The discourse on air pollution needs to shift from blame game to work on micro-governance issues. Micro-governance is critical for both pollution mitigation (reducing emission of pollutants) and pollution adaptation (reducing human exposure to pollutants). The two “villains” most widely discussed at the onset of winter are farmers burning crop residue and Diwali firecrackers. Notably, between December 1, 2023 and January 15, 2024, these have not contributed to air pollution at all in northern India.

Yet on several days in this 45-day period, the air quality has been “poor” or worse across multiple cities in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The impact of poor air quality on public health as well as the economy cannot be understated. Research shows that the long-term risk of lung cancer, respiratory diseases, and adverse pregnancy outcomes increases when people are continuously exposed to elevated pollution levels year after year.

One Lancet study estimated that the economic cost of air pollution was 1.36 per cent of India’s GDP. We can blame weather conditions, but that is not under our control — and climate change will only make it worse. Unfortunately, just being proactive in the winter is not enough. While macro-governance of air quality deals with broader systemic structures and policies, micro-governance deals with local and individual interactions. Simplistically, government/court orders for “strict compliance” to dust control norms for construction sites is macro-governance; ensuring companies and departments work in tandem to ensure that thousands of construction sites comply with these policies on the ground is micro-governance.

Preparatory work

Micro-governance for air quality is particularly challenging for micro-dispersed sources such as thousands of farms where crop residue gets burned, as well as solid waste dumping and burning sites in cities. If sufficient preparatory work is not carried out around the year, then enforcement of regulations during peak pollution periods will be challenging. Limited resources and state capacity for enforcement can be overcome with micro-governance efforts for voluntary compliance in different sectors.

Construction sites will be one of the key areas of intervention. For example, Delhi NCR’s Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for construction activities is linked to the air quality index on a given day. Voluntary compliance, or buy-in from the company to implement GRAP, would be more effective given the limited monitoring capacity of the department of environment or State pollution control boards/committees. Hence, high-level meetings on a ‘winter action plan’ related to construction should also happen in peak summer. Else, well-intended measures would not lead to the desired mitigation on the ground.

Similarly, challenges abound for voluntary compliance related to micro-sources. Thousands of farmers need to be engaged around the year to prevent crop residue burning. Behavioural campaigns (say, to use the dedicated iKhet mobile application in Punjab) and improving on-ground logistics for both in-situ and ex-situ alternative use of crop residues need around-the-year planning and coordination.

In urban areas, open-waste burning during winter by security guards in housing complexes needs cost-sharing (if any) among resident welfare associations, security companies, and others to ensure that alternative technologies (thermal jackets, room heaters) are made available and used during winter. Each of these micro-sources has a small contribution to air quality by itself but when their emissions are pooled they emerge as significant pollution sources.

We should also focus on air quality adaptation strategies for winter all year round to reduce human exposure to harmful pollutants. For example, ensuring that food, medicine and grocery delivery partners get N95 masks for the winter season will require extensive consultation and coordination with companies, national and local.

The writer is a Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Views are personal