‘We need to take a relook at our air pollution standards’

Down To Earth speaks to NEERI director, Rakesh Kumar on India’s air pollution standards

By Shagun
Published: Friday 06 September 2019


National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) Director Rakesh Kumar, who was one of the experts who formulated the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), has stressed on the need for more studies to find linkages between health and environment. These studies, he says, could be then used to relook at the country's air pollution standards. Edited excerpts from an interview:

There are some studies that establish the link between air pollution and mortality. The Global Burden of Disease report and Indian Council of Medical Research’s study talk about this. What kind of studies do we need further from here and how can they help?

These kind of studies are normally done over a period of five or ten years. So, in these cases, it is like a snapshot, one time data which just gives a glimpse of the whole thing.

A health study has to be over a shorter period of time and should record morbidity and mortality, both of which are very specific to certain locations. Since India is very diverse, we need to have data sets across the country. 

The current national ambient air quality standards were last notified in 2009 and it has been 10 years since then. Do you think it is time to have a relook at our air pollution standards again?

Yes, we need a relook based on new evidence and information. We need to look at the numbers we have for different parameters and relook at the methods of monitoring we do. A lot of advances have happened in terms of what kind of monitoring techniques should be used.

Another thing that is critical is the averaging time we consider. Some places consider 24 hours, some eight hours, some annual averages. So we need to relook at averaging time of specifying the standards. The ones notified in 2009 are not wrong but we need to look at them all over again based on the new studies. 

NCAP came into force in January 2019. Some assessments have shown that the actual reduction target needed in most cities is much higher than the NCAP target.

Every city has a different programme and capability. The NCAP target is a given basic minimum. One can always exceed it. Of course, one knows that requirement is much higher but if we do not take smaller steps, we can't take giant steps.

The intention of NCAP is to achieve what can be done with what is available. But we must also have programmes to do more than what is estimated, depending on each city's capability. 

NCAP for now is more like an advisory and lacks room for tighter action. Also, there are no provisions for penalty if targets are not met. Do you see it succeeding in meeting the set targets? 

The implementation and monitoring team in each city will have to take a call on where to be stringent and where to be relaxed. A penalty may or may not work every time. Air pollution is an outcome of different sources.

If it was one single source, say vehicles, then you can target or punish but in my opinion, any penalty will lead to chaos rather than solving the problem.

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