On the Other Side of COVID-19: A Green Renaissance?

High Level Panel on Curbing Air Pollution in India’s National Capital Region

BGIF Dialogue Volume I

Friday, 25.09.20 | 5.30PM IST


As the debate towards a suitable economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic gains momentum, one of the greatest challenges confronting Indian policymakers will be to kickstart economic growth, create jobs, and restore demand. While policymakers grapple with these pressing issues, we, at Bhajan Global Impact Foundation (BGIF), sought to bring sustainability into the discourse. In particular, we aimed to discuss possible solutions to Delhi NCR’s air pollution crisis that arises at the onset of each winter.

The problem of air pollution warrants immediate attention for several reasons: it is a health hazard that causes and heightens respiratory and other health disorders, and severely disrupts economic and social activity. However, challenges breed opportunity to drive innovation and growth – in this case, through policy pragmatism, technological intervention, and behaviour and systemic change.

As such, in order to highlight the challenges associated with air pollution in New Delhi – and their solutions – we convened a panel on ‘On the Other Side of COVID-19: A Green Renaissance?’, comprising Dr. Urvashi Narain, Lead Economist at the World Bank’s Environment, Natural Resources, and Blue Economy Global Practice, Mr. Mohit Beotra, Co-Founder of Air Pollution Action Group, and Mr. Siddharth Singh, Lead Analyst and Consultant at International Energy Agency. The Dialogue was moderated by Mr. Bhavya Bishnoi, Vice Chairman of BGIF. Through the Dialogue, we hoped to ignite curiosity and inspire action among young people in India to rebuild sustainably and consciously on the other side of the pandemic. We are pleased to share with you below, key takeaways from the Dialogue.


Dr. Urvashi Narain

  • Since the 1990s, New Delhi has been a frontrunner in the pollution crisis it faces. It handled the crisis well then; it can do just as well now.
  • What are the impacts of air pollution on the economy and health?
    • There are multiple pollution sources. One third comes from biomass, a third, from industrial emissions, and another third, from vehicular emissions.
    • Since air crosses jurisdictions, much of the pollution in Delhi NCR comes from outside the national capital. There are also seasonal sources of pollution. For instance, winter sources are particularly dangerous. The most harmful pollutant is PM 2.5, which typically comes from primary sources such as burning coal, and from secondary interactions of chemicals. For instance, when NO2 and SO2 interact with ammonia, we see emissions in PM 2.5 particles. This magnifies with excessive uses of fertilisers in agriculture.
    • 60% of the pollution in the Indo-Gangetic plain comes from cross-country sources. Therefore, we need an airshed approach to solve the crisis.
    • Burden of disease: In 2017, 13% of all deaths in India were attributed to air pollution, which disproportionately affects the poor.
  • The benefits of dealing with air pollution: the health cost of air pollution in India is equivalent to 6% of India’s GDP. In addition to health costs, there are impacts on agricultural productivity and impacts on solar farms’ productivity, among others.


Mr. Mohit Beotra

  • Three things that separate Delhi from other geographies and make the current air pollution crisis truly unique
    • Geographical constraints: Delhi is surrounded by a challenging climate, in that dust from the That desert in Rajasthan is brought into Delhi NCR by winds. Furthermore, the Aravali ranges and the Himalayan region that bind the northern Indo-Gangetic plain trap the polluted winds in and around the region.
    • Migration: IIT Delhi recently conducted a study that suggested that 43% of India’s urban emigrants have settled in New Delhi in the past 10 years alone. Hence, greater economic activity poses a greater threat to the environment as well.
    • Governance structures: The governance structure is complicated and convoluted in New Delhi, hindering work with several appellate bodies at any given time by on-ground practitioners such as myself. For instance, the Public Works Department (PWD) comes under the Delhi Chief Minister (CM); however, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) reports to the Delhi Governor. Often, politics comes in the way of tangible progress given the conflictual relationship between the Delhi CM and Governor currently.


Mr. Siddharth Singh

  • On the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP): In order to address the governance structure in New Delhi, we need to address the ministerial mismatch in leadership across issues and the funds allocated to them. Firstly, the NCAP’s budgetary allocation is too little to make real impact, and matching it to the right agency is a challenge in itself. Secondly, we have many cities, towns, and villages that need to benefit from better air quality but are not included in it (including Gurgaon, a high risk city). Finally, the NCAP needs to be contextualised to each region’s needs – both economically and geographically.

Dr. Urvashi Narain

  • Nonetheless, there are some good things in the NCAP. For instance, we can laud the Indian government for putting a target on the level of air pollution in cities in India. Additionally, the 15th Finance Commission put ₹ 4400 Crores as a performance-based scheme on reducing air pollution. If we put incentives on the table using the air shed management approach (an approach that has paid dividends in China), it can work in India effectively as well.


Dr. Urvashi Narain

  • In sum, there are five pillars of governance required:
    • Prioritise the Environment: India needs to tighten its ambient air quality standards. On an annual basis, we should not be breathing more than 10 micrograms of PM 2.5 particles on daily basis. Currently, the Indian standard is 40 micrograms, which is unacceptable.
    • Comprehensive Planning: We require state-level action planning in addition to central planning, as a coordinated effort.
    • Committed Executive: There will be a committed executive if there is enough financial means available to execute a reform.
    • Incentivise Enforcement: The provision that the polluter is financially held responsible does not exist in the Indian law-making framework.
    • Free Availability of Data: Continuous emissions monitoring systems should be made available to the public.
  • Design and implement a Green Fiscal Stimulus: for example, the vehicle scrapping policy (currently in the works in India) should be coupled with a policy that shifts vehicular fleets. Similarly, the excessive use of fertiliser can be reduced by decreasing the fertiliser and urea subsidies that exists, and instead, deploy those funds to incentivise employment benefits or in other areas of development.
  • In India, the environment is considered off the development table, and does not figure as a policy priority.
    • Economic growth and environmental sustainability should not be viewed as conflicting goals. For instance, during the 1930 financial crisis in the US, a Civilian Conservation Core programme was implemented for nine years wherein 3 billion trees were planted as an effort to building the country’s natural capital. This was a basis for the tourism industry’s growth in the US, and generated employment for millions of people. Therefore, both goals can simultaneously be achieved in India as well.


Mr. Mohit Beotra

  • Three solutions, in a nutshell:
    • Long term: crop diversification, which is a politically contentious issue. Pilots are being attempted in some Indian states, including Haryana, but much is yet to be achieved on this front.
    • Medium term: ex situ conservation, wherein stubble is taken off the fields of farmers. Several technologies are being deployed for this, however, the quantum of stubble generated far outweighs the current capabilities in technology and supply chain management.
    • Short term: in situ conservation, wherein the government needs to encourage farmers to adopt in situ solutions (e.g. happy seeder, etc.) and incentivise businesses to develop and deploy technologies to develop ex situ solutions large enough to absorb the high quantity of stubble produced each year.


Mr. Siddharth Singh

  • There is no low hanging fruit, as there are technical limits in each sector. Much of the technology for air pollution in India has either not yet been developed or implemented in practice.
  • Approximately 65% of the emissions can be reduced using the technologies that we have today. Hence, we need to finance R&D through the financial sector.
  • We need to invest today, or else will get locked in older, poorer technologies for the next several decades if we do not invest in some specific forms of heating, lighting, construction, cooking, and other eco-friendly technologies.
  • Technology can not alone solve the problem. We need a mix of both policy and financial means to address the challenge.
  • Smog towers are most certainly not a solution.
  • Non-motorised transport has the least amount of emissions. Electrified public transport is required at a level of last-mile connectivity, and at shorter durations.

In sum, curbing air pollution in India’s national capital region requires an urgent, comprehensive, and coordinated strategy design and implementation by policymakers, businesses, and citizens. We are responsible for the air we breathe!