprinkle water at regular intervals and directing state controlled departments, autonomous bodies and grantee institutions to replace there existing fleet of hired conventional fuel vehicles to electric ones. Did these measures succeed?

Experts have time and again questioned the effectiveness of smog towers, especially in open spaces, that too as heavily polluted as Delhi. The bio decomposer technique allegedly failed as most of the stubble burning occurred outside of Delhi, whereas the tactic was implemented within Delhi, which doesn’t have much farmland to start with. The much talked about anti-smog guns failed the test of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and were declared to be ineffective in open areas and on fine particles.

Apart from implementation, another hurdle before the NCAP is reviewing the effect of measures it has prescribed. In 2020, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and Urban Emissions conducted an analysis of NCAP and found that there was no legal framework in place to review and update the plan. CEEW further said that 45% of activities planned under NCAP have more than one responsible agency, lacking a clear delineation of responsibilities.

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NCAP has also been scrutinised for limited allocation of funds. 300 crore rupees seems like a tight budget for implementation of a policy as elaborate as NCAP. However, in 2020 the Union government allocated 4,400 crore to deal with air pollution in cities with 10 lakh plus population. However, no clear guidelines were released regarding disbursement of the funds to various sectors involved in the programme.

Steps taken to create awareness among citizens:

In addition the Government has taken several steps to drive awareness amongst the public:

  • Launch of SAMEER App to provide air quality information to the public.

  • Creation of dedicated Twitter and Facebook accounts which provide access to information on air quality to the general population.

  • Crowd sourcing of innovative ideas/ suggestions/proposals via CPCB website to strengthen efforts for improving air quality in Delhi-NCR.

  • Implementation of Environment Education, Awareness and Training Scheme to increase awareness and participation of the public for conservation of environment.

  • Under the National Green Corps (NGC) programme, about one lakh schools have been identified as Eco-clubs, wherein, nearly thirty lakh students are actively participating in various environment protection and conservation activities, including the issues related to the air pollution.

  • Increased focus on eco-friendly activities like cycling, growing trees, proper maintenance of vehicles, following lane discipline and reducing congestion on roads by car pooling.

  • Central Pollution Control Board has deployed 46 teams since 2019 to gather on-field feedback on air polluting activities in Delhi-NCR area

Role of Citizens in ensuring success of NCAP

While the government can formulate programs and policies, it needs the support of citizens for implementation of the same. Here are some actions citizens can take to make NCAP a success:

  • Providing constant feedback on implementation of the programme in your local area via social media, tagging all relevant ministries and agencies.

  • Participating in mass drives for plantation of trees, clean up drives to remove dust pollution.

  • Opt for cycling, car pooling while commuting to bring down pollution levels. Follow proper lane etiquette while driving.

  • Encourage children to participate in environment protection and conservation activities planned by government or local bodies.

  • Create awareness regarding air pollution by sharing verified information among friends and family.

  • Monitor air quality regularly in your area and raise concerns if it continues to deteriorate or fails to improve with concerned government bodies.

  • Follow prescribed waste segregation and disposal practices in order to make it easy for local bodies to carry out its management. Encourage your RWA to compost wet waste and ensure proper recycling of dry waste.

  • Switching to electric two-wheel and four-wheel drives when you are in for a car/scooter change next time.

  • Encourage recycling and upcycling items no longer in use among family members and RWA.

Do you think our government is doing enough to tackle the air pollution problem? What measures can be taken, according to you, to make NCAP more effective?

Author

About the author

Airveda team is a group of individuals working tirelessly with a mission to help people breathe well and live well.