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View: Budget 2021 is a shot in the arm for India’s war on air pollution

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Just like the vaccine shots for Covid-19, Budget 2021 has come as a shot in the arm for India’s war on air pollution. The allocation of Rs2,217 crore to tackle the issue across 42 urban centres comes at the perfect time. There seems to be a sharp decline in the country’s Covid cases and a corresponding uptick in economic activity. Moreover, our cities are known hotbeds of air pollution, so it is commendable that the budget also allocates an additional Rs470 crore to the National Clean Air Program (NCAP).

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced three unique features: the re-use of scrap metal, the new vehicle scrapping policy, and the conception of the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Because manufacturing metal — from mining its ore to forging it in a foundry — is so emissions-intensive, the provision to reuse scraps of steel and copper will certainly reduce air pollution from India’s metals industry. We produce about several thousand tonnes of scrap every year. So, the potential for emissions reduction was clearly spotted by GoI.

Two, GoI’s new vehicle scrapping policy has been a long time coming. Even though it is voluntary, owners of vehicles older than 15 years (commercial) and 20 years (private) will have the option to recoup some amount of cash at the end of their vehicles’ lives. While the exact details are yet to be made available, it is fair to assume that owners would recover more through this scheme than if they discarded the vehicles at a non-authorised scrapyard. This should also dovetail nicely into GoI’s scrap metal initiative.

Three, the conception of NRF with a budget of Rs50,000 crore is an enormous leap forward into incorporating more science into the objective. Source apportionment studies have shown that around 70% of Delhi’s pollution load comes from within the city itself. The same problem is surfacing in the expanding suburbs of Mumbai, Kolkata and smaller cities like Pune. Such insight is critical for a city’s pollution management taskforce and would not have been possible without rigorous scientific assessment. Thus, NRF could not have come a moment sooner. It will not only push scientific investigations to find causes of pollution but also help spur innovations that can be scaled across the sectors of agriculture, industry and construction to curtail unnecessary waste and emissions.

Additionally, the budget has allocated Delhi’s Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) its own independent funding of Rs20 crore, and, therefore, considerable autonomy in its operations. This could be pivotal as the city did not receive funds under NCAP, and CAQM is unique in its role to address pollution in the Delhi airshed, not limiting to administrative limits. Also, GoI’s new waste management policy aims to tackle the issue at the source itself (such as landfills). Scattered incineration of household and street waste contributes to hyper-local air quality, so it’ll be necessary to monitor the initiative’s progress. But it’s certainly a positive step forward.

However, what’s most encouraging is that there will be a comprehensive performance assessment mechanism put in place under NCAP that will receive additional funding. These will be coupled with a system of imparting capacities and providing continuous training to urban local body (ULB) personnel, state pollution control board (SPCB) officials and institutes of repute under the National Knowledge Network (NKN).

The budget, therefore, correctly aims to bring together India’s premier research and training institutes, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and National Institutes of Technology (NITs), to impart requisite technical skills for program implementation staff.

Of course, it does have areas that need attention. For example, even though GoI plans to extend an additional 1 crore natural gas connections under the Ujjwala scheme, incentivising solar cookers for rural households would have been advisable as well. The two technologies complement each other, and would have been a good opportunity to spur additional manufacturing capacity, perhaps within the rural communities themselves.

Yet, overall this year’s funding for air pollution makes way for exciting possibilities. GoI’s complementary focus on expanding electric public transport will play a major role in alleviating vehicular pollution, and reports indicate that the sales of electric two-wheelers are already up by anywhere between two to ten times that of 2020. The synergy between e-mobility and strong steps forward in policy will reinforce each other, and hopefully the additional funding will be the key to unlocking a focused pursuit of good air quality.

The writer is member, Steering Committee, National Clean Air Program



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