National Clean Air Programme: Good idea but weak mandate

The much-awaited plan should not be top-down, it should create room for tighter action

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Friday 11 January 2019
National Clean Air Programme plans to substantially reduce particulate matter in the country. Photo: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier/Flickr__

After a long and impatient wait, Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan has announced the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). This is the first ever effort in the country to frame a national framework for air quality management with a time-bound reduction target.

It proposes a framework to achieve a national-level target of 20-30 per cent reduction of PM2.5 and PM10 concentration by between 2017 and 2024 . While this is a right step forward and kindles a great deal of optimism and expectations, it also gives way to many questions and doubts about its potential in meeting the targets. This is an inescapable concern in a country where air pollution is the top killer.

Need stronger mandate

It is now official that this much-awaited new year promise is expected to be the only “cooperative and participatory initiative”. This will not be notified under the Environment Protection Act or any other Act to create a firm mandate with a strong legal back up for cities and regions to implement NCAP in a time bound manner for effective reduction.

NCAP only mentions that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) will execute this nation-wide programme in consonance with the section 162 (b) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1986. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has not drawn upon the precedence of the notification of Graded Response Action Plan or the notice issued to comply with the Comprehensive Action Plan under the Environment Protection Act in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR).

If NCAP remains an advisory, why will anything change? The past experience shows that MoEF&CC and the CPCB have asked non-compliant cities to prepare action plans from time to time. This has been intermittently followed after the Supreme Court, in 2004, had asked the top 10 polluted cities to prepare action plans. The CPCB had taken that forward to ask 54 cities initially to make action plans.

Subsequently, the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans had taken on board the strategy of National Clean Air Action Plan and City Action Plans for all major cities to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards by the end of the plan’s period. But that remained a non-starter as it was not backed by a clear legal mandate and a funding strategy. During these desperate times, even this extra edge and authority that a legal notification provides matters in protecting lives.

Perhaps, the MOEF&CC is hoping that the proposed institutional arrangement that will include an apex committee under the MoEF&CC at the central level, a committee under chief secretary at the state level and a committee under municipal Commissioner at the city level, are adequate to push the agenda and action. But it may also be noted that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order of October 8, 2018, that made chief secretaries of all states with non-compliant cities responsible for preparation of action plans and implementation, has already brought in certain urgency.

Legal back up for a plan also becomes important not only to establish more enforceable mandate for the state and city governments but also to ensure inter-ministerial coordination for multi-sectoral interventions and convergence that NCAP has rightly provided for. The MoEF&CC, as a nodal central and apex agency, will have to flex its authority to ensure all NCAP indicators are integrated with multi-sector and inter-ministerial programmes to align with the air quality target and objectives.

Higher ambitions

This needs to be told with a clear rider that NCAP should not become only a top-down prescriptive approach. In fact, within the federal structure, NCAP, while ensuring compliance, will also have to create enough room for tighter action that can be even stronger than the common minimum national programme as defined by NCAP.

State governments and city authorities should be encouraged and enabled to take those extra steps to meet local targets. City-wise air quality targets will clearly show where much deeper cuts will be needed for hotspot and stronger regional action. This is consistent with the existing pollution control laws—for both air and water—that do permit states to go beyond the minimal national standards to set tighter standards, if the local situation demands so. This may be taken forward.

Need litmus test for effectiveness

NCAP has certainly helped kick start the much-awaited good practice of setting air pollution reduction targets. The biggest advantage of such targets is that it helps decide the level of stringency of local and regional action needed for the plans to be effective enough to meet the reduction targets. It is interesting that NCAP has cited how Beijing has succeeded in reducing PM2.5 by 33.3 per cent in five years. But NCAP may also explain and sensitise cities about the scale, depth and strictness of action with detailed pathways for clean energy and mobility transition, waste and dust management and control of combustion sources that had to be implemented to meet this target in Beijing and other Chinese cities. This was also done with strong multi-tiered accountability system, under which various levels of government could be held legally accountable for shirking responsibilities.

We will have to find and outline our very own regulatory and market-based solutions without being draconian.

Join all dots

It is encouraging to see that the NCAP this time has listed comparatively more comprehensive action points than the very minimalistic and very generic 42 action points of CPCB that were put out earlier. This time, NCAP will have to be about strategies for implementation with detailed indicators to enhance the potential impacts.

Already, following the NGT order, 102 cities have started to prepare their first baseline action plans based on whatever data and expertise they have access to within a short time frame. This will have to be taken forward under the NCAP and what will matter most are the right governing principles, and detailed qualitative and quantitative indicators for strategy development and targeted reduction in each sector at local and regional scale.

NCAP will also have to join all critical dots with clarity. For instance, in case of vehicular pollution, the main body of the plan has ignored mobility, transportation and urban planning strategies, though fortunately, the indicative broadsheet of action at the end has listed public transport, transit-oriented development policies, and non-motorised transport. But these will have to be detailed out with clear pathways and milestones and integrated well with the NCAP strategies.

NCAP will also have to be more nuanced and adopt appropriate approaches for small and big cities according to their dominant pollution profile while several strategies may remain uniform.

Need fiscal strategy

The most baffling part of NCAP is the absence of a robust fiscal and funding strategy. Only a pittance of Rs 300 crore is being earmarked for NCAP. Clearly, NCAP cannot be sustainable nor can it gain strength or make a difference on a longer-term basis if it does not have a clear fiscal strategy. It is also not clear if the proposed allocation is a one-time exercise or a continuous support. NCAP will require long-term commitment and support. The Ministry of Finance will have to be on board to ensure that cross sectoral and inter-ministerial programmes have inbuilt indicators aligned with the NCAP objectives for restructuring of budget and allocation if we want to see serious action and change on ground.

It is very surprising that NCAP has not provided for innovative financing mechanism at central and state/city level. It has not taken on board the ‘polluter pay’ based taxation mechanism to mobilise resources for dedicated funding of pollution control action and also to discourage polluting products, processes and activities. It should have taken precedence from emerging practices in the country—pollution cess in Delhi on truck entry, big diesel cars, and diesel fuel sales and the coal cess—to generate dedicated funds to finance clean air action plan. Such funds should be managed through unified window for the purpose of admissible pollution control activities identified in the action plan. Without a funding strategy, NCAP will become a simple wish list and a statement of intent.

Health on board

Even though NCAP continues to express skepticism about the existing health impact studies and evidences, it is encouraging to see that it has finally proposed support for health impact studies. This was completely missing in the original draft plan. NCAP has now taken on board the National Health Environmental Profile of 20 cities that the MoEF&CC initiated along with the Indian Council of Medical Research with special focus on air pollution and health. It has asked the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to maintain health database and integrate that with decision making. It has recommended support for studies on health and economic impact of air pollution. But NCAP must also make it explicit and give the commitment that the action planning under the aegis of NCAP and the MOEF&CC will also integrate health database, health impact, cost benefit studies and indicators for policy making. 

Need decisive action

That’s what matters at the end. The only reason why there is a resounding chorus and deep public interest in binding air quality targets with an effective accountability framework is because there has to be zero tolerance for health emergency.

Air pollution is the top killer today. Under-5 children, the ailing, elderly and the poor are most vulnerable. Air pollution control cannot remain only policy intent. Local and national action requires teeth and grit to make a difference and save lives. 

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