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India's Air Quality Crisis: Why Isn't the CPCB Revising Its Air Quality Standards?

India's air quality crisis deepens, with outdated standards defying WHO's 2021 guidelines. Amidst hazardous pollution levels, experts sound the alarm for immediate revision of air quality guidelines.

By Sagnik Majumder
New Update

Greenpeace protest
A protest by Greenpeace outside the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) office in New Delhi | Photo courtesy: The Probe

India's air quality remains a pressing concern. In 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its air quality guidelines, making them stricter. These revisions came in the wake of growing scientific evidence about the damaging effects of air pollution. In fact, the new WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs), following its last global update in 2005, are aimed at providing a clearer framework for countries to combat and reduce the adverse health impacts of air pollution. While many countries have gone ahead and revised their air quality standards as per WHO guidelines, India has been lagging and still follows the old National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) guidelines which was last revised in 2009.

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India's air quality has become a focal point of concern, especially when viewed in the context of global health standards. The revised WHO guidelines are not merely an academic exercise. They have the potential to save millions of lives across the globe. Air pollution is insidious. Its effects permeate across age groups, aggravating respiratory ailments, affecting cardiovascular health, and posing an undeniable threat to global public health. While several countries swiftly aligned their national air quality standards with the updated WHO guidelines, India’s silence on the matter is disconcerting. Over a decade has passed since the NAAQS standards were updated, and the landscape of air pollution and its associated challenges has shifted significantly during this period in India.

As one of the most populous nations with several cities repeatedly featuring in lists of the world's most polluted, the stakes for India are particularly high. The outdated standards do not just represent numbers on paper; they translate to real-world consequences for the health of millions of citizens. 

“We have been advocating for this revision for the past two years. The responsibility to do so lies with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Air pollution is not just an environmental concern; it's a public health crisis that's affecting our lives, economy, and well-being. The CPCB entered into an agreement with IIT Kanpur, with the latter expected to deliver their review of the NAAQS by December 2022. It's been over eight months, and yet there's been no progress. Such delays pose a huge risk to public health and India’s air quality is going from bad to worse,” states Avinash Kumar Chanchal, Campaign Manager at Greenpeace.

India's air qualityDelhi air pollution | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

In its updation in 2021, the WHO set more stringent standards for six key pollutants: particulate matter (PM2.5 & PM10), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulphur dioxide (SO₂), and carbon monoxide (CO). Studies have revealed that addressing these primary pollutants indirectly mitigates the effects of other harmful contaminants in the air.

Of note in these revised guidelines is the adjustment to recommended levels for particulate matter. The WHO now advises that the annual average concentration of PM2.5 (tiny particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less) should not exceed 5 µg/m³. As for PM10 (particles measuring up to 10 micrometres), the recommended annual average is capped at 15 µg/m³. These revised figures mark a significant decrease from prior levels and highlight the understanding that even minimal concentrations can be detrimental to health.

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Last year, over 10,000 citizens along with Greenpeace India wrote an open letter to the CPCB seeking revisions of India’s air quality standards. According to IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company, 35 of the 50 most polluted cities are in India. However, not only has India not updated its air quality standards, but there's also a pressing issue of lacking the means to measure air pollution accurately.

"Across India, not just in Delhi, there's a noticeable lack of air quality monitoring stations. We still lack the necessary devices to accurately gauge the quality of the air we breathe. Without this essential data, how can we begin to address and remedy the situation? To tackle this, we need both large monitoring stations and low-cost monitoring devices in various localities. In Delhi, according to the CPCB, there are around 40 monitoring stations that provide real-time air quality data. However, given the vast expanse of Delhi, 40 is a severely limited number," adds Chanchal. 

The conversation doesn't end with the availability of monitoring equipment. The underlying standards that dictate action in the realm of India’s air quality are equally vital. Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director of Research and Advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment says, "The CPCB has set up a committee to revise the standards. Standard-making is a process that zeroes in on key pollutants and defines threshold levels to mitigate public health risks. The WHO guidelines are important but nowhere in the world are countries able to meet those standards, but the fact is that the WHO has also proposed interim levels as a path forward”.

Roychowdhury provides a comparative analysis of India's position vis-à-vis WHO's guidelines. "For pollutants like PM, our standards are more lenient than what the WHO prescribes. Yet, for carbon monoxide, we've set a bar higher than WHO's. Particulate matter pollution is particularly alarming in India. We must tighten our standards and then draft action plans to meet them. Tightening standards isn't the end. Action plans to meet those standards are crucial. Some states are closer to the benchmark, while others lag behind. Our focus should be ensuring all states strive to achieve these standards."

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According to the updated Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), PM2.5 is estimated to reduce an average Indian's life expectancy by a staggering 5.3 years. For residents of Delhi, often branded as the world's most polluted city, this number jumps to an alarming 11.9 years.

Dr. Jugal Kishore, Director Professor and Former Head of Department at Vardhman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung Hospital states: "Consider the significant volume of air inhaled daily by an individual. If this air is laden with pollutants, particularly particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), it is readily deposited into the pulmonary tissues. From there, it enters the systemic circulation, potentially migrating to various organs, including arteries and other tissues. This can lead to a plethora of medical conditions, including vascular diseases, hematologic abnormalities, malignancies, and cardiorespiratory diseases. Beyond a reduction in overall life expectancy, chronic exposure to these pollutants also compromises the quality of life due to associated morbidity."

We reached out to a senior member of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for insights on the current air quality standards. The official stated, "The National Ambient Air Quality Standards, established in 2009, are still in effect today. However, they are currently under review. The responsibility for overseeing this process lies with the Air Quality Monitoring Division within the CPCB, which is now deliberating on the matter."

As India deliberates on its air quality standards, the message is clear. Meeting WHO's guidelines is not just a matter of global compliance but a pressing health imperative. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2019 launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) with an objective to improve the air quality in 131 cities in India. The immediate target of the NCAP was to achieve a 40 per cent reduction in particulate matter concentration by 2026. While NCAP's goals are noteworthy, if India does not take the crucial step of revising its air quality standards, the very foundation upon which we are building our air quality improvement initiatives will come to question. 

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