The interplay between the pandemic and pollution | Analysis

Air quality was gradually gaining political salience in India over the last few years, but the coronavirus pandemic and the deepening economic recession may now change the speed, and possibly direction, of progress. As the country battles a public health crisis of staggering proportions, we must remind ourselves that we do not have the luxury of tackling air pollution at a later point. Air pollution is a risk factor that, based on current information, has a long-term mortality and morbidity burden greater than Covid-19, given the severity of pollution levels. It also increases the risk of infections such as Covid-19. Although restrictions during the lockdown mechanically led to temporary improvements in air quality, as economic activities resume, air pollution too will return to plague us.

In the context of air quality management, our analysis reveals that the disruptions caused by the pandemic, and actions taken in response to these are likely to result in three sets of outcomes, each offering a different call to action: New opportunities to accelerate transitions, dilution of safeguards in the guise of incentivising economic recovery that need to be contested, and avenues for sustaining recent progress.

The first set of outcomes present opportunities to set a new agenda, or provide an impetus to existing policy measures. These opportunities, when harnessed, will allow us to lock-in infrastructure or accelerate behavioural changes that are well-aligned with improved environmental and health outcomes, particularly air quality. We identified five such opportunities.

One, providing increased, better-targeted subsidies as part of a social protection package to allow poor households to use LPG as their primary cooking fuel. This would be consistent with the three LPG cylinders included in the Garib Kalyan Yojana package. Two, sustaining the increased rate of shifting away from paddy cultivation in Punjab and Haryana due to labour constraints, and ensuring that the alternatives (for example, maize, cotton) are viable for farmers. Three, focusing the demand for vehicle scrappage policies towards the replacement of old, heavily polluting vehicles, especially trucks. Four, retiring old coal power plants so that newer or less polluting plants can meet a larger fraction of power demand, while likely easing the financial crisis in the sector. Finally, increased acceptability and experience with work-from-home and online meetings need to be sustained to reduce commute by private vehicles and taxis.

In the second set lie potentially regressive outcomes, which need to be firmly contested. Some of these outcomes arise from the government’s efforts to dilute environmental safeguards, formally or informally, while citing the need for urgent economic recovery and improving the “ease of doing business”. For instance, the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020 that is currently under consideration will have massive implications for the country’s air quality. It dilutes the process to obtain environmental clearance, reduces the categories of projects and activities that will have to undergo impact-assessment scrutiny, curtails public consultation processes significantly, and proposes procedures to deal with violations that are legally untenable, and will effectively allow environmental offences to be condoned at very little or no cost to the violator. Another example is the government’s tacit support to power plants that have failed to comply with the 2015 emission standards by extending the deadlines. The health costs of their non-compliance can no longer be ignored, and the pandemic cannot become yet another basis for delaying compliance. Finally, the call for greater transparency in monitoring, inspection and enforcement data from the pollution control boards becomes more urgent to ensure dilutions in day-to-day regulation do not go unnoticed.

In the third set are areas that we believe will not be directly impacted by the pandemic, but where we need to actively sustain the discourse, develop ideas and make progress on longer-term systemic improvements. The framework of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) needs continued strengthening, in particular on developing uniform processes for identifying non-attainment cities and to track inter-year air quality improvements.

The first year of NCAP (2019-20) was hobbled by its modest budget. However, this year, the newly-allocated performance-based grants linked to air quality from the 15th Finance Commission (FC) substantially increases the resources available to the large cities — totalling Rs 4,400 crore to 42 urban agglomerations with million-plus populations. Effective utilisation of these funds needs significantly greater efforts by state and municipal governments to engage with civil society in prioritising actions. Further, the grants need to be sustained over the 2021-26 period of the 15th FC, and need to shift — together with NCAP — towards managing air quality at the regional, “airshed” level. At the same time, investments in sustainable infrastructure, and improvements in public services that will lead to cleaner air will need to be undertaken in parallel with developing the knowledge base on sources and air quality monitoring.

The pandemic has appropriately brought about an urgent response, given the scale of its effects. As we set in motion recovery plans, we must remember that air pollution-linked deaths and disease must also be tackled with the urgency they deserve.

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