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Opinion

Post Covid-19, India needs more focus on air quality: analysis

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The national blockade due to coronavirus disease (Covid-19) will surely bring enormous social and economic costs to the country. However, the closure has allowed us to see what our skies and trees might look like if Indian cities had cleaner air. It highlights the fact that although the government must prioritize the economy in the coming months, the other public health crisis, air pollution, cannot be overlooked. This highlights the Rs.4.4 billion grant from the Center for Municipal Corporations (MC) of larger cities for 2020-21 to combat air pollution.

Covid-19 has again emphasized the need to proactively invest in public health systems. This includes mitigating risk factors that increase the incidence of disease. Air pollution is the second largest risk factor, behind malnutrition, which contributes to India’s disease burden. Commonly known impacts of air pollution include cardio-respiratory diseases, lung cancer in adults, and acute lower respiratory tract infections in children. Additionally, emerging research suggests that it affects early childhood development, including birth weight and growth. Preliminary evidence also suggests that air pollution increases the risk of Covid-19 infection.

In what now appears to be for life, last winter witnessed one of the most severe smog episodes around Delhi in recent memory, accompanied by unprecedented attention to air quality, with the issues raised in the Parliament, discussed in the media and included in Delhi. electoral manifesto of the assembly. The Union Finance Minister accepted the provisional recommendations of the 15th Finance Commission (FC) that provides additional fiscal support in 2020-21, incentivizing MCs to tackle air pollution in cities with one million or more populations.

To put into perspective the amount of the disbursement, in 2019-20, the budget of the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) was simply Rs 300 million, distributed among 102 cities contaminated, with subsidies. between Rs 10 crore and Rs 10 lakhs. The disbursement also dwarfs the MoEFCC’s total budget of Rs 3.1 billion for 2020-21, indicating a shift in the approach to air quality management, with additional resources and a greater return to MCs.

While the MoEFCC is still developing the performance framework to determine exactly how the grant will be distributed among cities, the 15th FC report outlines the general contours. It has been recommended that grants be allocated to cities based on their population. Therefore, the total possible size of the concession for Mumbai would be Rs 488 million, and for a smaller city, such as Tiruchirappalli, it would be Rs 21 million. This grant will be awarded in two installments: half in advance for “air quality improvement measures, including capacity building of local agencies,” and the rest is subject to the city’s performance against its goals.

This is the first time that an FC has made grants specifically to combat air pollution. Air pollution has multiple sources in Indian cities, and many of them, such as burning debris and road and construction dust, fall directly within the purview of MCs. Addressing air pollution involves not only regulating emissions from vehicles and industries, but also improving urban governance and public services.

Institutionally, too, the approach marks a recognition of the changing needs of urbanization by allocating a larger share of subsidies to local urban agencies (BAPs): from 30% in the previous year to 37.5% in 2020-21, and make a distinction between millions more urban agglomerates and smaller towns.

Finally, by reserving funds in advance for capacity development, the FC recognizes that if MCs are expected to address air quality issues, they must strengthen their human and fiscal resources. A review of 23 cities by Janagraaha in 2017 found that most cities lack urban planners, and more than half of cities did not generate enough income to cover even their salary costs.

Without a doubt, while these subsidies are necessary, they are not sufficient to improve air quality. Much depends on the final design of the performance framework. City-level measures by MCs must be complemented by actions on sources of air pollution outside their jurisdiction, either within or outside the city, in the largest regional “air basin”. To do this, the grant framework must be integrated with NCAP institutions and action plans, with aggressive but achievable deadlines for implementing prioritized measures, and a comprehensive inter-agency strategy for resource allocation. Furthermore, it needs a sustained effort to improve air quality, which requires, at a minimum, the continuation of subsidies for the next five years.

The emergence of different Covid-19 response city models, from Bhilwara to Agra, shows why it is important to have a decentralized form of government, capable of responding to the specific needs of the city. While budgetary priority in the immediate term is rightly given to health and social protection, we must not lose momentum in progress in the fight against air pollution. Proactively channeling resources to mitigate a critical risk factor today is a crucial investment in tomorrow’s public health.

Avani Kapur is director of the Accountability Initiative and a member of the Policy Research Center (CPR). Santosh Harish is a CPR member

The opinions expressed are personal.

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