Accelerating Action to Improve Air Quality in India

Poor air quality and visability from pollution in New Delhi.
Credit: NRDC

Guest Blog by Madhura Joshi and Polash Mukerjee

The air emergency in the New Delhi is impossible to ignore with little respite in sight. While New Delhi’s problems receive more media attention, most Indian cities are experiencing degraded air quality. To accelerate action, key Indian and international experts gathered in New Delhi to emphasize the public health emergency and highlight key actions cities can take now to fight lethal air pollution.

In most cities, and in National Capital Region (NCR) in particular, air pollution levels regularly exceed “very poor” and “severe” on the Air Quality Index. The increase in deadly fine particles are a severe health risks, lodging in lungs causing respiratory illness and much more. Citizens are taking to the streets to demand action, including at the iconic India Gate earlier this month. While the air quality is visibly dangerous during October to January, it remains a critical problem throughout the year.

Picture: Mitchell Bernard (R), Chief Counsel and Interim President, NRDC with Secretary C.K. Mishra (L) of the MoEF&CC at the Sustainable Action Dialogue on Air Pollution
Credit: NRDC


In the face of this crisis, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) organized “Sustainable Action Dialogue on Air Pollution” on 13th November 2019. The dialogue focused on ways in which national, state, and city-level mitigation actions can be strengthened and to identify institutional mechanisms to enhance cooperation. The dialogue brought together government officials, academics and civil society leaders to discuss key actions to fight air pollution, including public health risk communication strategies and mitigation measures, including immediate and long-term actions.

“We need to first acknowledge the problem, analyze the causes that are contributing to it, and start looking for solutions to solve it. India is an aspirational country, on growth path. It will have an emission problem. But the right approach has to be responsible. There can’t be growth with a cost to the environment. There is a distinct possibility of striking a balance. As policy makers, our job is to define the parameters and the path where they really co-exist.”

—Secretary C K Mishra, of the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change.

National Actions to Mitigate Air Pollution

Pollution levels are proven to cause a large number of premature deaths, possibly in hundreds of thousands. According to Dr. Arvind Kumar, the proportion of incidence of lung cancer for smokers and non-smokers has increased from 9:1 in 1988 to 1:1 in 2018.

“Air pollution makes us all smoker, even newborn babies. As doctors we must be at the forefront in this fight against air pollution.”

—Dr. Arvind Kumar, Founder Trustee, Lung Care Foundation and Chairman, Center for Chest Surgery, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

Picture (L-R): Dr. Ajay Mathur, Director General TERI; Dr. Arvind Kumar, Founder, Lung Care Foundation; Anil Srivastava, Principal Consultant & Mission Director, NITI Aayog; Anjali Jaiswal, Senior Director, NRDC and Mitchell Bernard, Chief Counsel and Int
Credit: NRDC

To improve air quality in the long run, the national government launched the National Clean Air Program that aims to reduce particulate matter (PM) levels by 20-30% by 2024. Targeting 122 cities, the NCAP provides a roadmap to prevent, control, and reduce air pollution with specific targets. It calls upon states and cities to take urgent and lasting action to reduce emissions that contribute to air pollution and builds upon India’s international commitments for climate change.

“Air pollution is taking a heavy toll on the health of India's cities. In 2019, the Government of India took a big step towards improving air quality through the National Clean Air Programme. Cities such as Pune and Ahmedabad are leading efforts to build citizen's resilience against exposure to high levels of air pollution, as well as to address the reduction of emissions in these cities. In the United States, the Clean Air Act has been one of the most effective pieces of legislation, prioritizing public health and health-based outcomes. The act empowers local, state and federal regulatory agencies to reduce environmental threats. Meeting India’s national clean air standards and including health-based outcomes is vital to improving air quality.”

—Mr. Mitch Bernard, Chief Counsel and Interim President, NRDC

There is no single magic solution. Government actions, alone, will not solve the air pollution problem. It is a complex problem requiring multi-pronged solutions. Achieving results will require coordinated long-term actions including multiple stakeholders at the national, state, and city-level to improve air quality. Simultaneously, engaging the public to increase awareness on the measures they can take to protect their health in the short-term is critical. In the long-term, incentivizing behavioral shifts to lessen impact of individual actions on air pollution is also critical.

“We found ourselves in a health emergency earlier this month. Collective action, both technical and behavioral, are required to ensure clean air this winter and the following ones,”

—Dr. Ajay Mathur, Director General, TERI

Dr. Ajay Mathur with TERI presented a comprehensive action plan for New Delhi with nine key actions for “peak” and “non-peak” times. The presentation including innovative measures for community fire crackers during Diwali, biomass bricks from stubble burning for fuel, and accelerating clean car standards.

"Nearly half of the deaths worldwide are in India and China. Implementing control measures for vehicles, industrial and thermal plants, dust and other polluting activities is a critical step in improving air quality and protecting community health in India."

—Anjali Jaiswal, Senior Director, NRDC

Spotlight on Regional and City-Level Actions and Capacities

Cities are at the forefront of fighting pollution. A number of city actions include expanding electric mobility, solid waste controls, enhanced monitoring, and regulating industries, as part of the NCAP. For instance, New Delhi ramped up action by converting fossil-fuel-fired industrial boilers to cleaner piped natural gas (PNG) fueled sources as well as national actions on transportleapfrogging from BS IV to BS VI fuel. Delhi is also strengthening first and last mile connectivity for public transportation. Yet, much more action is needed.

“Air pollution is the one of the biggest crises of our times. With 12 of the most polluted cities of the world in India, this problem should already have been at the top of our political agenda but unfortunately isn't. We need technical solutions but we first need the political will to address the scale of the problem.”

—Jasmine ShahVice-Chairperson, Dialogue & Development Commission of Delhi

“Regional scale air quality control is required for effective reduction in pollution levels not just in Delhi but in the whole NCR; requires collaboration and cooperation between the Central and State governments to implement science-based solutions.”

—Dr. Sumit Sharma, Senior Fellow and Director of Earth Science and Climate Change Division, TERI.

Picture (L-R): Polash Mukerjee, Lead, Air Pollution, NRDC India; Kartikeya V Sarabhai, Director, CEE; Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, Director, IIPH-G; Dr. Sumit Sharma, Senior Fellow & Director, TERI and Jasmine Shah, Vice-Chairperson, Dialogue & Development Comm
Credit: NRDC

“Cities are engines of change. Working together, regional approaches can make an even greater impact by taking an ‘airshed’ approach. For instance, Delhi represents about 2.7% of the land area and 36.5% of the population in the NCR. Yet, the most polluting actors in the NCR are right outside of Delhi. The actions taken by Delhi need to be expanded to the NCR level for transformative change.”

—Polash Mukerjee, NRDC

Health-based approaches are also integral to protect communities from air pollution. NRDC and partners have worked to develop a strategic health risk communication plan—“Air Information and Response” Plans for Ahmedabad and Pune. NRDC, IIPH-G, CEE and IITM launched a joint issue brief, “Air Pollution in Pune” at the dialogue.

“There is a need for training hospitals, members of the medical community and civic officials to have better data management around the morbidity and mortality effects of air pollution. Although there have been some international studies, there is a need to conduct more localised cohort-based studies to understand and prevent the health effects of air pollution in our cities.”

—Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, Director, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar (IIPH-G)

"A generation ago, if we said that we would need to use bottled water it would have sounded strange.  The way we pollute air we seem to be heading in a similar direction.  In Delhi we are distributing masks today, if we don’t take urgent action, we will need clean air cylinders!  Air pollution is a complex issue.  It involves vehicles, electricity production, burning of biomass, construction activity and much more.  Laws and the right technology are certainly needed.  But unless people are aware, we will not succeed.  Pure air has to be a right of every citizen, but with this comes the duty towards doing something about it.  Engaging every citizen in ‘positive Handprint action’ may be the only way to safely breathe and see the stars in the night sky once again."

—Mr. Kartikeya Sarabhai, Director, Centre for Environment Education (CEE)

The dialogue is precursor to discussions at the World Sustainable Development Summit in New Delhi in January 2020.  As the air pollution crisis persists across India, NRDC will continue to work with local partners to protect public health and improve air quality.

Madhura Joshi leads NRDC's climate policy work based on as consultant in New Delhi; Polash Mukerjee leads NRDC's air quality work based in New Delhi.