Airshed management pivotal to India’s pollution problem

India’s flagship programme to reduce air pollution has seen slow progress, spurring discussions on airshed-level management for air pollution control.

A new model for airshed governance by the Centre for Policy Research proposes having several “supra-state” institutions for each airshed which aren’t constrained by administrative boundaries, in order to better monitor and control air pollution. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

As the first phase of India’s National Clean Air Programme for tackling air pollution nears its deadline, with insufficient progress, experts recommend considering air pollution management at an airshed level, as opposed to limiting their actions to political and administrative boundaries.

“Emissions from one place can affect people living in another place, but authorities can’t take action if the source of pollution is from across the border,” said Bhargav Krishna, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. The think tank recently released a policy brief recommending the airshed level approach where pollution is addressed over a common geographic area, irrespective of state boundaries, where a similar level of pollutants are trapped.

“Given the scale and nature of the air pollution crisis in India, urgent systemic reforms that adopt an airshed level approach and facilitate inter-state regional cooperation are essential,” notes the paper, recommending regulatory architecture to address pollution at the airshed level.

India’s cities are routinely ranked among the world’s worst when it comes to air pollution management. The country has 39 out of 50 of the world’s most polluted cities, with high 2.5 particulate matter (PM) levels, according to this year’s World Air Quality Report by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company.

Every Indian, on average, loses 5.3 years of their life, because of air pollution, according to the latest Air Quality Life Index, an annual report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, released this week. A reduced life expectancy from air pollution exceeds threats from cardiovascular disease, high systolic blood pressure, smoking and child and maternal malnutrition.

To tackle the problem of air pollution, the government launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) in 2019 for non-attainment cities with the worst air pollution levels, with the aim to improve scientific understanding of air pollution and curb emissions at source. The goal of the NCAP is for non-attainment cities to reduce PM levels by 20-30 per cent by 2024, compared to 2017 levels. In September 2022, the central government renewed the NCAP, setting a target of 40 per cent reduction in PM concentrations by 2026.

More monitoring stations mean more data that we have access to understand the problem spatially and temporally. This not only helps in understanding the trends, but also helps in validating the models developed for the city or the region.

Sarath Guttikunda, founder, Urban Emissions

So far, progress under the programme has been underwhelming – only 39 out of the 131 cities have done apportionment studies to track down sources of pollution and less than 50 per cent of the total funds allocated under the NCAP (Rs 652.61 crores) have been utilised.

What is an airshed?

An airshed, according to the World Bank, is a “common geographic area where pollutants mix and create similar air quality for everyone.” The World Bank’s analysis suggests the South Asian region has six airsheds, four of them falling in India. These are the west/central Indo-Gangetic Plain (including Punjab (Pakistan), Punjab (India), Haryana, part of Rajasthan, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh), the central/eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain (Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bangladesh) middle India 1 (Odisha and Chhattisgarh) and middle India 2 (eastern Gujarat and western Maharashtra).

“Air pollution travels long distances within South Asia, crossing municipal, state, and national boundaries, depending on wind, climatology, and cloud chemistry. At any given location, PM2.5 in ambient air originates from several upwind sources extending over several hundred kilometres. This is especially true on and around the IndoGangetic Plain (IGP),” says the World Bank’s report.

A 2021 study by researchers from IIT Roorkee found that “while the contributions of local sources (of pollution) were found to dominate in all IGP states, significant contributions were also seen from neighbouring IGP states.” Leading contributors to the region were transport (40-50 per cent share), industry (5-20 per cent) and energy (5-40 per cent) with wide variations within each state.

“Delineation of an airshed has three basic steps: First, emission quantification to prepare a multi-pollutant emission inventory; second, analysis of meteorological data to evaluate variations and similarities at the local and regional levels; and third, performing air quality modelling to understand the pollution dispersion,” says a report on managing regional air quality by the Centre for Science and Environment.

Monitoring air quality beyond cities

India has a network of 438 continuous air quality monitoring systems and another 883 manual stations set up by the Central Pollution Control Board across various cities.

In an ideal scenario, India would require “at least 4000 continuous monitoring stations, around 2800 in the urban areas and 1200 in the rural areas, to truly represent the air quality trends,” noted a study from May this year, which proposes improving air quality monitoring for the NCAP through an airshed approach.

The study divided 131 non-attainment cities into 104 airsheds, “collectively representing 164 cities and a total population of 295 million.” “These areas are what the city administrators must consider as their immediate vicinity with the potential to influence their air quality the most,” said Sarath Guttikunda, founder of Urban Emissions, a knowledge-sharing platform on air pollution, and lead author of the study. Some cities had larger airsheds than others. Delhi, for example, had the largest of all airsheds, while the smallest were in Himachal Pradesh.

“If we want to focus on urban air quality, talk to the city officials, and address local-centric interventions, then we need to define an urban airshed, which the city administrators can comprehend. Here the city’s actions take center stage. In a regional problem, the states falling within an airshed have to address the problem at broader scales like inter-state cooperation for tackling the regional air pollution problem collaboratively,” Guttikunda added.

The study also recommended broadening the scope of monitoring to beyond cities, noting that, “For NCAP to succeed, efforts to monitor and analyse pollution levels must expand to the rural areas.” In absence of requisite funding, the study says India can set up a “hybrid” air monitoring networks, which would include supplementing existing monitoring systems with low-cost sensors and combining these readings with satellite measurements.

“More monitoring stations mean more data that we have access to understand the problem spatially and temporally. This not only helps in understanding the trends, but also helps in validating the models developed for the city or the region. If we are deviating (from air quality norms), then why, which emission sources are responsible for this, can be studied,” Guttikunda said.

Krishna of the Centre for Policy Research, while talking to Mongabay India, also commented that air pollution management in India is currently city and urban-centric, which leaves out management in rural areas, which are equally affected. “An airshed management approach can improve management in rural areas too,” he said.

Airshed governance and its challenges

According to the Centre for Science and Environment, before an airshed is designed, “there needs to be collective motivation and incentives to justify the need for airshed air quality management, as it requires a lot of time, resources and planning.” In other words, airshed management involves shared responsibilities across city and state lines.

The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM), set up for the management of air pollution in the National Capital Region and adjoining areas from neighbouring states, monitors air pollution and makes interventions periodically for state pollution control boards to follow. But it is only one such body that acts at a regional scale and is largely urban-centric, with only four full-time committee members heading it.

The Centre for Policy Research has proposed setting up a network of institutions that could support the governance of airsheds in India, in the form of “supra state” committees which would have jurisdiction over each regional airshed. These committees would be in charge of rulemaking and planning, monitoring, and knowledge building for the region, while “implementation and enforcement would continue to remain with the SPCBs, ULBs and other agencies,” says the policy brief, released earlier this month.

“This institution isn’t just going to be one that passes orders but will also be a knowledge generating institution, because it also takes in a lot of data to develop insights for state level regulators while working with them to effectively implement some of the policy directions,” explained CPR’s Krishna, who was one of the authors of the policy brief. “Unlike the CAQM, this composition of the committees will be substantially different and more diverse. It includes senior bureaucrats from the union government, chief secretaries of the various states in the region and state departments, local body representatives and experts from science, regulation, and health impacts. All of these stakeholders need to be represented in the leadership.”

CPR says such committees don’t need to be constituted through an act of Parliament, as the CAQM was, but can be notified directly under the Air Act 1981 as ‘air pollution control areas’ by state governments. This way the committee’s purpose is aligned with the law. These committees “would be the first port of call to resolve any issue of jurisdiction, regulatory overlap or any other form of dispute relating to planning or regulation relating to air quality in the region,” says the policy brief.

In case of violations, CPR proposes the committees refer defaulters to the National Gren Tribunal or the Union environment ministry for further action. The Ministry is empowered to issue binding directions to defaulters under the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986.

But some experts say the concept of airsheds still needs to be better understood by governments before designing for their governance. Pratima Singh, senior research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), says conversations about airsheds are still very nascent and have arrived at a time when states are designing their own state-level action plans for air pollution management, and learning more about where emissions are coming from. At the moment, most emission inventory studies are at the city level and not at a district, state or regional level.

“If, for example, Andhra Pradesh has too much inbound transportation from Karnataka, then what are the solutions Karnataka can propose so that it doesn’t influence Andhra Pradesh? Within cities, departments don’t interact with each other, so how do we make sure governments collaborate on air pollution? Even if an airshed considers multiple states, implementation and coordination between states will be a big challenge,” said Singh.

This story was published with permission from

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