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What’s gone wrong with India’s air pollution policies?

A new report on global air pollution once again lists Delhi as the world’s most polluted capital city. Poorly designed policies and overlooked causes may be to blame

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Lou Del Bello

Mar 22 2022

7 mins read

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For the fourth year in a row, Delhi has topped a list of the world’s most polluted capitals. In 2021, the city exceeded the WHO air pollution guidelines by more than 10 times for seven months, from January to April and from October to December.

The 2021 World Air Quality Report, released today by the Swiss air quality technology company IQAir, crunches data on the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air in 6,475 cities in 117 countries, using a network of tens of thousands monitoring stations. It finds that in 2021, of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia, 11 were in India.

Delhi in particular registered a 14.6% increase in toxic fine particulate matter compared to the previous year, exposing its 32 million residents to air so bad that their life expectancy may be reduced by as much as nine years due to the toxins they inhale daily. Delhi’s air pollution puts it at the top of the list of most polluted capital cities.

Today, a growing body of scientific evidence blames air pollution for millions of premature deaths worldwide, as a causal factor in a host of medical issues including chronic pulmonary and heart conditions, strokes, lung cancers and respiratory infections, among others. In India, toxic air is one of the top health risk factors, and its toll on the economy is estimated at around $150 billion annually.

Problematic policy dogging India’s air pollution response

“In Asia we have some of the densest networks of air quality sensors,” says Glory Dolphin Hammes, CEO of IQAir. “That's good. But what we're also finding is a lot of pollution. And the big question is, what’s really being done about it?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, India has rolled out a number of policies targeting various sources of air pollution sources, from industry to road traffic. Despite this, its air quality has consistently worsened, to the point of today’s public health emergency. The IQAir World Air Quality report finds that in 2021 no cities in India fell within the updated WHO safety standards of 5 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre of air (µg/m3). Nearly half of Indian cities surpassed this limit by more than 10 times.

Flagship policies such as the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), launched in 2019 to improve air quality in over 100 of India’s most polluted cities, were doomed from the start due to underfunding and poor design, said experts who spoke with The Third Pole. Three years after its launch, the targeted cities have shown little progress in terms of reducing air pollution and in some cases – such as in Chennai and Mumbai – pollution has increased.

NCAP was badly designed because it requires cities to reduce pollution within their boundaries, but they cannot control emissions coming from outside, says a senior project manager who has worked closely with Indian authorities to help draft air pollution policies, asking to remain anonymous.

“While cities have geographical boundaries, there is no boundary in the air.” Take Delhi for example, the project manager says. “Only about one third of the city’s pollution is generated within its borders; the rest comes from neighbouring states.” This can be due to industrial emissions or stubble burning during the harvest season in Punjab and Haryana’s fields.

As a result, “officers in the Delhi government have lost faith in NCAP,” the expert adds. “They feel that even if they do their part, if the surrounding states don’t, the air quality is not going to improve. So why should they make an effort?”

A question of timing

While air pollution in South Asian mega cities like Delhi is a year-round issue, says Pallavi Pant, senior scientist at the non-profit Health Effects Institute in Boston, US, the seasonality of its intensity means air quality often falls to the bottom of the political agenda.

“In winter [when smog engulfs Delhi], everyone pays attention, but come April most people will forget about it,” says Pant. Yet studies which have examined the sources of atmospheric pollution throughout the year show that the air in Delhi is never clean. The project manager who spoke with The Third Pole referenced recent data which shows that between 45- to 50% percent of its toxic particulate matter in the city’s air comes from vehicles, while construction and road dust contribute 30 to 35% percent of the total, all activities that never stop.

The other side of the story, Pant says, is that for a city as polluted as Delhi, even the most aggressive policy intervention wouldn’t lead to major results for at least a few years: “Even if we did every single thing right, we're going to need a time horizon in which we will see air quality begin to improve.”

One such example of an aggressive intervention is the Bharat Stage VI emission standards, which covers cars, scooters, trucks and most light and heavy duty vehicles on Indian roads. The national policy, which targets tailpipe emissions such as nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter, entered into effect in 2020. The new standards were implemented to replace the Stage IV phase, skipping Stage V altogether to get the regulations in line with those adopted by the European Union. To date, they represent one of India’s most aggressive efforts against air pollution.

“New vehicles sold today are Bharat Stage VI compliant, but not everybody is going to buy a new car,” Pant explains. “India’s fleet is not going to change overnight, but over time the policy is going to have a big impact,” she adds, especially in places like Delhi which already poses restrictions on the type of vehicles circulating in the city, penalising the oldest and more polluting models.

Better monitoring to tackle Delhi’s air pollution crisis

Despite policy missteps, Delhi is setting an example in terms of understanding the nature and dynamics of the toxic air enveloping its community. While the situation is far from optimal, “over the past ten years there have been improvements in air quality monitoring,” Pant says. “Today, we have the traditional monitors installed in many more places,” she explains, “but the government is also considering the use of satellite data to identify areas that require urgent attention.” 

As well as better monitoring, pollution forecasting technologies are increasingly available, says the project manager. The problem is turning information into effective action. For the future, “I am imagining a system which combines live emissions data [with] data on pollution sources – live data from all the city’s construction sites and industries.” The system wouldn’t just return detailed information, but would analyse it, providing targeted recommendations on viable emergency measures, such as limiting traffic or halting construction work for a few days before the bad air strikes. 

Many of these technological tools are already available or within reach for India, says the project manager. But governments still need to work on comprehensive policies targeting the problem in its entirety, including investing in specialised workforces and increasing citizens’ engagement. “Any policy that we come up with will be almost useless if it remains on paper,” they say.


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