Every winter, New Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) becomes a central talking point amongst mainstream media, policymakers, and on social media. However, the issue of toxic air goes beyond the administrative boundaries of Delhi-NCR and affects millions of people – especially those residing in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP).
The land-locked region, covering an area of about 700,000 square kilometres, is home to 40% of India’s population across five states and two union territories. The population density of the region is more than three times that of the rest of the country (AQLI, 2019). It is also the epicentre of the country’s ambient air quality crisis, yet has received scant attention from state authorities.
The geographical region of the IGP, however, extends beyond India. It includes most of northern and eastern India, half of Pakistan, the whole of Bangladesh, and southern Nepal (NGT, 2021). Combined with unregulated industrial growth, unfavourable topographical and meteorological conditions have exacerbated the health impacts of air pollution on its population. To tackle this issue, air pollution needs to be seen as a transboundary problem.
The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has released a report highlighting the poor, and sometimes entirely lacking, infrastructure and a systematic plan to mitigate the emission of toxic pollutants during heavy pollution days.
- Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) increased from 59 stations across 23 cities in 2017-18 to 185 stations across 85 cities in 2022-23 in the seven Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) states and union territories in northern India. These are Punjab, Chandigarh, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal.
- Only 23 of 85 cities with 185 CAAQMS have two or more stations installed as of January 2023. All other cities just have one CAAQMS installed to assess the real-time ambient air quality of the city.
- Seven of the 39 non-attainment cities in the IGP region do not have a single CAAQMS. These are Naya Nangal (Punjab), Pathankot/Dera Baba (Punjab), Dera Bassi (Punjab), Anpara (Uttar Pradesh), Gajraula (Uttar Pradesh), Raebareli (Uttar Pradesh)
and Barrackpore (West Bengal). All 39 non-attainment cities have formulated GRAP. Apart from Kolkata, 36 are available publicly as per the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) portal PRANA and State Pollution Control Board (SPCB)/ Pollution Control Committee (PCC) websites.
- Between October 1, 2022, and February 15, 2023, 26 cities reported PM2.5 levels under the ‘Severe+’ category, 38 cities reported ‘Severe’, and 78 cities ‘Very Poor’ air quality. Non-attainment cities and the National Capital Region (NCR) should initiate GRAP implementation as soon as air quality reaches ‘Poor’ levels.
- No city beyond Delhi-NCR had any public communication or direction to the relevant stakeholders about the implementation of GRAP stages between October 1, 2022, and February 15, 2023, indicating failure of the regulation. Interagency communications such as minutes of meetings of the Task Force or City Implementation Committee under NCAP regarding GRAP are not available publicly on State Pollution Control Board websites either.
- Among the IGP states and UTs, highest particulate matter levels were reported in towns of Bihar which have recently strengthened their real-time ambient air quality network. The true extent of the issue of continuously deteriorating air quality could be several-fold worse and can be analysed only with more monitoring stations.