India’s Air Pollution Challenge: Translating Policies into Effective Action


Air pollution remains one of the biggest threats to India’s environment and is a serious impediment to economic development. A Lancet study estimated that air pollution in India accounted for 1.7 million premature deaths in 2019, which is nothing less than 17.8 percent of the total deaths recorded in the country that year. Both ambient particulate matter (PM) pollution and household air pollution contributed significantly to these deaths. The same study estimated that economic losses from premature deaths and morbidity amount to US$ 37 billion annually or 1.36 percent of India’s GDP.

Air pollution is a cross-sectoral problem with emissions originating from diverse sources. Particulate matter poses the biggest challenge, with emission levels continuously exceeding standards, particularly in urban areas. Industrial activities (36 percent) and residential combustion (39 percent) account for the bulk of PM2.5 emissions. The transport sector, concentrated largely in urban centres, adds another 4 percent although, being an on-ground source, its real impact on air quality is higher.

Other pollutants, such as the oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and of sulphur (SOx), and ozone, are still within prescribed limits in India but are rising. Emissions of NOx come mainly from the transport sector (35 percent), thermal power plants (22 percent), and the agricultural sector (15 percent). Emissions of SOx are primarily from the industrial sector (49 percent) and power (43 percent). The patterns of emissions in urban areas are different from the overall national picture: road dust, construction activities, and transport are the main contributors to both PM2.5 and PM10 emissions. The contribution of different sectors also changes with the seasons: for example, emissions from dust and construction in cities are higher in the winter, particularly in the north. Trans-boundary sources of emission also contribute sizeably to city pollution.

In recent years, policymakers have paid more attention to the worsening air pollution. The National Air Quality Standards were established in 1982 and have been updated periodically to indicate appropriate air quality levels and provide a uniform basis for assessing them at the national level. The National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP) is being implemented to determine the status of ambient air quality and monitors compliance with prescribed standards. Perhaps the most significant step has been the announcement of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) for Indian cities in 2019. The plan mandates 122 cities with high pollution levels to devise city-specific action plans with the overall aim of reducing PM2.5 emissions by 20-30 percent by 2024 compared to 2017 levels.

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ORF, 21-07-22