Kochi: Despite the Union government pumping in funds worth almost Rs 6,900 crore over four years to tackle air pollution in specific cities as part of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), there has been only a “marginal improvement” in air quality in the country’s most polluted cities, as per a recent analysis. Delhi was the city with the most polluted air in 2022. Cities which had the least pollution levels in 2019 also witnessed an increase in levels of particulate matter last year.
The analysis released by NCAP Tracker – a joint project by Climate Trends and Respirer Living Sciences that tracks India’s clean air programme and provides updates on it – marks four years of the start of India’s clean air programme. The programme still has a long way to go for it to be able to achieve its deadlines, experts said.
Particulate matter and NCAP
Particulate matter (PM) is an air pollutant that is released into the atmosphere due to specific human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles or power plants. These inhalable particles can range from 10 mm in diameter (PM10), to finer sizes of 2.5 mm in diameter (PM2.5, or fine particulate matter). Both types cause several public health issues ranging from respiratory diseases to cancers. In India, the current annual average safe limits for PM2.5 and PM10 set by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) are 40 micrograms/per cubic metre (ug/m3) and 60 ug/m3 respectively – more liberal than the standards set by the WHO.
To improve India’s urban air quality in this regard, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change launched the NCAP in January 2019. It lists city-specific action plans to achieve a 20-30% reduction in the levels of particulate matter by 2024, keeping 2017 as the base year. Initially, 102 cities were part of this programme and now that number has risen to 131. These cities are called non-attainment cities because they did not meet the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for the period of 2011-15 under the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP).
In September 2022, the Ministry set a new target of a 40% reduction in particulate matter concentration in cities covered under NCAP by 2026. To meet these targets, approximately Rs 6,897 crores have been released to the cities under the programme and the XV finance commission, the NCAP Tracker analysis reported.
The NCAP Tracker’s latest analysis took into account data from Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) across 57 cities for which sufficient data was available with respect to PM10 levels, and 54 cities that had requisite data for PM2.5. This data collected between January 2019, when the programme was launched, until December 2022 was used.
First, the good news. As per the analysis, nine of the 10 cities which were the most polluted in 2019 – including Delhi, Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh and Kolkata in West Bengal – improved their PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations in 2022. Delhi’s PM2.5 levels, for example, improved by over 7% in 2022 when compared to 2019.
However, these levels are still far higher than the permissible safe limits as per standards set by the CPCB. Delhi was the most polluted city in 2022, with an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 99.71 ug/m3 – 2.5 times the safe limit (40 ug/m3) set by the CPCB.
Most of the top ten polluted cities of 2022 – with regard to both PM2.5 and PM10 – are from the Indo-Gangetic Plain, including Ghaziabad, Noida and Meerut from Uttar Pradesh, Muzaffarpur and Patna in Bihar, and Delhi. Even among the ten least polluted cities, the levels of PM10 in nine were still above the safe limits set by the CPCB. Most of the least polluted cities in 2019 also saw air quality levels dip, and rankings slip, in 2022.
Mumbai air quality dips
Mumbai, for instance, has fared poorly over the years, with regard to both PM2.5 and PM10. From a rank of 7 in 2019, Mumbai now ranks 23 when it comes to PM2.5 levels in 2022. Similarly, from a rank of 7 in 2019 with respect of PM10, Mumbai’s current rank is 29. Mumbai’s dipping air quality made it to the headlines several times last year. In November last year, for instance, Mumbai’s air quality decreased to the “Very Poor” category with an AQI of 262, worse than Delhi, which had an AQI of 208 at the same time. Mumbai’s doctors have reported higher numbers of patients with chronic coughs this winter, according to The Print.However, the number of air monitoring stations has risen in the city from just 9 in 2019 to 20 in 2022.
One spot of good news is that the number of Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations across the country itself has more than doubled between January 2019 and December 2022, from 152 to 418. More air monitoring stations are crucial for more robust data and this is something experts have called for in the past.
“It is good to see the number of monitors increasing in the cities which ensures better quality of data which helps rightly capture the state of affairs and see the effects of policies being implemented,” said scientist S. N. Tripathi, a Steering Committee Member of NCAP, MoEFCC.
It is also “heartening” to see that polluted cities have made some improvement in both PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels which shows that the action plans being implemented have been working, he commented. “On the other hand, the clean cities need to pay attention to their levels and begin work on their action plans at the earliest so that they do not miss the NCAP deadline for PM reduction.”
And the deadlines are indeed fast approaching.
“While the CPCB has already issued stricter reduction targets for the non-attainment cities, we are just a year away from 2024, the original target for NCAP,” said Aarti Khosla, director, Climate Trends. “Many cities are still far from reaching their reduction targets and may be unable to do so without aggressive plans and stringent measures.”