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Why NCAP is a non-starter in tackling Delhi's alarming air pollution levels

The air in more than 100 cities in India has been polluted beyond the legally-binding national ambient air quality standards for almost a decade. Air pollution in Delhi and several north-Indian cities has exceeded these legal standards by more than 300 per cent in the past few years. 

Yet on January 10, the government launched its much awaited ‘National Clean Air Programme’ or the NCAP with a “tentative” target of curbing pollution across these cities by just 20-30 per cent in five years. This means, even if the target is met, the air pollution in Delhi and the National Capital Region would remain close to thrice the legal standards even by 2024. 

The national Ambient Air Quality Standards were set in 2009 under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act or the Air Act of 1981. The government is legally required to keep air pollution in check at all locations in the country to meet these standards. The NCAP has not set a timeline for the polluted cities to meet these standards. “That (meeting the standards) will take a lot of time. We have not decided a date for it,” said C K Mishra, Secretary at the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change.  

According to the official documents reviewed by Business Standard, the government had in 2017 decided to put a target of 50 per cent reduction in pollution in five years through the NCAP. By the time final version of the programme was prepared, the target was revised to 20-30 per cent.  

When asked why the government has not come up with more ambitious pollution-reduction targets, Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Harsh Vardhan, said, “We are doing whatever is technically possible and feasible. There is no simple button to meet the targets. Twenty to thirty per cent is our expectation. Sometimes we have exceeded our targets in the past.”

The NCAP also does not have sectoral break-up of the target or city-wise action plans to achieve the 20-30 per cent pollution reduction in five years. The ministry has said such plans are being formulated. The government has allocated Rs 300 crore for the programme for two years to establish new air quality monitoring stations, provide technology support and capacity building to authorities, creating awareness, building pollution database and conducting research on sources of pollution in various cities. 

Over a year of drafting

File notings from the environment ministry show it had prepared the concept note of the NCAP by August 2017. It first announced the programme in Parliament in December 2017 responding the public outcry over the winter pollution that choked Delhi and other north-Indian cities that year. Over the next one year, it announced several deadlines to launch the programme, but missed them all. 

It is only after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) reprimanded the government in October, over the delay in launching the NCAP, that the government has finally come out with the programme. The NGT asked the ministry to formulate the city-level action plans for all 102 polluted cities by January 31. The ministry officials said they were reviewing the city plans. 

Meanwhile, Delhi has faced another winter with worse levels of pollutions. A recent study by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kanpur has revealed that concentration of particulate matter (PM) 2.5, the air pollutant that chokes the airways to the lungs, in Delhi in December 2018 was worse than what it was in December of last five years.

Asked what took so long for the government to finalise the plan, Harsh Vardhan said, “It is not that no work was being done to control air pollution all this while. All our programmes have been going on. The finalisation of the NCAP was just a matter of putting it on the document.” 

Continuing violations

According to the National Air Quality Standards under the Air Act, the government needs to ensure that the concentration of PM10 is not more than 60 micrograms per cubic meter and that of PM2.5 is not more 60 micrograms per cubic meter. The government data suggests these standards have been constantly violated in 102 cities in the past 10 years. In 2017, Delhi had annual PM10 concentration of 241 micrograms per cubic meter which was four times the legal limit. 

Taking “cognizance of the alarming situation,” the NGT has said in its October 8, 2018 order that “once the standards have been laid down in the statutory provisions of the Air Act, 1981, all the authorities as well as citizens are statutorily bound to follow the said standards.” 

It also ordered that “all the States and Union Territories with non-attainment cities (the cities violating the national standards) must prepare appropriate action plans...aimed at bringing the standards of air quality within the prescribed norms within six months from date of finalisation of the action plans.”

While it may not be practically possible for polluting cities to meet the air quality standards in six months, the environment ministry has not framed even a long-term timeline for it. 

Centre has powers to act

The law gives blanket powers to the environment ministry to take emergency and long-term steps to tackle any kind of environmental pollution. 

Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law but subject to the provisions of this Act, the Central Government may, in the exercise of its powers and performance of its functions under this Act, issue directions in writing to any person, officer or any authority and such person, officer or authority shall be bound to comply with such direction.”  

These powers extend to closing, prohibiting or regulating any industry, operation or process. The ministry has, in fact, exercised these powers in the past, shutting down factories and other projects to avoid water, air and soil pollution, although, more often than not, it has done so on the directions of the courts. For maintaining national air quality standards in the cities, however, government has not taken such measures yet. 

In contrast, the ministry has dragged feet on implementing the pollution regulation that it has already formulated. Take for instance the case of legally binding emission standards for the thermal power plants. 

According to the ministry’s regulation of 2015, more than the 500 existing thermal power plants, were required to meet strict pollution emission standards by December 2017. But, none complied with them entirely. The ministry since then has tried to dilute the standards and has asked the Supreme Court to extend the deadline by up to five years.