It’s been five years since India launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). It initially aimed to slash PM10 concentrations by 20-30 per cent across 131 cities by 2024, with a budget of nearly ₹10,000 crore, backed by financing from the Fifteenth Finance Commission.

Having witnessed its share of hits and misses, NCAP now stands at a crossroads. With the deadline of the first phase of NCAP having been shifted to 2026 and a revised target of 40 per cent reduction in PM10 concentrations, a crucial question arises — should it continue to maintain its current trajectory, or bring in a paradigm shift to win the battle for breathable air?

Government figures from the latest meeting of the NCAP Monitoring Committee held in October 2023 indicate that air quality has improved in 90 cities. Additionally, there are 539 continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations (CAAQMS) across the country now, up from 165 in 2019.

However, despite the progress made so far, most Indian cities are yet to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, showing that several challenges still exist. NCAP, with its established foundation, offers a valuable springboard for cleaner air. The next phase of NCAP must embrace a more strategic approach and go back to redefining what clean air is.

First, India needs an official emission inventory database. Most cities still do not know what is polluting the air. The first phase of NCAP recognises the importance of building city- and national-level emission inventories for the country.

However, only 44 cities have completed their emission inventory studies so far, and we still lack a national official emission inventory database. Until we know exactly where our pollution comes from in real time, we won’t be able to tackle it.

Analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) of national emission inventory studies shows that there exist significant variations in sectoral estimates and contributions across these studies.

Developing a consistent and up-to-date inventory by harmonising methodologies and data sources, such as fuel usage and emission factors, will help accurately reflect emission trends and quantify the impact of sectoral interventions.

One example of such a database is the European Environment Agency National Inventory under the Gothenburg Protocol, which provides sectoral contributions across countries and years. This can serve as a model for India, paving the way for a more data-driven approach to air quality management.

Second, NCAP must transition from PM10 to PM2.5 as the benchmark for performance assessment. PM2.5 poses more deleterious effects on human health and is considered a better criterion for air quality assessment.

This may have been difficult in the first phase of NCAP due to limited monitoring, but now with the increase in the number of CAAQMS, this transition is feasible. Further, the current system of fund disbursement for air quality action only considers PM10 improvement and fund utilisation certificates. This does not create incentives for holistic sectoral actions such as reducing biomass burning, industrial emissions compliance, and density of public transportation.

When it comes to disbursing funding, just concentrating on PM10 improvement is not enough. Air quality funding should be linked with the kind of parameters formulated under the Swacch Vayu Survekshan framework, which not only promotes PM reduction, but also a host of other sectoral actions that improve air quality.

Funds for local bodies

Third, the fight for clean air needs innovative financing mechanisms for Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). NCAP recognises this too, and encourages ULBs to raise funds by leveraging market forces through bond issuance and entering into public-private partnerships for City Action Plans.

CEEW research indicates that ULBs are responsible for over 35 per cent of activities under the City Action Plans, yet they face financial shortages, as highlighted by a recent RBI report on municipal finances.

To address this, alternative financing tools such as social impact bonds and municipal bonds can help generate autonomous revenue and overcome resource constraints. Indore and Surat are already successfully leveraging these bonds.

Finally, for the second phase of India’s clean air programme, it is imperative to transition the financing and planning of clean air action from the city and urban agglomeration level to the airshed level (an area that goes beyond borders and includes regions with similar topography and meteorology).

This shift will extend the programme’s reach beyond urban centres, encompassing rural areas for a more inclusive impact. It would require a clear demarcation of airsheds, followed by the establishment of effective transboundary administrative frameworks to foster collaboration and coordination among stakeholders.

A precedent for such an approach is the establishment of the Commission on Air Quality Management in 2021 for the Delhi-NCR region, aimed at promoting research and establishing task forces to enforce, monitor, and oversee the execution of various orders within the common airshed.

The National Clean Air Programme has laid the groundwork for cleaner air in India, but its second phase requires a more robust approach. NCAP 2.0 presents an opportunity to build on existing successes, address shortcomings, and leverage data-driven strategies. The next five years should lead to bluer skies, an understated factor in economic growth and human development.

Khan and Tiwari are Research Analysts at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).Views are personal