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International Day of Clean Air — 5 Facts You Should Know About Air Pollution in India

L. S. Kurinji
06 September 2021

Air pollution causes one in eight deaths worldwide, harms human and planetary health, and accelerates climate change. To raise public awareness of its dangers, the United Nations launched the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies (September 7) in 2020. To mark this occasion, here are five striking facts you should know about India’s air pollution crisis.

1. Air pollution is India’s second-largest public health risk after malnutrition

Nearly 100 per cent of India’s population breathes air that falls short of quality standards set by the World Health Organisation. This is a deeply worrying statistic, for long-term exposure to unhealthy air can cause a person’s lungs to age faster or lose capacity and increase the risk of respiratory disease. While no one is safe from air pollution, children are most at risk. According to the State of Global Air 2020 report, air pollution in India killed more than 116,000 infants within a month of birth in 2019 (and a total of 1.67 million Indians). Exposure to poor air harms children’s brain development and cognitive abilities; it also puts them at greater risk for chronic diseases later in life.

2. Air pollution is a pan-India problem; 100+ cities are designated as ‘non-attainment’

In 2019, the central government launched the National Clean Air Program (NCAP), the country’s first-ever pan-India air quality initiative. The programme aims to achieve a 20-30 per cent reduction in particulate pollution by 2024. Under the NCAP, pollution control boards developed customised clean air plans outlining sector-specific strategies for 132 non-attainment1 or million-plus cities. A CEEW assessment indicates that only 25 per cent of these plans included information on pollution sources while formulating control strategies. Such knowledge is essential for prioritising actions based on a city’s unique air quality challenges. Instead, its absence led to the replication of plans across multiple cities in several states. Further, the NCAP plans assign more than 40 per cent of all listed pollution control activities to multiple agencies without clearly delineating each one’s responsibilities. This could result in fragmented accountability and hinder coordination.

3. Air quality in India, particularly rural India, is grossly under-monitored

India has 804 manual and 286 real-time air quality monitoring stations. This translates to a density of ~0.8 monitors per million people, well below that of China (1.2) or the US (3.4). Most monitors in India are located in urban centres. By contrast, rural areas lack real-time monitoring and have a total of 26 manual stations, most of which are located in Punjab. This paucity of monitoring infrastructure has kept air quality issues in rural India largely hidden.

4. Air quality management received dedicated central funding for the first time in 2020

Based on recommendations made by the 15th Finance Commission, 42 million-plus Indian cities received dedicated air quality management funds for the first time in 2020. Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) received budgetary allocations of INR 2,200 crore in 2020 and INR 2,217 crore in 2021. These grants are critical for mainstreaming air quality in municipal governance, yet they leave as many as 90 non-attainment cities out of their ambit. Further, they cannot be used for actions specific to the transport and industrial sectors, which fall outside the purview of ULBs.

5. There are dedicated portals for registering air pollution-related complaints

Several Indian states have set up grievance redressal portals to register complaints about waste-burning, road dust, or other air pollution-related issues. Examples include the Central Pollution Control Board’s SAMEER app (which tracks air quality in 100+ cities), the Delhi Government’s Green Delhi app, and the Uttar Pradesh Swachh Vayu app. These tools empower citizens to monitor and report air quality violations in their vicinity.

This snapshot of India’s air quality crisis underscores the urgent need for action from policymakers and private citizens alike. While the NCAP and dedicated funds for air quality improvement are steps in the right direction, it remains to be seen how effectively they address our air quality challenges. In the coming years, India should focus on creating systems that track air quality improvements and the health benefits of clean air. At the same time, it must equip state governments, local bodies, and pollution control agencies with adequate data and resources to effectively implement clean air measures. Finally, it should give its citizens access to the information and tools they need to help create a pollution-free India!

L. S. Kurinji is a Programme Associate at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water; send your comments to kurinji.selvaraj@ceew.in

References

1Non-attainment cities are those cities where the air quality levels violate the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

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