Will 2022 bridge the yawning gaps in national and state level clean air action?

Funding for clean air has to become performance oriented; scope of spending has to ensure verifiable improvement in air quality.

In 2022, as many as 132 cities that are currently implementing clean air action plans under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), will have only two years left to meet the 2024 target of 20-30% cut in annual average particulate pollution from 2017 levels.

While these generic targets are common for all cities, the city-wise target for meeting the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for both particulate matter of size less than 10 micron and 2.5 micron (PM10 and PM2.5) are significantly tighter for some. Especially those in the Indo Gangetic Plain, where the reduction needed is 50-60% or more.

But even before cities could come closer to meeting their minimal air quality targets, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has started the process of further tightening of air quality standards. The World Health Organisation (WHO) too has raised the bar to protect public health. The new WHO guidelines for particulate matter are eight to four times more stringent than the current Indian standards.

Read more: Five simple steps can improve Delhi air quality, but will citizens and governments cooperate?

This raises questions about the effectiveness of the action initiated under two funding streams that are currently available to support clean air action in cities. Under NCAP, about Rs 460 core were earmarked out of which about Rs 375.44 crore (81%), has been disbursed, with allocation varying between Rs 10-20 crore per city.

The other is a bigger kitty of Rs 4,400 crore for urban local bodies in 42 cities with more than a million population (ULB Funding) for air pollution mitigation, sanctioned by the 15th Finance Commission.

Poor fund utilisation

The recent status update on NCAP funding by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change shows poor utilization — a mere 33.53% at the end of three years of NCAP implementation. While Bihar and Chandigarh have shown high utilization, 76.98% and 81.55% respectively, it is just 7.92% in Maharashtra.

North eastern states like Assam, Nagaland and other and the hill states like Himachal Pradesh also show very low utilisation. Other comparatively better performers include West Bengal (57.63%), Rajasthan (57.24%), Uttarakhand (53.17%) and Jharkhand (50%). Southern states of Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh indicate utilisation of 34.35%, 16.90% and 9.61%, respectively.

If funding of clean air action has to become more performance-oriented in the coming years, it is necessary to understand the scope and nature of funding for verifiable improvement in air quality. Low fund utilisation indicates shortfall in targeted action. But what ultimately matters is not only the full implementation of the plans but the effectiveness of the actions.

Currently, the NCAP funding is largely designed to improve air quality monitoring and support emissions source inventory and source apportionment studies. While this technical support for air quality management is important, direct mitigation action is not the core focus of the NCAP funding yet. The available funding for mitigation is largely limited to road dust control (mechanical sweeping and water sprinkling); it is not designed for deep, multi-sector action identified under NCAP.

Addressing capacity gaps

There is an expectation that state governments will also provide funding support. But there is little clarity about the scope of funding on pollution mitigation related to industry, vehicles, transport, waste management, clean fuel access, among others. There is largely no additional committed funding at the state level except the existing line funding which is quite status quo in its approach. There is also not enough evidence on ground to demonstrate the level of reduction that has been possible with the current effort to reduce pollution towards air quality targets.

Similar assessment of the spending pattern of ULB Funding under the 15th Finance Commission is not yet available. As this is a new line of funding, most cities are either preparing or have just started implementing the micro-action plans to utilize this fund. However, these plans have created opportunities for more granular planning in each sector requiring sector-wise and indicator-wise target setting and earmarking of funds.

Delhi air quality
File pic of Smog in Delhi. Every winter, air quality in Delhi touch hazardous levels. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

This has, for the first time, pushed the concerned sectoral departments in cities to align their programmes and budget to deliver on clean air targets. CPCB has defined more than 250 indicators covering all sectors for planning and reporting. If action, compliance and progress can be tracked for each indicator every quarter, more systemic changes are possible for clean air gains.

Read more: Delhi’s toxic air: From emergency measures to sustained action

However, a review of this process in a few states by the Centre for Science and Environment shows that while this is a useful exercise to align inter-departmental work, a lot more is needed to build capacity for planning and compliance at the city level.

Even though plans have taken shape, the scope of action for effective mitigation is often not clear to the agencies. Therefore, planning for adequate infrastructure, system change and regulatory and administrative measures to support action remains limited.

For instance, action on industrial pollution is largely in status quo in terms of monitoring, inspection and issuance of consent to operate or closure notices. Focus on targeted introduction of clean fuels, adoption of emissions control technologies in big and small scale units, enforcement of new standards and advanced monitoring for compliance have not been adequately addressed.

Similarly, while action on public transport, walking and cycling are included in the plans, there is little clarity about designing these strategies for effective increase in their mode share and to reduce traffic volume and vehicular kilometers travelled. On the contrary, inappropriate approaches like road widening, flyovers and increasing parking supply that increases traffic intensity and emissions, have qualified for funding.

Data collection and analysis gaps

This exercise has also shown how unprepared the departments are in tracking data for reporting progress on all sectoral indicators. It is often not well-understood how to record and use data for reporting progress. Often several other actions under way, which have a bearing on air quality improvement, remain underreported because of this lack of clarity.

Scope of action also remains narrow. For instance, control of road dust is largely limited to sweeping of roads and sprinkling water and ignores paving and greening. Not enough connection is made with plantation and protection of forests and water bodies, green walling and soil stabilisation techniques in agriculture to control dust.

Nearly all cities have found it challenging to set targets for future action as comprehensive policy planning aligning with the clean air indicators have not been carried out at the state and departmental levels. Nearly every action requires standard operating procedures and management information systems within departments. This needs comprehensive mapping of enforcement strategy, strengthening of regulatory and administrative measures, and building infrastructure and skills to provide targeted support and set targets.

Finally, the NCAP is also preparing to come up with state level action plans to address the problem at a regional scale and not remain confined to city limits. It is not yet clear how this will operate to include both urban and rural sources within an accountability framework and as shared responsibility between different jurisdictions.

The bottom line is that 2022 has to be about measurable and verifiable improvement in air quality across all regions.

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