Air Pollution in India

Context: As part of graded action plan against rising air pollution in Delhi, Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) has said private cars will be stopped from plying in Delhi if air pollution continues to worsen.


What is air pollution?

Air pollution is the introduction into the atmosphere of chemicals, particulates, or biological materials that cause discomfort, disease, or death to humans, damage other living organisms, damage natural and built environment

What are air pollutants?

  • A substance in the air that can be adverse to humans and the environment is known as an air pollutant. Pollutants are classified as primary and secondary
  • A primary pollutant is an air pollutant emitted directly from a source.
  • A secondary pollutant is not directly emitted as such, but forms when other pollutants (primary pollutants) react in the atmosphere

Air pollution Scenario in India

  1. According to WHO
  • Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, the top 14 are Indian cities. These include Kanpur, Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna, Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Muzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala, and Jodhpur
  • Delhi’s raking has improved from 4th in 2015 to 6th in 2016.
  • In 2013, 16 Chinese cities (including Beijing) were among the 20 most polluted cities in the world However, there are only 4 Chinese cities among the top 20 in 2016.
  • On the other hand, in 2013, only 3 Indian cities figured among the top 20 which increased to 14 cities in 2016
  1. The Environmental Performance Index (released by World Economic Forum) ranked India 178th out of 180 countries in terms of air quality
  2. According to Central Pollution Control Board data, 11 most polluted cities in country are from Uttar Pradesh. Ghaziabad is the most polluted city in the country followed by Gurugram

Causes/ Source of Air Pollution in India

Outdoor air Pollution

  1. Vehicular pollution mainly due to trucks, tempos and other diesel run vehicles. These vehicles negate the impact of cleaner fuel and emission technology.
  2. Combustion in power plants and industries using dirty fuels, like pet coke, FO and its variants, coal and biomass release hazardous air pollutants
  3. Garbage burning, both in landfills and other places where there is no collection, processing or disposal
  4. Road dust; dust due to construction sites etc., adds to the particulate pollution.
  1. Agricultural activities:
  • Use of insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers in agricultural activities release ammonia which is a major air pollutant
  • Crop residue burning-large-scale burning of crop residues from paddy crop in October-November and then wheat in April in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh contributes significantly to the air pollution in the Delhi NCR Region every year. The climatic conditions during winter aggravate the condition. During the winter, dust particles and pollutants in the air become unable to move. Due to stagnant winds, these pollutants get locked in the air and results in smog

  1. Mining Operations:  During the process of mining, dust and chemicals are released in the air causing massive air pollution.

Indoor air Pollution:

Indoor cooking and heating with biomass fuels (agricultural residues, dung, straw, wood) or coal produces high levels of indoor smoke that contains a variety of air pollutants (Fine and ultrafine particulates, biological aerosols, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), carbon monoxide (CO), oxides of sulphur and nitrogen (SOx and NOx)). Household air pollution also leads to outdoor air pollution and emits a large amount of green-house gases into the atmosphere

Impact of Air Pollution

On Human Health:

  • Air pollution is a significant risk factor for multiple health conditions including respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer
  • As per the Global Burden of Disease comparative risk assessment for 2015, air pollution exposure contributes to approximately 1.8 million premature deaths and 49 million disability adjusted life-years (DALYs) lost in India

On Economy:

  • A study published by the World Bank in 2016 revealed that air pollution cost India approximately 8% of its GDP or $560 billion in 2013, as a result of lost productivity due to premature mortality and morbidity
  • Further, air pollution reduces agricultural crop and commercial forest yields

On environment:

  1. Acid Rain: the combustion of fossil fuels emits nitric oxide and sulphur dioxide, also acidic substances, into the atmosphere which react with airborne water molecules and decrease rainwater pH, leading to the formation of acid rain. Acid rain has following negative impacts:
  • Acidification of water bodies, making them inhospitable for fish.
  • Damage to crops, natural vegetation
  • Changes of soil chemistry, which affects plant metabolism and nutrient cycling
  • Built environment: Acid rain has negative impact on monuments, buildings. Example: Change in colour of Taj Mahal to yellowy brown
  1. Eutrophication of water-bodies: nitrogen emissions from transport and power plants introduce excessive nitrogen loads into freshwater resources. This leads to permanently raised nutrient content and consequent eutrophication
  2. Air pollutants getting deposited on crops, natural vegetation and water resources introduce toxins to the food chain
  3. Ozone depletion: Emissions Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons from various sources is ozone depleting substances
  4. Global Climate Change: Immense quantities of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane released into the air contribute to climate change

India’s approach to curb air pollution:


  1. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981: It provides for the prevention, control and abatement of air pollution and for the establishment of Boards at the Central and State levels with a view to carrying out the aforesaid purposes.
  2. The Environment (Protection) Act,1986 (Air Act): It is an umbrella legislation designed to provide a framework for the co-ordination of central and state authorities established under the Water Act,1974 and Air Act,1981.


  1. National Clean Air Programme: It aims to meet prescribed annual average ambient standards at all locations in the country in a stipulated timeframe. It calls for:
  • Augmentation of existing air quality monitoring network by increasing number of existing manual and continuous monitoring stations,
  • introducing rural monitoring stations,
  • identifying alternative technology for real-time monitoring network
  • augmenting capabilities of existing monitoring stations to measure PM2.5 concentration
  • national-level emission inventory
  1. Launch of National Air Quality index (AQI):
  • The AQI classifies air quality of a day considering criteria pollutants through colour codes and air quality descriptor. Further, it also links air quality with likely human health impacts.
  • The index measures eight major pollutants, namely, particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, ammonia and lead.
  1. Dust Mitigation Plan: Centre has notified Dust Mitigation Plan under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to arrest dust pollution.
  2. Measures to curb vehicular pollution:
  • In March 2017, the Supreme Court banned the sale of BS III vehicles in the country. The court ordered that from April 1, 2017 onwards only BS IV would be registered in India
  • The Indian government has decided to skip BS-V and directly move to BS-VI from 2020. It has further agreed to advance the proposed date for Euro-VI from 2026 to 2020
  • Indian Government plans to have an all-electric fleet of vehicles by 2030. For promotion of electric vehicles FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (hybrid &) Electric vehicles scheme has been launched
  • ODD& EVEN Scheme in Delhi: Under the scheme, cars with license plates ending in an odd number and even number are allowed to ply on alternate days. The scheme aims to cut down vehicular traffic by half, thereby reducing air pollution.
  1. Measures to curb industrial pollution:
  • The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has laid down the maximum permissible limits for different pollutants for many categories of industries that contribute to air pollution. The standards have been notified by MoEFCC under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986.
  • In October 2017, The Supreme Court banned the use of pet coke and Furnace Oil for combustion in the states of Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh
  1. Measures to curb indoor air pollution:
  • The government launched Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna to replace unclean cooking fuels used in the most underprivileged households with clean and more efficient LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas). A major objective of the scheme is to ensure smoke-free houses and thus curb indoor air pollution.
  1. Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for Delhi-NCR:
  • In pursuant with Supreme Court’s order in the M. C. Mehta vs. Union of India (2016) regarding air quality in National Capital Region of Delhi, a Graded Response Action Plan was notified by MoEFCC.
  • Under GRAP, there are 4 stages of pollution – Moderate to Poor, Very Poor, Severe and Severe+ or Emergency and action are listed that need to be undertaken as the levels are breached.
  1. Comprehensive action Plan:
  • In February 2017, The Supreme Court directed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) to work on a comprehensive action plan (CAP) for air pollution control.
  • CAP lists medium and long-term actions for all pollution sources for Delhi and NCR
  1. Hawa Badlo App:The “Hawa Badlo App” introduced by EPCA allows people of Delhi NCR to report incidences of air pollution through it.
  2. SC Directives on fire crackers:
  • In October 2017, the Supreme court ordered a ban on sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR in order to curb rising air pollution.
  • In 2018, the SC banned sale and use of polluting firecrackers and urged citizens to resort to green firecracker. The apex court further restricted burning of firecrackers only two hours on festival days



  • A major hurdle in addressing air pollution is poverty. Poverty ridden households are still dependent on cook stoves, heating fuel, and kerosene lighting which are all common sources of pollution.
  • Further, though air pollution affects all, but the poorest and most marginalized people are worst affected and air pollution related deaths occur mostly in poorest households

Governance: Poor governance is also a major challenge in curbing air pollution since lax enforcement of standards for car exhausts, crop burning, or dust from construction sites leads to more particulates in the air.


  • Cities can ban pollution sources like brick kilns from within their boundaries however, they can’t stop pollutants from blowing over from the perimeter from stubble burning, polluting industries etc.
  • Controlling this kind of pollution requires coordinating across city and provincial boundaries over a geographic region, but there is complete lack of coordination between administration of different states or between rural-urban areas.

Technological challenges: major technological challenges include Old technology and High average age of vehicles, obsolete technology used in industries etc.

Lack of adequate public transport: Inadequate public transport and increasing number of private vehicles pose a serious challenge to curb vehicular pollution in Indian cities. A CSE study points out that the share of public transport is expected to decrease from 75.5% in 2000-01, to 44.7 per cent in 2030-31, while the share of personal transport will be more than 50%

Lack of public participation: Lack of awareness among people and an inadequate public participation in air pollution control programs is a major issue which affects the effectiveness of policies and programmes

Inadequate data: Data on air pollution is grossly inadequate and monitoring does not have all India coverage. Further, there is lack of indigenous studies establishing the correlation between exposure to air pollution and human health.

International Best practice- China:

  • China has been taking systematic and coordinated approach to managing air pollution and has been implementing Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (APPCAP) (2013-2017). In the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, PM2.5 levels have decreased by 27% between 2013 and 2016.
  • China is rapidly scaling back capacity for coal-fired power and steel. It is also soliciting foreign investment in green energy technologies, and has intensified inspections of major polluters around Beijing.
  • To combat vehicle exhaust smoke, which is responsible for one-third of Beijing’s emissions, an annual quota of 150,000 new cars was established for 2017, with 60,000 allotted only to fuel efficient cars. The quota system will limit the total number of cars plying on Beijing roads
  • It is also aiming to reduce coal consumption from the current 11 million tons per year to fewer than 5 million by 2020.

Way Forward

  1. It is important to strengthen public transport and encourage people to use public transport. The odd-even scheme in case of Delhi should be applied without any exemptions. For example: when the odd-even road rationing formula was tried in Mexico City, any vehicle that did not qualify was banned. Unlike in India, there were no exemptions for women, and other sections.
  2. Emphasis should be laid on reducing emissions from thermal power plants and industry by instituting strong emissions standards. There should be strong monitoring and enforcement system that ensures limits are met and excess emissions lead to punishments.
  3. Both in-situ crop residue management and creation of infrastructure and market for the use and management of stubble outside of the field (ex-situ management) should be used. Government should incentivise the use of machines like happy seeder to curb pollution from stubble burning.
  4. Measures should be taken for building and improving proper waste management systems and efforts should be made to reduce, reuse and recycle waste
  5. Research and development backed with adequate funding should be encouraged to develop and promote green technologies.
  6. Massive thrust should be provided to mass awareness campaigns involving community organisations such as resident’s associations, students, voluntary bodies and NGOs.
  7. There is a dire need for political will for effective implementation of environmental regulations and ensure coordination among all stakeholders
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