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With Bated Breath: Action Plan for Combating Air Pollution in India

India’s air pollution crisis made it to national and global headlines once again this year with the release of the State of Global Air 2019 report that highlights the toll the toxic air of the country takes on its citizens and on economic productivity as a whole.

India’s path towards socio-economic development is marked by several monumental checkpoints. In recent times, one such landmark is the concerted nation-wide drive towards renewable energy capacity development and clean energy access. Similarly, the issue of hazardous air pollution in India needs to be tackled using a comprehensive approach that intertwines effective regulation, monitoring and technological advancements. In addition, any national action plan to curb air pollutant emissions from point and non-point sources across Indian cities must identify interventions for each sector that contributes to air pollution like vehicular transport, fugitive road dust, industrial activity, and biomass/municipal solid waste burning. These interventions may also be three-pronged in that they target mitigation, as well as, institutional strengthening and knowledge & database augmentation.

The infographic below provides an overview of key mitigation actions and interventions within sectors that are prominent contributors to particulate matter pollution in India.

To view a larger version of the infographic click here

The latest WHO global air pollution database puts 13 Indian cities among the top 20 most polluted in terms of ambient air quality[1],[2] (Figure 1). Cities in the Indo-Gangetic plain feature prominently in this “most polluted” list; these include Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow, Gurgaon, Varanasi, and Patna, among others.                      

 Source: WHO

Long-term exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution is a leading cause of death from lung disease, lung cancer, strokes and heart attacks. The worst offenders with the largest negative health and productivity impact is atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that is capable of entering the human respiratory tract, specifically PM2.5 and PM10 with diameters less than the width of a human hair.

According to the State of Global Air report, of nearly 5 million deaths in 2017 due to air pollution nearly 1.5 million deaths are directly attributable to PM2.5 in India and China. In the same year, over 1.2 million Indians fell victim to air pollution[3] ascribed to ambient particulate matter and other noxious gases. Figure 2 shows deaths attributable to air pollution in India in 2017. It is important to note that besides the human impact, economic productivity losses from air pollution are also astronomical - a World Bank study reveals that air pollution is costing India as much as 8.5 per cent of its GDP totalling nearly $221 billion each year[4].


Source: Lancet Planet Health

India is witnessing a scourge of Non-Attainment cities

India’s national Air Quality Index tracks ambient air concentrations of PM2.5, PM10, NO2, SO2, CO, O3, NH3, and Lead (Pb), using which the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are prescribed. Based on NAAQS and the WHO global air quality database, the Central Pollution Control Board has identified 102 Non-Attainment Cities with respect to ambient air concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10[5].

The data suggests that nearly all major cities in northern India, especially those in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) are critically polluted with hazardous levels of particulate matter. The prevalence of near-toxic air pollution in IGP owes its existence to a combination of factors including unique geography, transboundary pollution (for example, crop residue burning in Punjab and Haryana), as well as, dense populations, emissions from heavy industrial and economic activity. It is worth noting that the majority of the 13 most polluted cities according to WHO lie in north India. Additionally, the IGP states of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal contain 29 of the 102 non-attainment cities.

Given the intrinsic transboundary nature of air pollution, it is important to identify the sources contributing to toxic air in Indian cities

Depending on region and climatic conditions, the contribution of particular sources to ambient air quality differs significantly. Source apportionment studies are employed to identify point and non-point sources of air pollution in an urban setting. A national summary report undertaken by CPCB[6] in 2011 for six cities – Delhi, Kanpur, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, and Chennai – reveal that the release of air pollutants viz. PM2.5, PM10, NOx, and SO2, is attributable to various sectors like transport, industry, biomass burning, etc. Additional studies by IIT Kanpur, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) have been conducted for other cities including Ahmedabad, Surat, and Hyderabad.

 Nearly 70% of source apportionment studies focus on large metro cities, and there has been a dearth of recent, comprehensive air pollution emissions inventories for Indian cities besides large metros. However, emissions inventory data acts as a good indicator of the various sources of hazardous air pollution in cities and towns across India. Figure 3 highlights key sectoral contributions to air pollution in the densely populated urban reaches of India.The infographic presents a snapshot of the results of the city-level source apportionment studies.

Combating air pollution in India necessitates an all-encompassing, cross-sectoral and interventionist action plan

The transport sector is already witnessing a change that will reduce the quantum of air pollution attributed to it. Some key action areas include promoting and supporting hybrid and electric vehicle (xEV) adoption and an en masse movement to stricter fuel emission standards like Bharat-VI. Gradual phasing out of new diesel vehicles and retrofitting old vehicles with particulate filters are also expected to make a significant dent in vehicular pollution. Further, enhancing urban mobility has a direct impact on ambient air pollution and can be mainstreamed not only through xEV adoption but also road/footpath infrastructure development. The latter is also effective in reducing road congestion (and thereby pollution) and fugitive soil and road dust.

In the industrial sector, a denser and more comprehensive continuous air quality monitoring network for stack emissions is beneficial for developing emissions inventories and driving investment in air pollution control equipment systems. Gradual migration to natural gas for power generation and enhancing flyash management are also crucial to reduce particulate matter pollution.

Other key interventions include large-scale afforestation and creation of green buffers along arterial roads highways, enforcing green building practices and proper disposal of construction debris, improving process technology in high-polluting brick kilns around cities, and developing a formal value chain for segregation, recycling and disposal of municipal solid waste. Tackling indoor air pollution will require enhancing commercial and household LPG access, developing the clean cooking value chain and improving linkages to distributed (renewable) electricity grids.

The National Clean Air Programme (2019) is designed to implement the sectoral interventions and mitigation actions and achieve its targets in alignment with existing national missions and government schemes. The interventions each directly map to various programmes including the Smart Cities Mission, National Solar Mission, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), among others.

Mitigation of national air pollution will necessitate heavy investment in the public and private sector at a national scale

The vision of a comprehensive and effective mitigation action plan for controlling air pollution is predicated on large-scale investment made in manufacturing, urban infrastructure, air pollution control systems and technological R&D. Public private partnerships have a key role to play in ensuring the success of sectoral interventions since mobilisation of private finance can overcome limited public budget issues besides benefits like improving efficiency gains, long-term solutions, lower life-cycle costs and risk transfer.