India’s air quality management needs transboundary accountability to be effective

Existing policy levers and lessons from global experiences can help form an airshed-level air quality management framework

By Kalyani Tembhe
Published: Wednesday 08 November 2023
While the twin factors of the winter season and farm stubble burning exacerbate pollution levels in the country, they don’t entirely define the causal relationship of this problem. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE__

Like every year, air quality in the Delhi-National Capital region and surrounding areas has dipped to the ‘severe’ category of the Air Quality Index for the last few days. While news outlets paint the pollution problem — which affects other parts of the Indo-Gangetic Plain too — as a ‘winter’ issue caused by burning farm residue, it is important to understand this is not the case. Air pollution is an all-year, multi-source and multi-pollutant problem and not a seasonal, single-source one.  

State and federal governments have implemented a plethora of seemingly effective initiatives and mandates over the years to combat the winter spike, but to no avail. Every winter, when the wind flow becomes stagnant and surface temperature inversions take place in the northern plains, air pollution levels rise, particularly around the time farmers burn farm residues and Diwali is celebrated. While the twin factors of the winter season and farm stubble burning exacerbate pollution levels, they don’t entirely define the causal relationship of this problem. 

Air pollution dispersal is a well-known phenomenon. When we talk about how stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana affects pollution levels in Delhi-NCR, we address the transboundary dispersive properties of pollution. But despite this awareness, most air pollution mitigation strategies have been city-centric and have repeatedly failed to deliver the desired results. 

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) is one such flagship initiative. While NCAP initiatives are bound by citywide jurisdictional boundaries, air pollution abides by no such limitations. Meanwhile, millions of residents are forced to breathe in dangerous levels of pollutants with no respite.

What more needs to be done?

Pollution mitigation strategies are only as effective as the science behind them. While regulation of local polluting sources is important, it is equally important to mitigate the upwind pollution sources that significantly contribute to a city’s local pollution. 

There is evidence of inter-state transboundary dispersion of air pollution in India. Depending upon the weather and meteorology, the transboundary air pollution received by a state can exceed 50 per cent. Depending on the topography, meteorology and climatic conditions, the transboundary dispersion of air pollution can either worsen or improve the air quality of a region. 

Cross-state air pollution dispersal in India

Source: Xinming Du et al. 2020, Cross-state air pollution transport calls for more centralization in India’s environmental federalism, Atmospheric Pollution Research

Consequently, the cities and the regions downwind of this transboundary dispersion have to address the pollution generated in other regions upwind of them. If a significant amount of the pollution a region faces comes from sources outside of its jurisdiction, it becomes challenging to mitigate air pollution in that area due to limited jurisdictional power. 

The lack of accountability of the upwind jurisdictions in the regulatory proceedings and the limited jurisdictional power of the downwind regions allow the upwind polluters to profit from the pollution-causing activities, while the downwind states have no power to mitigate the sources that are adding to their local air pollution. 

If not addressed, this not only contributes to the regulatory incompetence of the downwind regions but renders pollution mitigation strategies ineffective, which has been proven time and again. While there is an annual slew of analyses highlighting the quantum of transboundary pollution and the corresponding jarring health impacts, it is imperative to integrate these results into drafting a robust transboundary or airshed-level air pollution mitigation framework. 

What is airshed air pollution management

An airshed is defined as a geographic area with common meteorology, topography and climate, which govern the dispersion of its unique air mass. In air quality management, an airshed can be defined and delineated in many ways depending on the type of emissions, topography, meteorology and jurisdictional boundaries. Airshed air quality management brings the entire airshed under one regulatory framework. 

Regional airshed-level air quality management is not a new concept and countries like the United States (US), China and the European Union have already successfully implemented such frameworks

With the exception of the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital and Adjoining Areas (CAQM), the current air quality management in India is predominantly city-centric. Moreover, despite having a regional plan, the CAQM has witnessed lopsided implementation. Uniform implementation of all strategies across the region is required, but due to the lack of a legal or institutional framework for regional air quality management, there is a significant asymmetry in the scale of action across the region. 

Policy levers in India

Despite the lack of an institutional framework for regional implementation, there are certain aspects of the CAQM that form a foundation for an effective regional framework.

The Commission for Air Quality Management in NCR & Adjoining Areas Act, 2021 vested the CAQM with the power to “to take all such measures, issue directions and entertain complaints, as it deems necessary or expedient, for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the air in the National Capital Region and adjoining areas”. The Act recognised the transboundary nature of air pollution and granted a cross-sectoral and cross-jurisdictional authority to CAQM.

Strictly speaking, there is no legal hurdle to implementing a regional air quality management framework. Under the Article 19 of the Air Act, 1981, a state government in consultation with the State Pollution Control Board is vested with power to declare, alter or merge the “Air Pollution Control Area” wherein the provisions of the Act will be applicable within its jurisdiction.

The scope of this provision can be expanded to cover more jurisdictions and pollution sources under a single air quality management framework well within the ambit of the Air Act. 

We can also draw lessons from the airshed-level air quality management frameworks that have been implemented in other parts of the world. Two of such effective frameworks are the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, also called the Good Neighbor Policy) in the US and the Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) in Europe. 

Drawing lessons from global experiences

In 1979, 32 countries in the pan-European region signed the convention on LRTAP, called the Air Convention, within the framework of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe to investigate and address the causal relationship between the long-range transboundary air pollution and the local air pollution episodes on the continent.   

The US implemented the CSAPR in 2016 to address interstate pollution’s impact on downwind air quality after many litigations and policy initiatives.

There are several salient features of these frameworks. For example, accountability is legally binding. The upwind polluting regions are legally bound to address their transboundary pollution to the downwind regions through air pollution mitigation plans and strategies.

There is a separation of scientific and technical activity from the political negotiation process, which has allowed the insulation of the scientific work. Moreover, the contribution of pollution screening threshold to the downwind regions is clearly defined to remove any ambiguity and chances of multiple interpretations. Air quality monitoring networks in the US are also driven by scientific studies and analysis rather than jurisdictional boundaries. 

Like any other legal framework, these two have their own set of issues. The LRTAP lacks a formal procedure for resolving conflicts arising from the interpretation or application of the document.

In the US, the implementation and actions are heavily dependent on the bureaucratic presidential cycles and the willingness of the emitting states to cooperate despite the legal backing of the CSAPR and the Clean Air Act. It was only recently on March 15, 2023 that the EPA implemented limits on nitrogen oxides at power plants and industrial sources under the Good Neighbor Rule. 

The policy levers for regional air quality management have already been laid in the country. Using these provisions as a foundation and drawing lessons from global experiences, an airshed-level air quality management framework can either be integrated within the current Air Act 1981 framework or a new framework can be promulgated. 

This way not only the polluters, both local and transboundary, will be held aptly accountable but, the residents can also hope to see some real change in the air they breathe. 

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