Responding to pressure from civil society and media, India has created an Air Quality Index to measure and track air pollution in the country’s largest cities. How is this new data shaping the national debate on air quality?
In December 2015, Indian officials in Delhi launched an odd-even day driving restriction program as an emergency measure to reduce pollutant loads, marking an important step forward in combating the air pollution that has plagued the rapidly industrializing country for several decades.[footnote 33] These challenges peaked in the late 1990s, during which time millions of new cars were introduced to India’s roads. While gains have been made, the country still has a long way to go.
Indian officials initially dismissed the fact that air pollution levels in major Indian cities far exceeded thresholds deemed safe[footnote 34] by both India’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards[footnote 35] and the World Health Organization’s Air Quality Guidelines.[footnote 13] Last year, however, Indian pollution-control regulators changed their posture and launched the country’s own air pollution index, called the Air Quality Index (AQI), in April 2015.[footnote 36] Their Central Pollution Control Board monitors and regulates the standard spectrum of air pollutants, including tiny, dangerous particles known as PM2.5, ozone, carbon monoxide, and others. Indian regulators utilize data on these pollutants to assign AQI values to individual cities, using a relative scale where a city with the worst pollutant reading is given the lowest AQI for that pollutant.
India’s air pollution index has received extensive media attention and mixed reviews since its debut. Despite its expansion to more than 60 cities, the AQI’s exact data collection method remains unclear.[footnote 37] Additionally, while environmental organizations welcomed the move, many expressed concerns over the absence of a public health advisory system for cities receiving poor AQI scores.[footnote 38]
Monitoring and ranking air pollution levels is an important advance in a country where rigorous government measures on air pollution reduction are long overdue. High rates of acute respiratory infection are widespread and increasing, with reported cases rising 30 percent over 2010 levels. One study estimates that half of Delhi’s schoolchildren will never recover full lung capacity.[footnote 39] Indian leadership did not announce any major changes to the country’s air pollution control efforts with the AQI, but since the launch, the government has begun to address the air pollution dilemma.[footnote 37] A collaborative state and federal air pollution control plan was released in December 2015, filling a critical regulatory gap made obvious by air quality reports from the AQI. In addition to the odd-even vehicle driving restrictions implemented that month, a large coal-fired power plant in Delhi was shut down.[footnote 33] Beginning in 2017, vehicles will be required to comply with new emission standards to curb nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter emissions from diesel engines.[footnote 40]
The transition to a more breathable India is facing predictable policy barriers. A recent ban on diesel cars older than ten years in Delhi is on the verge of collapse due to congested traffic checkpoints and enforcement snags faced by city officials.[footnote 33] These and other new policies are also hampered by an insufficient capacity of Delhi’s police to regulate on-road vehicles and a public transportation system that strains to meet increasing traffic demands. But with its new air quality index continuously informing the policy process, India is showing the will to strengthen and support new controls on the deadly air pollution that once was taken for granted as the cost of modernizing.