Why Election Promises To Cut India’s Air Pollution Are Not Enough

“Not all election promises get fulfilled,” said Hem Dholakia, senior research associate, Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Police officers stand guard at the India Gate monument shrouded in smog in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
Police officers stand guard at the India Gate monument shrouded in smog in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

For the first time, air pollution--the seventh-largest risk factor for death in India, killing 1.24 million people in 2017--finds a mention in party manifestos in the 2019 general election of the world’s largest democracy, home to 14 of the planet’s 20 most polluted cities.

But the promise of the Bharatiya Janata Party to turn the National Clean Air Programme into a “mission” and reducing air pollution levels by 35 percent--from the current target of 30 percent--by 2024, and the Congress’s promise of strengthening the NCAP and declaring a “national health emergency” are not enough, said experts.

In its current form, the NCAP is flawed because it lacks a legal mandate, does not have clear timelines and does not fix accountability for failure, IndiaSpend reported on Feb. 6.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist promised to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases through regulation and energy efficiency in all sectors but does not mention air pollution.

“It is a step towards creating a democratic demand for clean air,” Hem Dholakia, senior research associate, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi-based think-tank, told IndiaSpend. “However, not all election promises get fulfilled.”

That air pollution featured in the manifestos of political parties indicates improved awareness and some intent to resolve the issue, said Sumit Sharma, director, earth science and climate change division of The Energy and Resources Institute, a Delhi think-tank.

“Other than general elections, the coverage of the issue could be more significant at the state and city level elections, especially for the states and cities where the levels are extremely high,” said Sharma.

In India, air pollution fails to alarm public representatives.

Members of parliament from 14 Indian cities--including Kanpur, Varanasi, Delhi, Jaipur, Srinagar, Patna and Lucknow--all among the world’s top 20 most-polluted cities, ranked by the World Health Organization, largely remained “inactive” and “silent” on the issue, according to an April 2019 report titled “Political Leaders Position and Action on Air Quality in India” by Climate Trends, a Delhi-based advocacy.

Why Election Promises To Cut India’s Air Pollution Are Not Enough

The Manifestos And Toxic Air

The BJP’s promise of turning NCAP into a “mission”, which means institutionalising it better and increasing accountability at the Centre, is not enough because the NCAP has several limitations: it does not address ineffective regulatory capacity, takes a city-by-city approach, ignoring rural areas and industrial regions and fails to outline a “forward-looking strategy” that tackles the major sources of pollution, said Santosh Harish, fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think-tank.

“Given these limitations in the current NCAP, I am not sure how much difference it would make as a mission, and, therefore, I felt that the BJP manifesto could have been more ambitious,” said Harish. The Congress manifesto does “a good job of signaling intent and urgency”, he added. By recognising air pollution as a national public-health emergency, it is the first such recognition of the true scale of the problem, something absent even from the NCAP.

The Congress manifesto also promises to set up an independent and overarching Environment Protection Authority, replacing other existing institutions.

“I am not sure whether a new authority will be any more effective than the current agencies,” said Harish. “But it’s promising that they recognise that substantial structural changes may be needed to reform the institutions and make them in their words, ‘independent, empowered and transparent’."

Dholakia of CEEW, however, believed that both strategies could be more ambitious if India has to achieve its national ambient air quality standards by 2030.

Most states will achieve significant improvements in air quality only through reductions in surrounding areas, said Dholakia, quoting an independent March 2019 CEEW study in collaboration with the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis. “Therefore,” he added, “We will require regionally coordinated approaches.”

Measures that prioritise development can also lead to air-quality improvements in India, even if they are not primarily targeted at air pollution, said experts. These measures often fall under the jurisdiction of departments where air-quality managers are not represented and do not have policy frameworks that prioritise air quality. These include economic and social development, energy or agricultural policies or urban management, said Dholakia.

If combined with advanced technical emission controls, such development measures could provide NAAQS-compliant air quality to about 85 percent of the Indian population, said Dholakia. To meet even some of these promises, the new government will need to be “truly committed” to a “low-carbon pathway”, greater political will, better implementation and enforcement and more investment in monitoring, he added.

Clean Air Not A Popular Demand

Air pollution does not appear to be a public priority in India.

An analysis of the news and social media posts over a three-year period show poor public understanding of the major causes and the solutions for air pollution, according to a March 2019 study titled Hazy Perceptions, by Vital Strategies, a global health advocacy.

The Vital Strategies study examined 500,000 news and social media posts in 11 countries from South and Southeast Asia to gauge public understanding about the causes of and solutions to air pollution over three years to 2018. Their main findings:

  • Public understanding of the long-term health consequences of poor air quality is low. News and social media posts largely mention short-term health impacts such as coughing or itchy eyes, far more than health threats caused by chronic exposure, such as cancer.
  • Public discourse does not centre on the most important drivers of air pollution. The most important sources of pollutants, such as household fuels, power plants and waste burning, receive less public concern than sources such as vehicular emissions.
  • Public discussions tend to focus on short-term remedies. Conversations about short-term personal protection such as wearing face masks are much more common than ones on long-term solutions such as bans on trash burning.
  • The conversation is driven by seasonal variations in air quality. Air pollution is most frequently discussed from September through December, when air quality is worsened by the winter season and crop burning practices adopted by farmers. This poses a challenge for engaging the public to support effective air pollution control, which requires year-round, sustained measures.

Why does the perception of the larger masses matter? “Political manifestos generally respond to the demands from the society, and good air quality is not something which is yet demanded at a priority by masses in the country,” said Sharma of TERI adding that this is mainly due to limited awareness on status and impacts of air pollution and the presence of other immediate important issues.

Why Election Promises To Cut India’s Air Pollution Are Not Enough

(Tripathi is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

This copy was published in a special arrangement with IndiaSpend.