India has nine of the world’s 10 most polluted cities, according to one World Health Organisation measure, with choking urban smog that researchers estimate killed 1.24 million people in 2017.
But until this week, it did not have nationally set targets for reducing hazardous air pollution.
That changed this week, when the governments National Clean Air Programme unveiled a five-year plan that environmentalists welcomed as long overdue but criticised as lacking clear mechanisms or robust funding to achieve its aims, which include reducing air pollution in 102 cities by up to 30 percent from 2017 levels.
Some observers questioned the timing of the initiative: Delayed by a year because of bureaucratic hurdles, it arrives as the central government faces elections in May. It also comes alongside other crowd-pleasing measures such as a promise to reserve 10 percent of government jobs for those earning less than 800,000 rupees annually, or about $11,300.
“This is an important step forward, setting a reduction target,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, a director at the Centre for Science and Environment, a non-profit research and advocacy organisation in New Delhi.
“This plan should also come up with a clear fiscal strategy,” Roychowdhury added. “The plan requires more localised actions at the city level and the regional level with a clear timeline and action plan. That is the next critical step.”
The initiative aims to increase and improve air pollution monitoring systems across India, a needed step, environmentalists say, because data collection has been sparse, making it difficult to assess the scope of the problem.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused on economic growth, with an objective of creating 1 million jobs per month to accommodate Indias expanding working class. Urban air pollution, however, has reached a point where it can present obstacles to that aim.
Cities “are engines of growth and equity but they have to be sustainable,” said Amitabh Kant, chief executive of the Indian central governments think tank, the National Institution for Transforming India, which released the plan with the environment minister, Harsh Vardhan.
In autumn and winter, cities across India are blanketed by a toxic haze, causing school students to vomit, giving employees terrible migraines and filling hospitals with people struggling to breathe. Some corporate executives have refused to transfer to major cities like New Delhi, while several embassies have barred diplomatic families from relocating to the capital, citing health concerns.
For many of the environmentalists who have waged a five-year-long battle to get the government to start fighting air pollution, the reduction targets of 20 to 30 percent are too little, too late.
The plan aims to cut industrial and vehicular emissions, but does not set sector-specific targets or a way to enforce implementation.
Environmentalists also say its funding — about $91 million over two years — is a fraction of what is needed to tackle the problem. Less-urgent initiatives have received more funding, such as the $400 million statue of an Indian independence leader that was unveiled last October, making India home to the worlds largest statue.
Late last year, as air pollution started creeping up to hazardous levels, the government shut the last coal plant near New Delhi and banned some particularly dirty fuel sources. But it also removed environmental clearances for construction projects of up to 50,000 square meters, or 540,000 square feet.
Construction sites are a significant contributor to PM 2.5, the small particles that are absorbed in the bloodstream and contribute to the 7 million deaths across the world each year that scientists attribute to air pollution.
The average PM 2.5 level in New Delhi last year saw a marginal improvement, measuring about 172 compared with 174 the year before. Any PM 2.5 measure above 50 is considered unhealthy.
Other cities in India are witnessing higher measurements. Mumbai, Indias financial hub, recorded an average PM 2.5 level of about 147 last year, up from 126 in 2017.
In New Delhi on Friday morning, the PM 2.5 measurement hovered above 350, considered to be “hazardous” by international monitors.