New CPR Report on ‘Pursuing a clean air agenda in India during the COVID Crisis’

13 July 2020

A new report released by the CPR Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment explores the financial, regulatory and institutional implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on India’s air quality management goals. ‘Pursuing a clean air agenda in India during the COVID crisis,’ by Santosh Harish and Shibani Ghosh examines how the disruptive COVID-19 crisis could change the speed, and possibly the direction, of progress on air pollution in India.

To discuss this report, Shibani Ghosh and Santosh Harish will host a webinar on Friday, July 17 from 5:00 – 6:30PM with Prashant Gargava (Member Secretary, Central Pollution Control Board), Urvashi Narain (Lead Economist, World Bank – Environment, Natural Resources, and Blue Economy global practice), and Aruna Chandrasekhar (investigative journalist – coal, climate change, and environment). To register your attendance at this webinar, click here.

Overview of the Report

Air quality was gradually gaining political salience in India in the last few years, but COVID-19 and the deepening economic recession may now change the speed, and possibly the direction, of progress. The aim of this report is to begin the process, even amidst uncertainties, of understanding the effects of the COVID crisis on the air quality discourse in the country, and on the mitigation efforts already underway. We begin with a brief overview of the air quality improvements observed during the lockdown, and then identify some likely implications of the pandemic on how we frame the air quality problem. In view of state actions and public response during the COVID crisis, how should we, if at all, adapt our current framing of air pollution as a public health crisis? in the next section, we discuss broad financial, regulatory and institutional implications: in particular, the need to engage with the available funding channels to initiate and sustain measures to improve air quality amid significant fiscal constraints. There is a worrying erosion of environmental safeguards, which may – in part – be justified as a pre- requisite to restarting the economy, and facilitating “ease of doing business.” Given that air quality management in India needs a multi-pronged approach across disparate sources, we then reflect on how the disruptions affect each of the major sources, and the resultant opportunities and challenges.

Key Findings

Our analysis reveals that the disruptions caused by the pandemic, or actions taken in response to the disruptions, are likely to result in three sets of outcomes. In the first set are opportunities to set a new agenda or provide impetus to existing policy measures. These opportunities, when harnessed, will allow us to lock-in infrastructure or accelerate behavioral changes that are well-aligned with improved environmental and health outcomes, particularly air quality. We identify five such opportunities:

  • Provide increased, better targeted subsidies as part of a social protection package to allow poor households to use LPG as their primary cooking fuel.
  • Sustain the increased rate of shifting away from paddy cultivation in Punjab and Haryana, and ensure that the alternatives (e.g. maize, cotton) are truly viable for farmers.
  • Channel the demand for vehicle scrappage policies towards the replacement of old, heavily polluting vehicles, especially trucks.
  • Sustain gains made in the form of increased acceptability and experience with work-from-home and online meetings to reduce commuting, especially by private vehicles and cabs.
  • Retire old coal power plants so that newer or less polluting plants can meet a larger fraction of the demand.

However, the government response to the disruptions may lead to environmental safeguards getting diluted, formally or informally, citing the need for urgent economic recovery and improving the “ease of doing business.” In the second set lie such potentially regressive outcomes, which need to be firmly contested by civil society, and here we identify four such outcomes and the actions needed against them:

  • Push back against the dilution of environmental safeguards, especially through the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020.
  • Stress on the unacceptable delays in compliance with power plant emission norms issued in 2015, and demand urgent enforcement actions.
  • Push for greater transparency in monitoring, inspection and enforcement data from the pollution control boards to ensure dilutions in day-to-day regulation do not go unnoticed.
  • Dissuade investments in projects like flyovers and road- widening that tend to further reinforce reliance on private transport, at the cost of more sustainable mobility infrastructure.

Finally, in the third set are areas that we believe will not be directly affected by the pandemic, but where we need to actively sustain the discourse, develop ideas and make progress on longer term process improvements:

  • Continue developing the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) framework, in particular on developing uniform processes for identifying non-attainment cities and tracking inter-year air quality improvements.
  • Among the currently identified non-attainment cities, invest in knowledge base (source apportionment studies, monitoring networks), and complement it with efforts at identifying priorities at the city-level to develop more informed city action plans.
  • Advance airshed level management as a foundational principle, deliberate on ways to delineate airshed boundaries and institutionalise planning and coordination efforts.
  • Engage with urban local bodies to effectively utilise new grants from the 15th Finance Commission for 2020-21 in building capacity, investing in sustainable infrastructure, and improving public services, while anticipating substantial constraints in capacity this year.
  • Develop a robust framework for assessing performance under the 15th Finance Commission grants, and sustain the grants over the 2021-26 period.

You can read the full report here.

To learn more about CPR-ICEE’s work on air quality regulation and governance, click here.

About the CPR Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment (CPR-ICEE)

The Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR-ICEE) aims to stimulate an informed debate on the laws, policies and institutions shaping climate, energy and environmental governance in India. Our research focuses on improved understanding of climate, development and environmental challenges, and pathways to improved outcomes, in four key areas: climate policy and institutions, the political economy of electricity in India, low-carbon energy demand patterns in urban areas, and air quality governance. For live updates on our work, follow us on Twitter, or email us at

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.