Commentary, Health Economics

LONG-FORM COMMENTARY: Saving the Lungs of 1.4 Billion: India and the Need for Air Pollution Control

Raina Talwar Bhatia, Stanford University

Air pollution has become one of the most pressing issues of our time, both from a health and economic perspective. According to the WHO, air pollution is responsible for approximately seven million deaths globally. Nine out of ten humans currently breathe ‘polluted air’ (as per WHO guidelines), with inhabitants of low and middle-income countries feeling the greatest consequences. Although the health effects of air pollution are well-documented, much less attention is given to its economic consequences. The total global cost of air pollution in 2015 was $330 billion and is expected to rise to $3.3 trillion by 2060 based on the current trajectory. Alongside the healthcare costs, air pollution decreases agricultural productivity, increases absenteeism and reduces productivity in the workplace, and creates greater resident interest in emigration and immigration. While all low and middle-income countries are disproportionately impacted by air pollution, none draw the concern and attention of the international community and health experts like India.

With India having the 2nd largest population in the world, the consequences of air pollution are severe and have the potential to impact 1/7th of the world’s population. Its presence in India is a well-established fact, with 10 Indian cities present in a list of the top 15 most polluted cities in the world and 63 Indian cities present in the top 100 most polluted cities. In 2019, there were 1.67 million deaths attributed to air pollution in India, making up nearly 18% of total deaths in the nation and 24% of global air pollution deaths. The economic impact only worsens the losses felt from the health impact. India’s total output loss from premature deaths and morbidity caused by air pollution is $36.8 billion, approximately worth 1.36% of its GDP. The pollution doesn’t seem to get much better each year—Delhi, India’s capital, had an average Air Quality Index (AQI) score of 344 in 2022. For context, an AQI score of 350 is equivalent to smoking 13 cigarettes a day, but for the 15 million people in Delhi, such poor air quality is the norm. 

Despite how well documented the problem is, there is a startling lack of government action to counter air pollution. The Indian government launched the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) in 2019 to implement an action plan with a starting term of 5 years, with the hope of extending it to 20-25 years in the long run. NCAP’s goal is to see a 20-30% national reduction in the concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10 by 2024. PM2.5 are small particles that can access deep parts of a person’s lungs, and in extreme cases, can enter their bloodstream as well. PM10 are bigger particles that irritate one’s eyes, nose, and throat. These include dust from roads, farms, dry riverbeds, construction sites, and mines. 

NCAP identified 132 cities that have poor levels of air quality and are the key targets for the 20-30% reduction in pollutants. More than 3 years later, most of these cities have either marginally improved or have actually increased their air pollution levels. There are three major reasons for the failings of the NCAP, all linked to inherent flaws in the structuring of the program. 

While the NCAP has largely focused on urban centers (and rightfully so, given that a large portion of air pollution in India comes from vehicle exhausts, industries, diesel generators, and power plants), there has been a concerning lack of planning from a state and regional perspective. While states were required to provide details of their clean air action plans by 2020, not even one has done so yet. Even more concerningly, areas bordering large cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, etc.) were required to collaborate with research institutions and universities in urban centers to formulate a regional plan, but this has only occurred for one region.  The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, also known as MoEFCC, has failed to implement sanctions against states that fail to do their duties. Given the prevalence of negligence and the lack of due diligence, it is no wonder that the NCAP is falling apart. 

Another huge inherent flaw with the NCAP is the inability of cities and states to obtain funding. First, there is an enormous inequality in funding received between small and big cities to implement the changes mandated by the NCAP. Air quality control anywhere in the world is an expensive process, as it almost always requires significant investments in infrastructure, clean energy, and research and development capabilities. Large cities, defined as having a population of over a million people, receive Rs. 10 crores (approximately $1.2 million) in funding from the NCAP. However, small cities, defined as having a population of 500,000 people or less, were provided with only Rs. 10 lakh ($12,000). This amount of money is ridiculously inadequate for a problem of this magnitude, as nearly half of the cities in the NCAP’s list are classified as small cities. Additionally, Delhi, one of the most polluted states in the entire country, did not receive any money from the MoEFCC. It was instead asked to ‘utilize funds collected through different fines and cess levied on polluting activities in the city.’ Furthermore, when looking at the impact of NCAP over the 5 year period, it is important to examine the role of COVID-19 during this time. Transitioning to clean energy processes required immense amounts of funding, but most government funds were diverted to focus on the public health crisis unfolding in the country. As a result, the NCAP, and air pollution control in general, became a lesser priority.

Finally, the third contributing factor to the failure of the NCAP is the systemic lack of ‘source information,’ that is, collective, comprehensive information about emission sources. Clean air action plans are supposed to develop and evolve after collecting exact estimates of emission sources. While this seems rather minor compared to the state and regional planning concern and the financial aspect, without hard data, most action plans are currently just a list of potential activities that can be undertaken to reduce air pollution without specific short-term targets. Due to the lack of data, action plans have quite literally been copied and pasted across cities. One state, Uttar Pradesh, which has 15 cities on the original NCAP list, has the exact same plan for all 15. The similarities are unavoidable, with 56 identical actions for “transport, road dust, vehicles, waste burning, industries, and construction and demolition—without any interim targets.” Scientific studies are required to help guide cities and states to adopt plans on a more specific basis. New Delhi, a city with a more established public transportation system compared to a city like Mumbai that is currently developing its public transportation, would focus relatively more on the contribution of industrialization and road dust to air pollution than vehicle emission. No two cities or states are the same, so devising individualized plans based on empirical data will be key for air pollution control mechanisms.

Evidently, the NCAP is not doing enough. However, how can one program alone resolve a problem so vast and far-reaching? What India needs is not one program but rather a coordinated, national effort to combat air pollution in a multifaceted manner. Two policies that have attracted a fair amount of attention in recent years have displayed the potential to drive down fossil fuel usage and improve air quality.

The first is the creation of a national carbon market. Gujarat, the first state in the country to set up a dedicated climate change department in 2009, previously announced the creation of India’s first emissions market focused on reducing particulate air pollution in September 2019. More than 300 plants participated in Gujarat’s market, and early results suggested that industries involved in this market may have already reduced emissions by 20% with no major increase in operating costs. Inspired by Gujarat’s success, India’s Parliament introduced the Energy Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2022, a piece of legislation that seeks to create a ‘carbon credit trading scheme’ in which polluters essentially agree to exchange credits that are equivalent to a specific amount of emissions. As per this bill, the government plans to issue carbon credits to businesses or other institutions that voluntarily register under the scheme. Scheme members will be free to sell and buy credits to meet their individual carbon budgets. Although Gujarat’s venture had incredible results, it is difficult to tell if the government will be able to implement such a scheme on a national level given the various bureaucratic challenges within the government itself. However, it is certainly an idea to watch, both for its impact on India and for how it could inspire other states to do the same.

Another policy idea that offers great potential for reducing air pollution is the creation of an official air pollution database in India. Currently, there are significant inconsistencies in total emission estimates. There is a standard deviation of 37% for PM10 emissions data on the national and sectoral level.  The discrepancies only grow on a sectoral and pollutant-specific basis, illustrated in the grid provided below. 

Figure 1: Highest Relative Standard Deviation Observed for Estimated Emissions

If the data is inconsistent and has such large variations, different groups and policymakers will refer to different sources and will thus have different recommendations about what actions are required for air pollution control. The need for an accepted, reviewed, and regularly-updated emissions database cannot be understated. Such an emissions inventory is key to help model the dynamic nature of pollution sources and to assess the implications of new policies and regulations to curtail emissions from specific sources. However, a database alone is not enough—there need to be robust criteria and qualifications for data to be accepted and entered into this database. Although this does not have a quantifiable impact on air pollution itself, this database will provide the basis for all future policy proposals and is consequently essential in its own right.

The lack of substantial action to counter rising air pollution in India is an enormous problem for the health and economic outcomes of millions. Although the NCAP’s existence is a step in the right direction, it suffers from far too many structural problems to achieve any meaningful change. In the coming years, policymakers need to ensure that air pollution and emissions controls are implemented in an efficient manner, backed by robust scientific data.

Leave a Reply