Union government needs to focus on clean air

According to the State Of Global Air Report 2019, 12 lakh people are dying prematurely due to toxic air and dying 2.6 years earlier in India

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Friday 24 May 2019
Union government needs to focus on clean air. Photo: Getty Images

India has re-elected its government. But does the mandate signal new politics that can work for clean air and public health? While concern over toxic air has disturbed a section of the electorate, it has not quite shaped the electoral choices. But the charged rhetoric and growing shrillness of public opinion around the unacceptable number of premature deaths and illnesses due to toxic air have at least forced mainstream political parties to make Manifesto promises to fight clean air. Good sign. But now the time of reckoning has come — to prove that the electoral promises translate into political will and a political mandate for real action, while the opposition needs to hold them accountable for delivery.

Promises to keep

For the first time in a Parliamentary election, key mainstream political parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress and Aam Admi Party (AAP) — have acknowledged air pollution and pledged to fight toxic air. They individually laid out several measures — though with varying level of details.

The BJP had promised to convert the National Clean Air Plan into a Mission and focus on 102 polluted cities and to reduce pollution levels by 35 per cent. The Congress recognised air pollution as a national public health emergency and had proposed to strengthen national clean air programme to target all major sources of air pollution. The AAP promised to bring electric buses, augment bus numbers, promote non-motorised transport, and deal with construction and road dust. Are these promises enough to bring change?

Need political mandate: The new government is taking over at a time when as per the State Of Global Air Report 2019, 12 lakh people are dying prematurely due to toxic air and dying 2.6 years earlier in India. All states show comparable number of premature deaths per 100,000 population. Air pollution is the top killer today. Children under-five, ailing, elderly and the poor are the most vulnerable. The new political mandate is to save these preventable deaths.

What is the new political agenda for clean air?

Acknowledge health emergency: Even as the party manifestos have made promises, their electoral speeches have often smacked of denial.  While the BJP expressed skepticism about health impact studies and evidences, AAP understated the problem dismissing it as an affair of few days when farmers burn agricultural stubble in Punjab and Haryana. But, the new government cannot be in denial anymore.

The new central government and the existing state governments will have to understand that disease burden in India is expected to be high because of increased exposure; high incidence of poverty, malnutrition and poor health status; and widespread use of dirty fuel and low level of technologies. Risks could be higher not less.

Need compliance model: The new avtaar of the ongoing National Clean Air Programme cannot be based on the principle of ‘cooperative and participatory initiative’ anymore. It is required under the Environment Protection Act or any other Act to have a firm mandate with a strong legal back up for cities and regions to implement plans in a time bound manner for effective reduction. During these distressed times, this extra edge of authority is needed to protect lives.  

At the same time the central government will have to ensure inter-ministerial coordination for multi-sectoral interventions and convergence of national programme to align with the air quality target and objectives.

Need higher level of ambition at local and regional level: Even though the polling has taken place at the national level, the central government cannot resort to only top down prescription but adopt more enabling programmes and funding strategies for higher level of ambition at the state level and go beyond the common minimum national programme.

Several cities and regions will require much deeper cuts in pollution. In fact, the existing pollution control laws — both Air Act and Water Act — do permit the state governments to go beyond the minimal national standards to set tighter standards if the local situation demands so.

Need effective solutions: Air pollution reduction target will require cities and regions to adopt scale, depth and stringent action with detailed pathways for clean energy and mobility transition, waste and dust management and control of combustion sources. This will require strong multi-tiered accountability system to hold implementing agencies accountable and responsible.

Following the order of National Green Tribunal, 102 cities have already started to prepare their first baseline action plans based on whatever data and expertise they can access. This will have to be taken forward with the right governing principles, detailed qualitative and quantitative indicators for strategy development for each sector for effective reduction.

Set the agenda for action: Immediately speed up multi-sectoral action. The need is to ensure timely implementation of BSVI emissions standards in April 2020 and control of real world emissions from vehicles on roads to cut vehicular pollution, support integrated public transport system along with walking and cycling infrastructure and bring in zero emissions mandate for quick change over to electric mobility.

In the industry sector, quick implementation of new power plant standards, new nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide standards for 34 group of industries, eliminating dirty fuel streams, controlling fugitive emissions from small scale industries and getting all brick kilns to improve kiln technology should be the focus.

Enforce strong deterrence for non-compliance. Use innovative health-based strategies for 100 per cent coverage of households with clean fuels of LPG and electricity. Promote natural gas across sectors and renewable energy aggressively. Strengthen municipal services for segregation and recycling of waste to prevent waste burning. Scale up strategies for dust control and recycling of construction and demolition waste. Need local controls in stone crushers and mining areas and strengthen forest protection and plantation for green walling.

Fund the transition: The National clean air programme requires robust fiscal and funding strategy to meet the costs and for longer-term sustainability and affordability of the schemes.

It is not only about finding new money but also restructuring of the on-going investments and budgets of different ministries and departments to ensure cross-sectoral and inter-ministerial programmes that are aligned with the clean air programme objectives.

Both central and state governments will have to adopt ‘polluter pay’ based taxation mechanism to mobilise resources for dedicated funding of pollution control action and also to discourage polluting products, processes and activities. For instance, in Delhi, an environment pollution charge is slapped on entry of each truck, on purchase of each big diesel car and SUV as well as on each litre of diesel fuel sold. This revenue then funds clean air programme. Without a funding strategy the national clean air programme will become a simple wish list.

Just do it

The electoral message is clear. The government will have to ensure accountability framework and zero tolerance for health emergency. Air pollution control cannot remain only policy intent. This needs grit to save lives.

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