Why don’t India’s air pollution policies work?

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
<p>Levels of fine particulate air pollutants in Delhi increased between 2020 and 2021, putting the health of its 32 million residents at risk (Image: Paul Kennedy / Alamy)</p>

Levels of fine particulate air pollutants in Delhi increased between 2020 and 2021, putting the health of its 32 million residents at risk (Image: Paul Kennedy / Alamy)

For the fourth year in a row, Delhi has topped a list of the world’s most polluted capital cities. Air pollution levels were over 10 times the safe levels prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO) for seven months in 2021: from January to April and from October to December. For both practitioners and experts, this reveals the inadequacy of India’s air pollution policies

The 2021 World Air Quality Report was released this week by the Swiss air quality technology company IQAir. It measured 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 found that in 2021, of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia, 11 were in India.

What is PM2.5?

PM2.5 is particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometres or smaller. These particles are about three times smaller than red blood cells, and come from sources such as car engines, power generation, industrial processes, construction and more. Due to their tiny size, they penetrate the lungs deeper than larger pollutants, and even seep into the bloodstream.

Delhi in particular registered a 14.6% increase in toxic fine particulate matter compared with 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. In India, toxic air is one of the top health risk factors, and its toll on the economy is estimated at around USD 150 billion annually.

Inadequacy marks India’s air pollution policies

“In Asia we have some of the densest networks of air quality sensors,” said Glory Dolphin Hammes, chief executive 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, 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 city in India met the updated WHO safety standards of 5 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre of air (µg/m3). Nearly half surpassed this limit by more than 10 times.

No city in India met the updated WHO safety standards of 5 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic metre of air. Nearly half 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. 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 required cities to reduce pollution within their boundaries. But the cities cannot control emissions coming from outside, said a senior project manager who has worked closely with authorities to help draft India’s air pollution policies. He requested anonymity to speak plainly. “While cities have geographical boundaries, there is no boundary in the air.”

Take Delhi for example, the project manager said. “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 added. “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, said Pallavi Pant, senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute in Boston, US, the seasonality of the problem 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,” said Pant. Yet studies that have examined the sources of atmospheric pollution throughout the year show that the air in Delhi is never clean. The project manager referenced recent data showing that 45-50% of toxic particulate matter in the city’s air comes from vehicles, while construction and road dust contribute 30-35% of the total – all activities that never stop.

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
Pallavi Pant, Health Effects Institute

The other side of the story, Pant said, is that for a city as polluted as Delhi, even the most aggressive policy intervention would not 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 explained. “India’s fleet is not going to change overnight, but over time the policy is going to have a big impact,” she added, 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 10 years there have been improvements in air quality monitoring,” Pant said. “Today, we have the traditional monitors installed in many more places,” she explained, “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, said 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, said 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 said.

This article was first published by Lights On