Mixed Results from India’s Five-Year Campaign to Cut Air Pollution
Air pollution data for 2023 across seven cities in India, including its capital Delhi, shows air pollution levels either remained the same or worsened in winter months despite a national programme to improve air quality.

PUNE, India – India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) was launched five years ago and has provided budgets to 131 Indian cities to respond to air pollution.

But over half of this money had not been used by the end of 2023, according to the latest figures released by the government, while the programme’s impact on reducing pollution has been “mixed”. This is according to an analysis of air pollution levels since NCAP was initiated, conducted by Climate Trends.

The NCAP’s initial target was to reduce two key air pollutants – PM10 and PM2.5 (ultra-fine particulate matter) – by 20 to 30% by 2024, but in September 2022, this target was revised to a 40% reduction by 2026.

“In 49 cities, PM2.5 data was available for all five years. Out of these, 27 cities recorded improvements in PM2.5 levels from 2019 to 2023,” according to the report.

“Similarly, for PM10, data across five years was available for 46 cities. Of these, 24 cities saw an improvement in their PM10 levels.”

The most significant improvement in air pollution was seen in Varanasi, the home constituency of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, where PM 2.5 air pollution was reduced by 72% and PM10 by 69%, according to government data.

However, IQAir still shows “unhealthy” levels of air pollution in Varanasi. The improvement the government data shows does not always match those by independent monitors and concerns have been raised in the past by advocates and activists about the government figures.

Several cities experienced increases in PM2.5 from 2019 to 2023. These include Navi Mumbai (46% increase), Ujjain (46%) and Mumbai (38%).

“Such marginal and short-lived improvements show that we need a science-based, well-planned, and comprehensive action plan which takes into account sources of pollution and meteorological factors,” said Aarti Khosla, Director of Climate Trends.

Around 99% of the world’s population breathes in air that exceeds the pollution standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the Indo-Gangetic plain that stretches from Pakistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east is home to some of the world’s most polluted cities like Lahore, Delhi, Kolkata and Dhaka. The region is a plain bordered by the Himalayas in the north which makes air flow difficult, causing pollution to remain in the air over some of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Addressing other sources of pollution

A lot of the conversation in Delhi around its air pollution has been focussed on stubble burning in neighbouring states as farmers clear their fields for the next planting season. While stubble burning has reduced, other sources of pollution have not.

“In Delhi, it is important to mention that fire counts (stubble burning events) decreased considerably in Punjab and Haryana in this season of October and November, which contributes a significant portion to the emission of PM2.5,” said S K Dhaka, Professor in the Department of Physics at Delhi University’s Rajdhani College.

“Despite the fact that the pollution level remains high in November, and remains similar in December, there is a need to address other sources of emissions such as transport, construction, and operation of thermal power plants in Delhi NCR,” Dhaka says.

A significant part of India’s air pollution comes from the energy sector. The country’s coal usage to generate energy has continued to grow, despite climate commitments at the international level. Coal is a highly polluting source of energy and its use has doubled in the past ten years to meet the demands of a growing population as well as the industrial sector. India’s pollution numbers reflect the emissions that have not changed much.

Kolkata’s air pollution has been on the whole lower in both 2022 and 2023 which suggests that efforts to control and manage pollution have been effective.

Some cities like Kolkata have shown improvements compared to the national average that show strategies when implanted effectively can deliver results. Kolkata was one of the few cities that used most of the budget it received from the NCAP to address air pollution.

Data across the past five years has found that some cities experienced increases in pollution concentrations, underscoring the complexity of achieving air quality targets.

Increased advocacy has led to an increase in air quality monitoring in most cities, with a significant number seeing an increase in active monitors, according to Climate Trends.

No progress in the past year

Meanwhile, air pollution levels in most major cities in India either remained the same or worsened in the winter months of 2023 in comparison to 2022.

This is according to an analysis of data from India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)  from seven Indian cities, Delhi, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Varanasi, Patna, Kolkata and Mumbai.

“Comparing monthly average pollution levels between 2022 and 2023 shows some improvements, especially in Lucknow and Varanasi, but at the same time in the winter months, where air quality matters more than other months due to fog and temperature drop, we see that cities of Delhi and Chandigarh are either the same across years or worse off,” says Climate Trends director Khosla, who conducted the analysis.

The data underscores the need for targeted interventions to address the specific seasonal challenges.

In 2023, Delhi experienced a surge in winter pollution compared to 2022 that has been attributed to factors like meteorological conditions and increased emissions.

Image Credits: Unsplash, Climate Trends, Unsplash.

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