PM 10 levels considered for disbursing funds; Barely any difference in PM 2.5 levels between NCAP and non-NCAP cities 

The national pollution control board’s assessment technique is flawed as it focuses on only PM 10 levels for disbursing of funds, an analysis has found. There is barely any difference in overall particulate matter (PM) 2.5 trends between under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) and those outside its ambit, showed non-profit Centre for Science and Environment. 

Focusing on only PM 10 levels for spending is creating a bias, making dust control the primary focus of clean air action, CSE has found. The analysis was released September 6, the eve of the United Nations International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies.

PM2.5 are ultrafine particles suspended in the air that have a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, while PM 10 particles have a diameter of 10 microns or less. 

The NCAP has set a national target of 20-30 per cent reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 2024 from the 2017 base year.

Both groups of cities, NCAP and non-NCAP, reflect similar mixed trends in air quality in different climatic zones. This means they require a substantial reduction in particulate pollution levels to meet the national ambient air quality standards, said the analysis. 

Read more: ‘Air pollution cuts India’s average life expectancy by 5 years’

But the latest performance assessment of NCAP cities by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has considered only PM10 data — largely coarse dust particles — for the disbursement of performance-linked funds. 

CSE looked at data for 43 NCAP cities and 46 non-NCAP cities for 2019-21 to construct PM2.5 trends. Delhi and Ghaziabad were among the seven NCAP cities that showed less than 5 per cent change in PM 2.5 levels. Faridabad is the only NCR city whose PM 2.5 levels went up from 2019 to 2021.  

Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra cities registered a significant increase in PM2.5 levels, while Chennai, Varanasi and Pune show the most improvement among NCAP cities. 

A large number of NCAP and non-NCAP cities need a substantial reduction in PM2.5 levels to meet the national ambient air quality standards in all climatic zones, the analysis found. 

“While it is encouraging that funding of clean air action is linked to performance and the cities’ ability to demonstrate improvement in air quality, dependence on only manual monitoring of PM10 evidently creates a bias in spending,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at CSE.

It shifts focus more towards dust control and detracts attention from composite action on industry, vehicles, waste and solid fuel burning, she added.

Read more: Bangladesh PM2.5 levels 7 times higher than WHO limit: Study

The NCAP covers 132 cities — 82 have been funded by the programme, while 50 cities have received funds from the 15th Finance Commission. Through 2021-22, Rs 6,425 crore was released, while Rs 2,299 crore has been earmarked for 2022-23. 

Cities are required to quantify improvement starting 2020-21, which requires 15 per cent and more reduction in the annual average PM10 concentration and a concurrent increase in good air days to more than 200. Anything less than that will be considered low and reduce the funding. 

The CSE analysis has included 332 real time monitoring stations active in 2021 in India, spread across 172 cities in 27 states and Union territories. It has relied on data that is publicly available on the CPCB website. 

All six megacities registered a drop in their annual PM2.5 levels in 2020, but pollution bounced back everywhere except in Chennai. In Delhi, pollution dropped by 13 per cent in 2020, but it rose by 13 per cent in 2021, nullifying all the gains made by the national capital. 

Read more: Indian cities among places with highest rise in exposure to extreme heat: Study

In Kolkata, pollution dropped by 22 per cent in 2020 and rose by 16 per cent in 2021. Mumbai, with a 48 per cent increase in 2021, saw the most negative impact of unlocking the economy after the lockdowns. Hyderabad had the least variation in its annual levels across the three years. 

Bengaluru air improved by 21 per cent in 2020 and with just 8 per cent increase in 2021, the southern metropolis has retained most of its gains. Chennai saw a 29 per cent drop in its PM2.5 level in 2020 and it dropped by another 23 per cent in 2021, making it the least polluted mega city in the country. 

“It is necessary to develop and define robust protocols and methods for quality control of real time data and ensure adoption of standardised methods for data processing,” said Avikal Somvanshi, programme manager, Urban Lab, CSE. 

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