Three years since its launch, the national clean air programme – aimed at reducing particulate matter levels in 102 cities – is way behind its targets with two years left for the deadline.
The union ministry of environment, forest and climate change had come up with the programme in January 2019. The government added 30 more cities to the list the next year, covering 24 states and union territories, with the target of reducing PM emissions by 20 to 30 percent by 2024.
There are two crucial aspects of mitigation through city action plans under the NCAP: ascertaining sources of pollution through studies and fund utilisation.
While all states and union territories are lagging behind in the first category, only five states – West Bengal, Nagaland, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh – have utilised 100 percent funds, Newslaundry has found through NCAP steering committee reports.
So far, only 28 percent of the 132 cities have submitted their source apportionment (SA) or emission inventory (EI) studies to the Central Pollution Control Board, the nodal agency for NCAP. While SA tracks sources of pollution depending on the chemical composition of air samples, EI measures pollutants emitted under various sectors.
Action plans have been submitted by all the cities but studies are in progress in 72 percent of them – and the results could effect a change in response, leading to further delay.
SN Tripathi, an IIT-Kanpur civil engineering professor and NCAP expert member, likened city action plans without SA or EI studies to patients seeking a cure without diagnosis.
“Those kinds of plans are very vague. They will be based on common sense rather than science…In the absence of any data, city action plans have to undergo revision,” he said, adding that there are three ways to assess sources of pollution: modelled and measured SA, and emission inventories.
However, in an online interaction with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in October last year, CPCB member secretary Prashant Gargava, said that cities “don’t have to wait for very precise methodologies and then start working. We have been saying, start working with whatever information [on sources of pollution] you have. You have broader estimates, start with that…you don’t have to wait for another two years.”
Gargava said cities should begin taking action based on their conceptual understanding of polluting sources.
But an environment ministry official, who was not authorised to speak to the media, told Newslaundry that SA and EI studies were aimed to finetune cities’ response to air pollution.
PM10 levels across the globe, as per WHO data.
In terms of pending SA or EI reports, Uttar Pradesh performed the worst with pendency for 14 cities, followed by Maharashtra’s 11 and Andhra Pradesh’s 8, according to a ministry report uploaded on a tracking the progress of the programme. Himachal Pradesh (7 cities), Madhya Pradesh (7), Odisha (7) and Assam (5) are yet to submit any study report to the CPCB.
Underutilisation of funds
The list of 132 cities was prepared on the basis of the annual pollution levels in 2011-15. Maharashtra (19), UP (17) and Andhra Pradesh (14) have the highest number of these cities.
These cities have been divided in two groups: 90 funded by NCAP and 42 million-plus agglomerations or cities under the 15th Finance Commission. According to a government reply in the Lok Sabha in December last year, the central government has allocated Rs 375 crore for 90 cities under NCAP so far and Rs 4,400 crore for the rest under the 15th Finance Commission in 2020-21.
Notably, budgetary allocation was linked to cities’ performance at a later stage by the MoEFCC, which had not suggested any such arrangement in the original plan.
However, Newslaundry analysed an environment ministry report for April and found very low utilisation of funds under NCAP. Punjab, a state during winter harvest season, has used just five percent of its Rs 27.5 crore funds under NCAP, followed by Assam’s 11 percent of Rs 12.36 crore and Haryana’s 25 percent of Rs 24 crore. Nagaland, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh are the only five states that claimed 100 percent utilisation for 2019-21. The percentage for other states hovers between 50 and 75, except Chhattisgarh’s 92 percent and Bihar’s 90 percent.
In its latest steering committee report, the environment ministry has tweaked the targets for 90 NCAP cities: increasing the range from 20 to 30 percent in the original plan to 20 to 45 percent and the timeline from 2024 to 2025-2026.
But the ministry official quoted above said the original NCAP targets remained unchanged. When asked about the tweaked targets in the new report, he said: “It [the table] might have got captured.”
Newslaundry's questionnaire – on whether the original NCAP targets have been revised – sent to ministry secretary Leena Nandan and CPCB member secretary Prashant Gargava remained unanswered. This report shall be updated if a response is received.
Checking pollution in these cities
of living in a country whose cities are perennially polluted are greater.
Newslaundry analysed PM levels of 130 of these 132 cities between 2017 and 2020 through data compiled by – an online hub tracking the programme’s progress – and found an increase in airborne particles in 22 cities while 27 recorded a decrease by as much as up to 10 percent.
However, it may be noted that pollutants had seen a drastic dip during the Covid-induced lockdowns in 2020. According to Urban Emissions, a research group, air pollution levels had dropped by 20 to 60 percent during lockdown periods.
“The reduction in pollution is quite minimal. The end result is still not there. It might seem that the glass is half full but we are still a long distance from achieving the clean air goal, which is what the NCAP was supposed to achieve by 2024…only two years remain. If the situation remains the same, pollution levels might instead increase by five to 10 percent,” said Aarti Khosla, director of Climate Trends, a strategic communications and capacity building initiative on climate change and environment.
Tripathi said NCAP has laid the groundwork despite the hurdles. “Globally, people have dealt with pollution in 20-30 years. What NCAP has done is to create a good framework. If it is followed by states, it will give good results.”
Meanwhile, Bhargav Krishna, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said until the studies are completed, cities can focus on common sources of pollution such as construction dust and waste burning.
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