Despite $1 Billion Expenditure, India’s Air Quality is Still Appalling – But Improvements Are Possible
A gas-fired grill being used in place of a traditional coal-fired one to cook kebabs in Delhi. Burning coal is banned for much of winter as a pollution control measure.

Ten years ago, India’s appalling air pollution made headlines. But $1 billion dollars of investment, new policies and a health crisis have done little to address this situation. Is there still hope? 

If you have a fever, you measure your temperature. If there’s a storm,  you measure the wind and rain. If there’s a stock market crash or boom, you can accurately measure your pennies. It’s the same with the air you breathe. ‘Measure what you treasure’ is the axiom and this needs to be embraced far more whole-heartedly in India’s battle against high air pollution. 

Air pollution is a debilitating global crisis linked to more than 8 million deaths globally, including more than 2 million deaths in India every year as well as losses for the Indian economy estimated at $95 billion. 

It is also a cloud over an ascendant India’s image. As a recent Economic Times editorial pointed out: “Air pollution in Indian cities is real and needs cleaning for both optics and spiration.”

The extent of the country’s air pollution was revealed by recent data published on the completion of five years of an ambitious and landmark government plan, the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). 

In the last five years, over $1 billion of government funding (INR 96 billion Indian Rupees) has been released to well over a hundred cities to cut air pollution. But only about 60% has been spent, and only 16 cities managed to meet the targeted cuts as per a recent analysis. More and better data can arguably improve policy responses and local interventions. 

The NCAP was launched in January 2019, initially to cut pollution by 20% to 30%. Two years ago, this target was increased to a 40% cut by 2026. 

The programme has also introduced improvements including speedy policy interventions such as shutting schools and banning construction vehicles and old vehicles – most commonly implemented in Delhi. 

The backbone of any such policy intervention is data and in this case air quality monitors. In India, where over four deaths every minute annually are linked to air pollution-related cardiovascular and lung diseases as well as cancers, this backbone needs strengthening. 

The government’s air monitors have increased from 134 five years ago to almost 550 today. These are continuous and real-time. It’s a vast improvement, not just in numbers but geographical spread. Before 2019, Delhi – often in the headlines for its terrible air quality – had far more monitors than massive and populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, roughly the size of the United Kingdom and Italy. 

Since 2022, the number of monitors in Mumbai has shot up by 50% to 30, providing better ground-level reporting that helps to identify local pollution sources. But its air pollution levels are also up 38% since 2019, possibly due to much more post-pandemic construction. 

However, these monitors are simply not enough as most are in the cities and as vast areas are not covered. Some estimates put the number required at 4,000An analysis of satellite data recently showed the geographical extent of worsening air pollution across two decades. 


Need for more real-time AQ monitors

Real-time or continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations (CAAQMS) have proven to be the most useful in cutting pollution in other countries. Under NCAP, however, about two-thirds of the almost 1,500 monitors are manual. This is not ideal, something that’s been acknowledged by the government itself. 

While the real-time monitors can report air pollution on a minute-to-minute basis, the manual ones are meant to report data only twice a week

CAAQMS data is automated, while the manual system is prone to human error, and real-time data is useful for quick policy interventions versus a slow process based on manual monitoring. Some states have addressed this gap of insufficient real-time monitors by using low-cost sensors, especially for rural areas. 

Need for greater data transparency

Pollution in Delhi  typically peaks in late autumn when drifting emissions from crop burning exacerbate the usual urban household, traffic and industrial sources

There is a far larger network monitoring emissions, both air and water, at source, which several categories of heavily polluting industries must also maintain by law. The monitors are known as online continuous emissions/affluent monitoring systems (OCEMS). There are about 3,700 of these. 

The government states the data is open to the public but in most cases, it is not accessible. According to government officials responding to questions in Parliament on 19 September 2020, the reason for this is that much of the data is “reported by industries on self-monitoring and reporting purposes and not owned or generated by the CPCB [Central Pollution Control Board, the main agency responsible], hence not shared in the public domain.” 

This is not only an issue of transparency but also concerns public health and tax-payers money that funds the CPCB, which in turn hosts this data on its central portal. More data and better data with greater transparency can only help improve policy action.

Are funds being used effectively?

So-called ”smog towers” have been a popular political bandaid – but they don’t reduce air pollution.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in reducing air pollution is revealed in the funding and spending, with 40% of the budget allocated to cities unspent as per recent government data

It’s a complex issue as a lot depends on local factors ranging from implementation to meteorological issues. For instance, both Greater Mumbai and Kolkata spent over INR 6 billion. But PM 2.5 levels rose 38% in the former and fell 16.7% in the latter. 

Varanasi spent only about a third of its INR 2.29 billion but improved the most, cutting air pollution by 72%. 

Delhi, despite being the most polluted, received only about INR 380 million as per this data, which is less than 51 other cities listed, and it spent only about Rs 10 crores. More research is required to understand how funds are allocated and if they are being used effectively. 

China’s precedent – billions invested in air pollution solutions

China, which had terrible air pollution for years, has spent close to  $3 billion spanning a decade from the time it held the 2008 Olympics. About $1 billion came in loans from the World Bank with funds being disbursed based on achieved deliverables. A study shows that from 2013 to 2022, the annual average concentrations of major air pollutants decreased significantly: PM2.5 decreased 66.5%; SO2 decreased 88.7%, a result of banning coal in and around Beijing; NO2 decreased 58.9% and PM10 decreased 50%.4.

The air pollution action, apart from the ban on domestic coal burning, included new rules and regulations, identifying accountable parties, and public education for behavioural and lifestyle changes.

While India and China’s political systems are fundamentally different – multi-party democracy with free and fair elections vs. single-party rule. a somewhat similar path has been followed in the sub-continent.  In December, the Indian government released a detailed roundup of funds released and actions supported in some 131 Indian cities, reflecting increased attention to the problem. 

There are new rules, there is increased monitoring, there are many studies and research papers and most notably a new, empowered agency, the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM), whose jurisdiction is limited to Delhi and the surrounding region. However, accountability and implementation are yet to deliver widespread and deep cuts in India’s pollution.

About a decade ago both Delhi and Beijing were alternatively the most polluted cities in the world. Last year, Delhi was ninth and Beijing was the 489th most polluted globally. 

At least 92 Indian cities exceed WHO’s standard, Delhi most polluted

Back to the NCAP analysis, Delhi’s pollution has only seen a marginal dip of under 6% since 2019, although there have been some successes like the 2023 Diwali, which was the least polluted festival period in the past six years. Fireworks are widely used during the festival and usually send pollution levels soaring

The new data shows Delhi to be the most polluted city in India last year, with PM 2.5 averaging 102 micrograms/cubic metre. That’s over 20 times the WHO’s safe standard of five micrograms. In all, 92 Indian cities exceeded the WHO’s guidelines – although for the other 39 cities of the 131 that have received support for air pollution reductions, there is insufficient data to draw conclusions.

More roads and parking lots being built in Delhi – against expert advice

Accepting and following the science is one of the most helpful things officials can do. Offering a glimmer of hope in that direction, Delhi pollution control officials conceded last year that smog towers don’t work – something that scientists and experts have long contended. But political optics won the day and a central Delhi tower was reopened (only to be shut down again over non-payment of salaries.) 

In Ghaziabad, bordering Delhi, the air quality has shown improvement but there were reports of controversial ways allegedly used to ensure lower pollution levels measured, including spraying water at a monitoring site and relocating a monitor from a crowded place to a greener one. These may well be aberrations, but such doubts need to be addressed speedily by officials. 

In Delhi, road dust is removed by vacuums mounted on trucks, and run on polluting diesel generators. A low-hanging fruit could involve switching the fleet of diesel-run air pollution control machines to electric ones. 

Much more pragmatism, however could be shown in promoting clean public transit over gasoline and diesel vehicles – a major factor in fossil fuel emissions. Officials, especially in Delhi and its neighbouring areas, have long neglected bus and pedestrian transit – although there is an excellent metro network. The latter could also provide the backbone for a much broader shift away from private vehicles to urban transit and non-motorized transport. Reducing fossil fuel emissions, of which vehicles are a major component, would reduce air pollution levels in Southeast Asia by more than 65% according to The BMJ assessment. On a global level, some 5.13 million of the estimated total 8.34 million deaths from air pollution annually are from fossil fuel emissions, The BMJ estimates.

Huge air quality gains would be seen from a 50% reduction in fossil fuel emissions in Southeast Asia.

Huge air quality gains from a 50% reduction in fossil fuel emissions – including shifts to clean public and non-motorized transport.Instead, despite recent, high-level policy advice from a Delhi government commission, which advocated for better public transit, more roads and parking are constantly being built for private vehicles in the capital. Vehicles are a significant source of pollution, about 40% in Delhi. So in the very short term, slashing metro fares as pollution rises bears immediate results in reducing ambient pollution. This can be funded by an existing environmental levy on petrol and diesel – about INR 7.8 billion is lying unused

Some lifestyle changes are also required both at a policy and community level. For instance, the government’s cooking gas scheme, Ujjwala, has helped about 80 million beneficiaries switch from burning biomass. 

Delhi’s famous kebabs have been traditionally cooked using coal. Coal for cooking is banned for much of winter, as are wood-fired pizza ovens. One solution is a gas-fired grill. But the owner of such a kebab joint can’t wait to start using coal again, insisting that “the taste is better”. Ditching coal-fired kebabs or polluting private vehicles for cleaner options is still a challenge, as the foul air we breathe appears to be insufficient motivation, at least for now. 

Image Credits: Chetan Bhattacharji, Flickr, Care for Air India, The BMJ.

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