Vibes of India
Team VoI

The average lifespan in India is reduced by more than five years—11.9 years for those staying in the National Capital Region—because more than 85% of the country’s population lives in regions with air pollution levels above the WHO standard. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), introduced by the Indian government in 2019, sought to lower PM2.5 exposure levels in 131 “non-attainment” cities by 20–30% over a five-year period.

As the programme approaches its five-year deadline, pollution levels continue to be on the rise, according to an editorial in The Print.

The Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations data from 2019 to 2023 challenges conventional beliefs about pollution hotspots by showing notable increases in PM2.5 exposure in cities like Navi Mumbai (46%) and Ujjain (46%) and Mumbai (38%), the report added.

Insufficient demand for clean air and entrenched industry practices may have contributed to the poor air quality.

What are the issues, then?

The Central Pollution Control Board is in charge of overseeing India’s air quality regulations, which include NCAP (CPCB). The editorial notes that because it lacks the legal authority and accountability to act as a regulator, it has a difficult time controlling air pollution. 

Moreover, there is insufficient funding for the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), which are vital for local enforcement. This issue is made worse by the high levels of public debt in states like Punjab, where debt represents half of GDP. Punjab is one of the states in the nation with poor air quality.

The writer points out that the performance of Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in charge of implementing NCAP locally, in terms of fund utilisation, varies. 

Just roughly 60% of the Rs 9,649.99 crore allotted to 131 cities under the NCAP was utilised between 2019 and 2023. Certain cities, like Visakhapatnam and Nashik, spent zero, while others, like Ulhasnagar, Bhubaneswar, and Chennai, spent more than they were allowed to. Less than 30% of the funds that were allotted to New Delhi were even used.

The editorial cites a nationwide survey conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) across 534 Lok Sabha constituencies, which notes that air pollution ranks 17th among governance issues, indicating a low level of public demand for clean air. 

his lack of public outcry lessens political motivation to address the issue, in part because pollution has less immediate effects than crises like COVID-19. Additionally, public adoption—even among the wealthy—has been sluggish until recently, despite the availability of market solutions like air purifiers.

It’s common knowledge that industries like transportation, agriculture, and construction play a significant role in India’s air pollution. As the writer observes, certain deeply ingrained practices exist, such as stubble burning in agriculture and the absence of pollution mitigation in the building and transportation sectors. For instance, it has been repeatedly shown that road and construction dust are significant sources of particulate matter in cities and that states with high rates of car ownership tend to favour internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which in turn contributes to vehicular pollution. Significant obstacles stand in the way of India’s air quality improving due to these industry practices.

What’s the way forward?

More proactive pollution control can result from coordinating bureaucratic incentives with environmental outcomes. Consequently, comprehensive market, bureaucratic, and public incentives for maintaining clean air must advance beyond punitive measures.

The editorial suggests that the NCAP should evolve into a mission that links financial incentives to outcomes related to air quality rather than merely being a set of guidelines. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which is an example of a competitive federalism approach, can increase public and political demand for clean air.

It’s imperative that NCAP funds are utilised thoroughly and local urban bodies are given more financial autonomy for quality gains.

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