People walk along a road near India Gate amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on October 25 after Diwali revellers defied a firecracker ban to celebrate the annual Hindu festival. Photo: AFP
The View
by Deepa Padmanaban
The View
by Deepa Padmanaban

India must follow China’s lead in showing political will to fight air pollution

  • India’s capital continues to struggle with air pollution, putting the health of millions at risk as winter brings the prospect of toxic smog
  • It is imperative that India’s local governments implement policies that improve public health and hold violators accountable
Despite several efforts to tackle air pollution, India’s New Delhi continues to be the world’s most polluted capital city. As winter approaches, millions across Delhi and much of north India will struggle to breathe as the air turns deadly because of high concentrations of particulate pollution which cause smog.
In November 2017, the toxic smog reached such high levels that it caused a health emergency, with schools, industries and airports shutting down. There has been no respite from the smog, which is now an annual occurrence.

Last month, the city’s chief minister announced measures to tackle the smog in Delhi and surrounding areas. The Graded Response Action Plan is an emergency response to be enforced depending on the severity of pollution, but it is not a preventive measure.

Not long ago, Beijing was one of the most polluted cities in the world. In January 2013, Beijing and many parts of China experienced severe pollution. The high levels of PM2.5 particulate matter – an air pollutant that can be damaging to health if inhaled – were similar to the Delhi episode of 2017.
This proved a turning point in China’s long fight against air pollution. In September 2013, the government issued a five-year national-level action plan on the prevention and control of air pollution.
Measures included reducing discharges of multiple pollutants, increasing the supply of clean energy, setting targets for PM2.5 levels in Beijing and other key cities, and policy interventions for burning straw and crop stubble, residential cooking, industries and vehicle emissions. These were all major sources of PM2.5 pollution.


New Delhi shuts schools for a week as toxic smog blankets India’s capital

New Delhi shuts schools for a week as toxic smog blankets India’s capital

China also promoted the reuse of the residual straw for soil enhancement and animal feed. This led to a 46.9 per cent decrease in PM2.5 levels from stubble burning activities by 2018, compared to 2013, and a straw residue reutilisation rate of 96 per cent.

In north India, stubble burning is a major contributor to the winter smog. Solutions such as cash compensation for farmers have had limited success as governments do not have adequate budgets. Efforts to reuse stubble have been dismal, with a rate of just 6 per cent in the state of Punjab, the biggest generator of stubble.
To tackle industrial emissions, Chinese provincial governments set targets for emissions control and local governments conducted routine emission monitoring. Local government officials and managers of state-owned enterprises were held accountable for implementing air quality management plans.

In India, central and state-level pollution boards set regulations and emissions standards for different categories of industry in 2014. However, notification and enforcement of the standards were delayed. This year, 17 categories of polluting industries received mandates to install continuous emissions monitoring systems in an effort to improve enforcement, but compliance has been slow.


Toxic smog smothers New Delhi as stubble burning outside Indian capital worsens problem

Toxic smog smothers New Delhi as stubble burning outside Indian capital worsens problem
Emissions from the transport sector have been a major source of pollutants in Beijing and Delhi. Both China and India have scrapped old commercial vehicles, promoted public transport, improved fuel quality and offered subsidies for electric vehicles. However, vehicles continue to be a top source of air pollution in the two capitals.
Beijing saw a notable improvement in air quality after the formation of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei regional air quality coordination group. A large share of PM2.5 pollution in Beijing originates from other areas such as Tianjin, Hebei and other cities which together form the Jing-Jin-Ji region.

To ensure cross-jurisdictional coordination for the entire regional airshed, the government created special working panels to coordinate joint meetings and develop regional plans for joint monitoring and enforcement of regional pollution issues. The coordination group included officials across districts and ministries. As a result of this massive coordination, air quality improved, with significant reductions in PM2.5 concentrations.

What India can learn from China’s resolve in cleaning its urban air

Like China, India also has to deal with transboundary pollution. About 46 per cent of air pollution in 22 regions originates in another Indian state. Around half of the PM2.5 pollution in Delhi comes from other states, mostly from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
Several experts have recommended regional airshed management similar to that in China for tackling air pollution. For such a platform to operate, interstate councils need to be set up to develop and enforce regional air quality monitoring systems. A Commission for Air Quality Management was set up in August to carry out clean air plans for Delhi and the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, but there hasn’t been much action so far.

Uttar Pradesh recently proposed the adoption of an airshed action plan. Speaking at the India Clean Air Summit in August, the state’s environment chief Ashish Tiwari said interventions that were identified with the World Bank’s help would be implemented in the next few years.


Hindu festival Diwali leaves Indian capital choking in heavy smog

Hindu festival Diwali leaves Indian capital choking in heavy smog
India still has a long way to go in its efforts to mitigate air pollution. Average PM2.5 values have steadily increased across the country in the past decade. In 2019, air pollution in India caused the premature death of more than a million people.

While Beijing has yet to fully meet global air quality standards, the strong political will exemplified in the 2013 plan has improved the lives of its citizens. Years of life lost from premature death due to PM2.5 exposure in key cities dropped between 2013 and 2017. It is imperative that Indian governments also exhibit the political will and adopt policies to improve public health and hold violators accountable.

Deepa Padmanaban is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru, India, writing on environment, climate change, science, health and wildlife conservation