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HomeOpinionMunicipal corporations should be on the frontlines of India’s air pollution battle

Municipal corporations should be on the frontlines of India’s air pollution battle

Citizens, civil society, and industry should be at the heart of any intervention designed to mitigate air pollution. Local governments must engage with citizens.

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Air pollution is a growing public concern that requires progressive policy making, as well as consistent implementation and clearly defined goals. Even though the Union government has sought to address the issue, India is far from witnessing a significant reduction in air pollution levels. According to a recent report Air Quality and Health in Cities – by the State of Global Air, India has 18 of the 20 cities with the highest increase in PM2.5 pollution from 2010 to 2019.

New Delhi and Kolkata are the world’s two most polluted cities, with PM2.5 levels in ambient air exceeding the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) recommended annual average of 40µg/m3 by more than double. The foremost reason for the off-track performance is the limited capacity of municipal corporations and district subdivision administrations, which are tasked with driving approximately 60 per cent of on-the-ground activities mandated by programmes such as the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). Improving the current situation of the local government is a long haul, though a few steps can certainly be considered to achieve tangible results to improve ambient air quality. 

Also read: Increased stubble burning in Punjab becomes serious environmental concern in Delhi, NCR

Policy and programmatic push

The Narendra Modi government’s decision  to seek multiple sources of funding to improve air quality is a welcome step. For example, the 15th Finance Commission acknowledged the need for clean air and recommended grants of approximately Rs 12,000 crore to cities with a population of over a million until fiscal year 2025-26. It is certainly reflective of the government’s will to address air pollution, however, it has yielded limited visible outputs.

Independent analyses of air pollution data reveal that after three years of NCAP, only a marginal reduction in pollution levels has been observed in the targeted cities. According to experts, most of the cities mandated to submit their respective city action plans have simply replicated each other’s initiatives, resulting in a lack of a local approach and thus defying the basic principle.

Furthermore, some reports and experts say that the local governments have either underspent or diverted the majority of funds toward construction and maintenance of road infrastructure because the popular belief is that dust control is associated with air pollution. 

Also read: Carbon market in India is long time coming. But Modi govt can learn from these mistakes

What needs to be done?

Air pollution control’s all-encompassing nature necessitates a collaborative inter-sectoral and decentralised governance approach that can be best achieved by enhancing the efficiency of municipal corporations and district subdivision administrations in below mentioned ways:

First, citizens, civil society, and industry should be at the heart of any intervention designed to mitigate air pollution. Local governments must be encouraged to engage with citizens because hyperlocal solutions can only succeed if local stakeholders are alert and vigilant. There are multiple ways to engage them from reporting adverse incidents on the tech interface to unleashing the power of volunteerism. The local forums can not only be the eyes and ears of municipal bodies but can also contribute to waste management at the ward level to a great extent.

For example, in Guwahati, civil society has collaborated with municipal corporations to provide door-to-door waste collection and disposal of biomedical waste for 300 government and private hospitals since 2003. We need to locate and upscale such working models. 

Second, municipal corporations and district subdivision administrations, as well as institutions like Pollution Control Boards (PCBs), require adequate and well-trained human resources and infrastructure to effectively mitigate the dynamic issue of air pollution. Interactions with them reveal that their information on visible sources of pollution is mostly up to date, but they lack know-how on how to address it. Another phenomenon that keeps surfacing is the lack of awareness on source apportionment studies beyond PCB offices.  Therefore, it is imperative to conduct capacity-building programmes where the officials are trained to align priorities, enabling them to implement feasible local solutions. 

Third, the indicators and the framework for the 15th Finance Commission grants need to be revisited to induce sustainable changes at the community level. Currently, from the financial year 2022-23, only those cities which can reflect improvement in the air quality (i.e. increase in the number of good days and reduction in PM10 annual average concentration) would be entitled to the 15th Finance Commission performance-based grants. The approach entirely discards incentives for the essentials such as building a robust monitoring framework. 

The better-performing cities also receive incentive funds from the share deducted from non-performing cities. Prime facie, it’s a healthy competition. However, if the unintended consequences are interpreted correctly, cities that fail to meet the targets despite receiving an unconditional upfront first tranche are further pushed into deprivation because they are not eligible for subsequent grants. Also, in competition to claim incentives, cities might compromise on the reported data. 

Lastly, factors like population, nature of economic activities, and geography make every city unique. Therefore, each city should have its local sources of pollution identified for its customised address. The NCAP mandates local governments to undertake source apportionment and emission inventory studies to assess the contribution of sources. However, as per the latest data, only 37 out of 132 non-attainment cities under NCAP have completed such studies. Any efforts in the absence of such local study might not be that effective. It’s high time to reinforce the need of completing such studies promptly to have a localised strategy.  

The issue of air pollution is a dynamic recurring phenomenon that can only be abated by the urban local bodies. The Modi government needs to identify the specific lacunas thwarting the realisation of the 74th amendment, which provides a basic framework of decentralisation of powers and authorities to the municipal bodies at different levels.

Then those identified domains should be picked up for specific capacity building to aid our fight against air pollution. Such a tailored approach will enable cities to efficiently deploy the resources allocated to them for other merit goods such as education, primary healthcare, and safe drinking water among other facilities. Thus, improving the quality of life of a common citizen.

Gaurav Gogoi @GauravGogoiAsm is Congress MP and deputy leader, Lok Sabha. Views are personal.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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