Policy Engagements and Blogs

Clearing the Air Seminar Series: ‘Campaigning for Air Quality: Lessons from Two Decades of Advocacy’

Navroz K Dubash

October 22, 2018

On 12 April 2018, the Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment at the Centre for Policy Research organised a conversation between Anumita Roychowdhury (Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, and Head, Air Pollution and Clean Transportation Programs, at Centre for Science and Environment) and Dr. Navroz K Dubash, (Professor, CPR) on air quality governance and advocacy. The event was part of CPR’s Clearing the Air? Seminar Series.

Anumita Roychowdhury has been at the forefront of the clean air campaign in India for more than two decades. In this conversation, she discussed effective strategies to improve air quality regulation and governance, and reflected on some of the lessons learnt from shaping policy through deep government engagement and work with the courts. She also discussed the importance of strong institutions, evidence-based policy, and effective long-term implementation strategies to deal with poor air quality.

We have identified some key issues that came up during the conversation and presented them in the form of a Q&A below. The video of the complete conversation can be accessed here.

Videos and background information of other events in the Clearing the Air? Seminar Series can be accessed here.

How have you seen public understanding of air pollution shift over the years?

When we started our advocacy in 1996, there was very little awareness and conversation on air pollution. We faced the challenge of creating a value for clean air in society. Barely anyone was fully aware of the consequences of breathing toxic air. Health and air pollution science was weak and could not inform and drive the agenda adequately and effectively. This made official denial of the problem so easy. The problem could be easily dismissed as dust from Rajasthan. In order to deepen public understanding and draw attention to the problem, we had to inform, excite and provoke opinion and reaction, and shock people to react. It became necessary to mobilise key actors for change: primarily the judiciary and the media, and inform public opinion too. Even though public conversation was limited, the concern was growing.

When awareness level was so low, it was tough and challenging to fight push-back from lobbies that tried to obstruct and block action. This was most evident when the city was phasing in the CNG programme for public transport vehicles. Public understanding and awareness was simply not deep enough to resist and counter the push-back from the diesel industry, bus operators and even the governments. Thus, the CNG transition became enormously confrontational and deeply contested. The onus was on the civil society to prove and to fight disinformation. But this campaign affected everyone – the common citizens in the city. This helped people to connect with the problem of air pollution and its solutions, and become more aware of why such battles were being fought in the city. In fact, the initial success and the improvement in air quality eventually helped to improve participation and policy engagement. But the momentum of action could not be sustained after the initial phase of action. After 2006, there was a lull, and action slowed down while the problem escalated. However, debates and discussions continued and air pollution began to permeate deeper into public consciousness. This subsequently enabled the second wave of action 2015 onwards. Public awareness currently is far stronger than what it was 20 years ago. But there is still a barrier to translating awareness into strong public and political support for hard and difficult decisions especially those that require lifestyle changes.

What is the role of science in advocacy about air pollution?

While advocacy needs passion and anger to propel action, it also needs to stand firm on science and evidence to power change. When we started our air pollution campaign, scientific and health information in India was very limited. We relied on the powerful international studies (there was no reason to reinvent the wheel) and on our dialogue with the medical community to build public knowledge. The most powerful local evidence for us was the pictures of lungs that showed the deadly effect of air pollution. With that we tried to elicit a visceral reaction.

Scientific evidence is necessary to push action and decisions, and judicial orders. The judiciary has remained the key player and a propeller of action to combat air pollution in Delhi-NCR. The Supreme Court has been hearing the ongoing public interest litigation on air pollution since 1986. Judiciary has also created its own system of technical advisory by setting up the Environment Protection (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) to access scientific information and enable stakeholder consultations to make informed decisions, give directions and enable monitoring. This process has picked up after 1998. The Court also needs science and evidences to back decisions.

Today, air pollution science in India – still a growing body of knowledge – is better than what it used to be. More studies are available on air pollution, at least in some cities. People are now arming themselves with low-cost sensor-based air quality monitors to assess their own exposure. This citizen science has helped to improve awareness and public participation in the debate. Decision-makers are also better informed today in terms of the intricacies of air pollution, pollution sources, toxicity of different pollutants, and role of exposure which is important for the planning exercise. Only further deepening of this can counter policy denial.

The scientific community will also have to play a much stronger and responsible role today and participate in public conversation to help decode the complexities of translating science into common sense and give proper guidance on action – particularly fight misinformation. Politics of science and lack of transparency do more damage. There are often countless little details — what type of pollution? What are the sources? What does and does not work? But often politics of science creates more confusion and controversy than bring clarity. This is misused by the lobbies to block solutions. We have seen how source apportionment studies – an important air quality management tool — are used by lobbies, including the automobile industry, to belittle their respective role and contribution to the pollution pie and reduce their burden of action. The scientific community will have to be more strident to help governments fight and counter misinformation and misinterpretation of science, and guide the use of scientific evidence for policy making. Also, every time a solution is offered – like the CNG programme, or the odd and even scheme, or phasing-out of old vehicles, a study comes out arguing why it will not work. Currently, the scale of action is very limited compared to the magnitude of the problem. But that does not mean that the steps that are being taken are not important. Do more, and do all. There has to be much deeper policy and societal understanding of the scale, depth and stringency of action needed to improve air quality effectively.

How do we tell a story that the public will understand and be willing to act on?

Air pollution is a complex story to narrate. We need to bring out more human and personal health stories to help people connect and support action. There are multiple sources of pollution – there is a complex chemistry of pollutants with varied health effects, there are transboundary effects as pollution drifts, and there are many pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that need joining. The public often gets a partial and limited impression of the solutions, and sometimes a misleading understanding of the strategies being implemented. Discussion often gets narrowed down to debunking the inconvenient strategies, especially related to lifestyle changes like restraining personal car usage with a parking policy, or reapportioning road space to different road users. When it comes to translating awareness into support for lifestyle changes, that is when we lose support. Are people willing to pay more for parking, use public transport, or walk and cycle to reduce use of personal transport? Stop using charcoal for tandoor during smog episodes? Yet these are the same people who buy air purifiers and wear masks. We have to think about how to bridge that gap. There seems to be a fine difference between ‘to be informed’ and ‘to be deeply aware’ to support change.

There is also a limited understanding of emergency measures during smog episodes like odd and even scheme, or stopping trucks and construction to control peak pollution and exposures. These are not supposed to be permanent measures or silver bullets that can clean up the air immediately. People need to understand that when adverse meteorology traps pollution that has already been emitted, such emergency action helps prevent the pollution from getting worse and tapers off the peaks. The fundamental change will come from round-the-year systemic reforms. This is the combination that other countries follow.

Change also requires the power of negotiation and engagement with lobbies to build support for action. There is an interesting learning from the ongoing process of implementing the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). Thousands of brick kilns had to be shut down as part of the winter GRAP, but many brick kiln owners came to the Supreme Court appointed committee EPCA asking for a way out to prevent closure. Through negotiations, many of them have voluntarily agreed to transition to a new technology, as that would prevent the closure of brick kilns. This is very encouraging, given that they are usually the most adamantly opposed to changes which affect their livelihood. This also shows that instead of focusing only on penal action, it is important to work with the stakeholders to implement solutions.

What has been the judiciary’s engagement with the issue of air pollution over the years?

From our two decades of experience, we have understood the critical role that the judiciary and a vigilant civil society play to catalyse change. Public interest litigation is an opportunity for civil society to drive policies when executive action remains weak. When people are desperate for solutions and relief, and executive action is weak, the courts uphold the constitutional provision of right to life and right to wholesome environment; and the tenets of our laws and evoke principles of preventive action and polluter pay to push action. Get government to do what they need to do.

Air pollution is a technically complex issue: it requires strong technical and scientific backup to arrive at definitive Judgments. In the late 1990s, when we started, the judiciary was already a key actor. The Supreme Court was already hearing the ongoing PIL by MC Mehta on air pollution. During the initial years, it took some time for action to pick up. Even for the PILs to be effective, they need mechanisms to source science, evidence and technical guidance. The judiciary responded to the emerging health science and evidence.

The first phase of action was dominated by the urgency to provide relief – air polluting industrial units were shifted, public transport was moved to CNG, emissions standards for petrol and diesel vehicles started to improve incrementally, and fifteen-year-old commercial vehicles were banned, among others. During the second phase, the Supreme Court adopted a more systemic approach. It called for attention to exposure, recognised that pollution does not follow political boundaries, which meant solutions could not remain confined only to Delhi and must include the National Capital Region; and noted that air quality improvement needed action on all key sources of air pollution. All of this meant that from 2015 onwards, decisions from the Supreme Court were for the entire National Capital Region and not just Delhi. Moreover, the new measures were meant to holistically address the problem. Today, the judiciary relies on science heavily — it is striking to see the judges look at the source attribution pie charts from the IIT Kanpur study, or lab studies on dirty fuels of petcoke and furnace oil, or real-time survey data of truck entry and other evidence to chart a roadmap for each source of air pollution. The constant pressure from the Court has helped to leapfrog some decisions when the executive process remained incremental and slow.

Can you tell us a little more about the GRAP and the CAP?

The Supreme Court accelerated action once again following the series of deadly smog episodes during the winter months of 2015 and 2016. When pollution levels spiked, the apex Court asked — given that we already measure air pollution, given that we have classified daily levels of pollution as good, bad and ugly, what is our emergency plan when pollution turns ugly? That led to the notification of Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) – a daily emergency response plan. Simultaneously, the Supreme Court said, we cannot always be on emergency mode; we also need a comprehensive action plan for more sustained and systemic reforms. That eventually got notified as the Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP) in 2018 to reduce pollution.

The GRAP is meant to be a temporary and emergency measure during smog episodes and during winter. With GRAP you try to contain the peak levels and prevent levels from further worsening. This was implemented for the first time during 2017 winter, and emergency measures included shutting-down of Badarpur power plant, brick kilns, stone crushers, and hot-mix plants in NCR. Severe episodes led to stopping of construction and trucks. While many people criticised several GRAP measures, such as the odd-even scheme, often what was missing was an understanding that these measures were deliberately temporary.

The key lesson from GRAP is that the scope and effectiveness of several daily emergency measures can remain limited if they are not backed by more enduring, systemic changes. For instance, a hike in parking charges or intensification of public transport services during smog episodes cannot be effective if the overall parking policy and public transport reforms are not already in place. A ban on generator sets cannot be extended to NCR if the quality and reliability of clean electricity supply is not ensured.

The CAP, on the other hand, happened because the Supreme Court recognised that only reactive and short-term emergency response was not enough. The judiciary asked for CAP to roll out short, medium and long-term efforts to mitigate pollution. The scale and magnitude of the problem is very big: Delhi needs to reduce PM 2.5 levels by at least 74 per cent to meet the national clean air standards. This creates a mandate for very stringent action. Of course, even with the goals set, the path forward is not easy. We must ask ourselves– what action needs to happen behind the scenes? What is required to push forward for every strategy we have? Often, there are serious barriers to implementation.

What are the challenges for air pollution advocacy today?

It is expected that people, as they get aware, begin to champion public good, and make change happen. Public discourse is more widespread today to actively engage on these issues. This has to work both ways – not only as top down efforts of court orders and rule of law but also as bottom-up engagement and pressure to demand change and ensure shared responsibility. Engagement and evidence-based conversation has become important to convince people, and this must never stop.

But the conversation on solutions today is far more complex than it used to be. It is easier to discuss the health effects of air pollution, but more difficult to talk about the strategy needed to meet the clean air standards. Every time a solution is implemented or proposed, studies crop up and lobby pressure builds up contesting and claiming that the solution has not worked or will not work. Polluters claim that they are only a small part of the problem and targeting them will not help. Targeted action gets lost in the name of comprehensiveness. Moving each piece of action is a challenge. When we act, we move towards a solution.

It is important to recognise that the focus of the new generation of advocacy has to be compliance and real-world change on ground. We now know what to do: we know whom to hold responsible for action, our policies have adopted the right principles, our laws are tough, Courts are cracking the whip, and we have a legal mandate for implementation of GRAP and CAP. But the next big challenge is implementation and enforcement on a large scale. We need institutional capacity and advocacy energy to push each and every strategy forward. While action plans need to be comprehensive to include all sectors, it is also very important to build public and policy support for high degree of stringency, compliance measures, and time-bound targets. Currently, abatement plans are not designed to meet air quality demands. But with GRAP and CAP, we have taken the first important steps towards creating a strategy. We must change the way we talk about solutions, both for the public and for politicians.

Finally, people often say that Delhi gets all the attention and other cities that are suffering more severe pollution are overlooked and neglected. That is true. There is no uniformity in policy action across the national landscape, because there is no clear national air quality planning strategy. Cities that have experienced stronger public opinion and bottom-up pressure have succeeded in moving action faster than the others. It is also encouraging to see that the action in Delhi in some ways has catalysed national action, and several pieces of regulation are leading to a nascent national clean air programme. Delhi has helped create policy stepping stones. This experience and action in Delhi and NCR is helping to create a template of an action plan for cross-learning between cities. Taking this forward is the new advocacy challenge.