The cost of clearing the air

Context: In February, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a ₹4,400 crore package for 2020-21 to tackle air pollution in 102 of India’s most polluted cities.

More on news:

  • The funds would be used to reduce particulate matter by 20%-30% from 2017 levels by 2024 under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP).
  • It was the largest yearly allocation by a government to specifically tackle air pollution.

What is the scale of the problem?

  • Unclear scale: It is unclear if this amount is adequate to handle the task of improving air quality. Delhi, after being the epitome of pollution, has only in the last two years managed to firmly install an extensive network of continuous ambient air quality monitors.
  • About 37 and the highest in the country managed by several government or allied bodies.
  • It has also managed to conduct source apportionment studies to determine the degree of pollution that is contributed by its own activities (construction, road dust, vehicle movement) and that brought on from external sources such as stubble burning. Though the data is not enough.
  • Insufficient allocations: The taxpayer money that has actually gone into it far exceeds allocations that find mention in the Centre and State government’s budgeting books.
  • Funds expenditure: Several of the States with the most polluted cities that have been allotted NCAP funds are expected to spend a substantial fraction in the act of measurement. Maharashtra and U.P., by virtue of their size, got the maximum funds: close to ₹400 crore.
  • An analysis by research agencies :Carbon Copy and Respirer Living Sciences recently found that only 59 out of 122 cities had PM 2.5 data available.
  • Use of manual machine: Cites have used manual machines to measure specified pollutants and their use has been inadequate. Only three States, had all their installed monitors providing readings from 2016 to 2018.
  • Prior to 2016, data aren’t publicly available making comparisons of reduction strictly incomparable.
  • Manual machine replacement: Now manual machines are being replaced by automatic ones and India is still largely reliant on imported machines though efforts are underway at institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur to make and install low-cost ones.

Do these budgetary allocations help?

  • Budgetary allocations alone don’t reflect the true cost :
  • A Right to Information disclosure sourced by the research agencies revealed that for four cities in Maharashtra ₹40 crore had been assigned.
  • Pollution clean-up activities have been assigned 50% of this budget and another ₹11 crore are allotted for mechanical street sweepers.
  • Depending on the specific conditions in every city, these proportions are likely to change.
  • In the case of the National Capital Region: at least ₹600 crore was spent by the Ministry of Agriculture over two years to provide subsidised equipment to farmers in Punjab and Haryana and dissuade them from burning paddy straw.
  • Yet this year, there have been more farm fires than the previous year and their contribution to Delhi’s winter air remain unchanged.

Way forward

  • While funds are critical, proper enforcement, adequate staff and stemming the sources of pollution on the ground are vital to the NCAP meeting its target.
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