An environment think tank has painted a grim picture of pollution levels in cities funded by the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP).
In a new analysis, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says there is barely any difference in overall PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5) trends between cities under the NCAP and those outside its ambit.
Released on the eve of the ‘UN International Day of Clean Air for Blue Sky’, the analysis says that both groups of cities reflect similar mixed trends in air quality in different climatic zones.
This means they require substantial reduction in particulate pollution levels to be able to meet the national ambient air quality standards.
The NCAP has set a national level target of 20-30 per cent reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 2024 from the 2017 base year.
But a latest performance assessment of NCAP cities by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for disbursement of performance-linked funds has considered only PM10 data that is largely coarse dust particles.
As the monitoring of PM2.5 — the tinier particles that are much more harmful — is limited, a uniform assessment of cities based on PM2.5 reduction has not been considered for performance assessment.
CSE has carried out a national analysis of PM2.5 levels in cities for which data is available to understand the trend in both NCAP and non-NCAP cities, and the level of reduction needed in both the groups of cities to meet the national clean air standards.
This has also exposed the status of air quality monitoring in terms of manual and real time monitoring, extent of PM10 and PM2.5 monitoring in cities, and challenges of data quality to construct and verify a longer term air quality trend.
“It is encouraging that funding of clean air action is linked to performance and the cities’ ability to demonstrate improvement in air quality,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at CSE.
“However, dependence on only manual monitoring of PM10 evidently creates a bias in spending as it shifts focus more towards dust control and detracts attention from composite action on industry, vehicles, waste and solid fuel burning.
“The expanding monitoring network of PM2.5 and key gases needs to be leveraged quickly to prioritise multi-pollutant action for more effective reduction of risk across all regions," she adds.
The NCAP covers 132 cities — 82 of these have been funded by the programme while 50 cities have received funds from the 15th Finance Commission — Rs 6,425 crore has been released till 2021-22 and Rs 2,299 crore has been earmarked for 2022-23.
Cities are required to quantify improvement starting 2020-21 — this requires 15 per cent and more reduction in the annual average PM10 concentration and a concurrent increase in good air days to more than 200.
Anything less than that will be considered low and reduce the funding.
“As the system is becoming more performance-oriented and real time air quality monitoring is expanding, it is necessary to develop and define robust protocols and methods for quality control of real time data,” says Avikal Somvanshi, programme manager, Urban Lab, CSE.
“This will ensure adoption of standardised methods for data processing, analytics, and addressing data gaps and data completeness and to construct a reliable trend to verify performance and compliance with the national air quality target,” he adds.
Only 10 per cent of statutory/census towns have air quality monitoring: According to the 2011 census, India has 4,041 statutory towns and 3,894 census towns. Between the national air quality monitoring programme (NAMP, manual) and the CAAQMS (real time), only 400 cities/towns have PM10 quality monitoring.
Out of these, 213 (51 per cent) have only manual monitoring, 90 (21 per cent) have only real time monitoring, and 97 cities/towns (23 per cent) have both.
There are 22 cities/towns (5 per cent) that have manual stations but have not reported any data since 2015 and can be considered defunct.
These cities account for 1,176 PM10 monitoring stations (804 manual stations and 372 real time stations).
Performance of NCAP cities on PM2.5 levels (2019-21): Only 43 NCAP cities have adequate PM2.5 data for the period 2019-2021 — enough to create a reasonable trend for tracking progress.
However, it may be noted that 2020 has been an exceptional year due to the lockdown phases and is an aberration. Nearly all cities have recorded a dip in 2020 followed by a subsequent increase in 2021.
Therefore, a comparison between 2019 and 2021 shows that only 14 of the 43 cities have registered a 10 per cent or more reduction in their PM2.5 level between the two years.
Seven cities show negligible (less than 5 per cent) change: these include Delhi and Ghaziabad.
There are 16 cities that have registered a significant increase (5 per cent or more) in their PM2.5 levels — Khanna, Jaipur, and Udaipur have registered the most deterioration with their 2021 annual value increasing by over 20 per cent compared to the 2019 annual value.
Faridabad with 6 per cent increase is the only NCR NCAP city in this pool of cities with a significant worsening of air quality. It is also the only city outside the non-attainment list.
Cities of Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra dominate the list of cities which have registered a significant increase in PM2.5 levels between 2019 and 2021.
Chennai, Varanasi and Pune show the most improvement among NCAP cities.
But unlike cities with increasing pollution levels, which have a very clear regional pattern, there is no regional pattern seen among cities reporting significant improvement in their air quality.
Performance of non-NCAP cities: There are 46 cities that are not covered under NCAP, but have adequate real time data for both 2019 and 2021.
In this group, 15 cities have registered a significant worsening of annual PM2.5 levels between 2019 and 2021.
Ankleshwar in Gujarat with 34 per cent increase in annual PM2.5 value is the worst performer in the pool, followed by Satna (Madhya Pradesh), Vatva (Gujarat), Bahadurgarh(Haryana), and Bhatinda (Punjab); all of which have registered an over 20 per cent increase.
Cities of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat dominate the list of non-NCAP cities that have registered significant increase in air pollution levels between 2019 and 2020.
Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh and Siliguri in West Bengal are the only cities from other regions in the group.
Palwal in southern Haryana with a 60 per cent improvement in its annual PM2.5 level is the best performer among non-NCAP cities.
In fact, NCR cities dominate the list of most improved non-NCAP cities. Most change (positive or negative) is noted among north Indian cities.
Cities within NCR show improvement, while cities outside indicate worsening levels.
In Kolkata, pollution dropped by 22 per cent in 2020 and rose by 16 per cent in 2021.
Mumbai, with a 48 per cent increase in 2021, saw the most negative impact of unlocking the economy after the lockdowns.
Hyderabad had the least variation in its annual levels across the three years.
Bengaluru air improved by 21 per cent in 2020 and with just 8 per cent increase in 2021, the southern metropolis has retained most of its gains.
Chennai saw a 29 per cent drop in its PM2.5 level in 2020 and it dropped by another 23 per cent in 2021, making it the least polluted mega city in the country.
Northern states: Ghaziabad is the most polluted NCAP city in the north, closely followed by Delhi. There are 16 non-NCAP cities that exceed the regional average compared to eight NCAP cities.
There are as many non-NCAP cities as NCAP cities that require over a 50 per cent reduction. Most NCR cities require over 50 per cent reduction from their 2021 PM2.5 level to meet the NAAQS.
Western states: Jodhpur is the most polluted NCAP city in the west, followed by Kota and Jaipur.
Bhiwadi- — though a non-NCAP city — is still the most polluted in the region.
Ankleshwar and Vatva in Gujarat are worse than most NCAP cities of the region as well. Six NCAP cities and four non-NCAP cities need a reduction of over 25 per cent to meet the annual standard.
Eastern states: Patna is the most polluted NCAP city in the east, followed by Muzaffarpur and Durgapur. Hajipur and Siliguri are the most polluted non-NCAP cities.
This is the only region where no city, NCAP or non-NCAP, meets the annual standard (see related graph in the detailed analysis). Except Talcher in Odisha and Agartala in Tripura, all cities in the region require over 20 per cent reduction to meet the annual standard.
Southern states: Visakhapatnam is the most polluted NCAP city in the south, followed by Hyderabad. All the other cities in the region, NCAP and non-NCAP, meet the annual standard.
Visakhapatnam needs to reduce pollution by 10 per cent and Hyderabad by 3 per cent to meet the standard.
On an average, cities of east India are the most polluted in the country, while cities in south are the least polluted.
The Way Forward
Says Roychowdhury: “It is clear that the current practice of keeping the focus only on selected cities without considering the larger urban and regional landscape can limit the effectiveness of the NCAP programme and resource investment.
“The current mandate of developing state action plans has to be refined to ensure regional approach is initiated for a wider impact.
“Moreover, the ongoing funding strategy based on performance of cities on air quality improvement requires robust air quality monitoring of all key parameters.
This also needs "strong data quality control and a standardised protocol for establishing air quality trends, especially for real time data, for reporting compliance with clean air targets,” she adds.
As the current focus of NCAP is to reduce particulate pollution, an immediate strategy is needed to consider PM2.5 data for performance assessment of cities, points out Somvanshi.
PM2.5, being smaller, is more harmful as it penetrates deep inside the lungs.
The larger share of PM2.5 is emitted by combustion sources including vehicles, industry, power plants, waste and solid fuel burning.
Otherwise, the expansion of PM2.5 monitoring as well as real time monitoring will be wasteful if not leveraged for performance assessment.
This also needs to be supported by a roadmap to include the gases for targeted mitigation.
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