No improvement in India’s air quality amid broken promises

By Hugo Barcia

New Delhi, Jan 14 (EFE).- India’s efforts to reduce its air pollution are lost between structural failures and broken promises, a failure weighing heavy on its more than 1.35 billion population especially in the absence of a solution in the short-term.

The different approaches that successive governments of this developing country have taken to reduce air pollution have not been sufficient to prevent its urban spaces from figuring in the list of the most polluted cities in the world.

Around 35 Indian cities figured in the list of the top 50 most polluted cities in 2020, according to the latest IQAir global air quality report.

All of them had over 59 microns per cubic meter of PM 2.5 particles – the most dangerous to health – as against the maximum 10 microns recommended by the World Health Organization, while up to 14 metropolises exceeded an average of 80 microns per cubic meter.

WHO estimates that air pollution is responsible for causing 4.2 million deaths worldwide annually.

In India, the main factors behind the high degree of air pollution are an industry essentially based on coal burning, toxic gases generated by the construction sector, emission from countless private vehicles, and biomass burning in rural areas.

The latest effort to increase air quality in the country is the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) – which completes its third year this week -, with the objective of reducing air pollution levels in the country’s 132 most polluted cities by 20 to 30 percent 2024 compared to 2017 levels.

Although a hundred of those cities have experienced slight improvements in their PM2.5 and PM10 levels, this progress is not sufficient to achieve its target by 2024.

“The National Clean Air plan of India is a plan that was designed to fail, it is not a plan to clean up India’s air at all because it is focused on 132 cities (…), while the total number of cities that there are in India is 4,000,” Ritwick Dutta, head of the nonprofit Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) – which won the Alternative Nobel in 2021 -, told EFE.

So far, only three cities have achieved a 20 percent reduction in pollution – Varanasi, Hubli and Talcher, but all of them continue to experience an air quality considered “unhealthy.”

Moreover, the NCAP was conceived with other objectives too in mind, such as increasing the number of air quality monitoring stations, assessing the main sources of pollution in each city and limiting them, and promoting the study of the consequences of poor air conditions on India’s population and economy.

However, none of these goals are even close to being realized, even three years after the inception of the NCAP.

For example, in the case of the installation of air monitoring stations, around 1,500 of them are intended to be operational in 2024.

Only 818 stations have been installed so far – of them 703 were done in 2019 -, according to NCAP’s latest progress report, prepared by India’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

“Most of them are operating through manual monitors and are not even continuous air quality monitors,” remarked Dutta.

In addition, the environmentalist claimed that cities should “discourage the use of private vehicles”, instead of “reducing green areas to expand roads”, as they are doing.

“NCAP says that every green tree cover must be planted in increasing pollution hotspot areas of the cities. We found that green new trees were not planted in pollution hotspot areas, trees were only been planted in already green areas,” he stressed.

The director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, Bharati Chaturvedi, also placed the focus on emissions from private vehicles, a source of pollution easier to tackle than the rest, through the promotion of public transport and investment in green solutions.

However, Chaturvedi, who has collaborated with the Indian government in implementing different environmental policies, added that these steps are not being taken with urgency, “as there have not been enough incentives for the states.”

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