Clearing the Air: India’s National Clean Air Programme and the Path Forward

Abhivyakti Mishra


The National Clean Air Programme is a pollution-control initiative that was started by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2019 with the goal of reducing the concentration of coarse (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 10 micrometres, or PM10) and fine (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, or PM2.5) particles by at least 20% over the course of the following five years, using 2017 as the baseline year for comparison.


The Swiss business IQAir, a leader in air quality technology, published the 2021 World Air Quality Report. Using a network of tens of thousands of monitoring stations, it calculated the amount of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air in 6,475 cities across 117 different nations. Of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia in 2021, it was discovered that 11 were in India.

Particulate matter (PM2.5) is defined as anything smaller than 2.5 microns. These tiny particles, which are produced by sources including automobile engines, power plants, manufacturing operations, construction, and more, are around three times smaller than red blood cells. They infiltrate into the bloodstream and enter the lungs deeper than larger contaminants because of their small size.

Currently, a growing body of scientific data links air pollution to a number of medical diseases, including chronic pulmonary and cardiac conditions, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory infections, and blames it for millions of premature deaths globally. One of the main causes of health problems in India is poisonous air, which has a cost to the economy of over USD 150 billion annually.

About National Clean Air Programme  

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) of the Government of India is a significant step in recognizing and resolving the issue of declining ambient air quality. With an emphasis on about 132 “non-attainment” cities whose air quality requirements are not being reached, the NCAP has set a deadline for improving air quality across the nation. The NCAP offers cities a comprehensive framework for creating air quality management plans as well as recommendations for policies in several fields.

Based on the recommendations of the 15th Finance Commission, the Government of India allocated roughly $1.7 billion in 2020 to combat air pollution for the 42 Indian cities with a million or more inhabitants over the following five years – provided they reduce their air pollution levels by 15% annually. This is the first fiscal transfer funding program for managing urban air quality that is based on performance.

In August 2021, the Indian Parliament enacted a statute to create the Commission of Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and surrounding districts. This was done in recognition of the necessity for coordinated cross-jurisdictional and airshed level action and coordination.

Implementation Procedure

131 cities are being targeted by NCAP for air quality improvement. Out of these 131 cities, 123 cities (NACs) are recognized by NCAP as not meeting national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) five years in a row. Additionally, the 15th Finance Commission’s (XV-FC) list of million-plus cities (MPCs) that are eligible to receive performance-based grants for the improvement of air quality also includes MPCs. 34 cities out of the 42 MPCs fall under NCAP. In order to improve air quality, 131 cities (NACs and MPCs) are being monitored by the NCAP.

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), launched in January 2019 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), aims to enhance air quality in 131 cities (non-attainment cities and Million Plus Cities) in 24 States/UTs by involving all stakeholders. By 2025–2026, the program aims to achieve reductions of up to 40% or to meet the national ambient air quality standards for PM10 (PM 10) concentrations.

49 cities under the XVth Finance Commission air quality grant have been given an annual target of 15% reduction in annual average Particulate matter (PM10) concentrations and improvement of Good Air Quality Days. 82 cities under NCAP have been given an annual target of 3-15% reduction of PM10 levels to achieve an overall reduction of air quality of up to 40% PM10 levels.

Emerging Concerns

Particularly in Delhi, deadly fine particle matter increased by 14.6% over the previous year, exposing its 32 million citizens to air so filthy that the pollutants they breathe in every day could shorten their life expectancy by as much as nine years. Delhi is the most polluted capital city, according to data on air pollution by the World Bank.

Air pollution is a silent killer on a global scale. India has some of the worst air pollution in the world, which poses a serious danger to the health and economy of the nation. The 1.4 billion people who live in India are all subject to unsafe concentrations of ambient PM 2.5, the most dangerous pollutant, which comes from a variety of sources. The diameter of these tiny particles, which is less than 2.5 microns, is equivalent to around one-thirtieth of a human hair.

Lung cancer, stroke, and heart disease are just a few of the terrible conditions that exposure to PM 2.5 can bring on. In India in 2019, it is predicted that 1.7 million premature deaths were brought on by outdoor and indoor air pollution. Pollution’s negative effects on human health come at a significant economic expense. Lost wages from work because of fatal illness from PM 2.5 pollution in 2017 was in the range of $30-78 billion, equal in magnitude to about 0.3-0.9 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Way Forward

Combating Climate Change: In addition, research by the World Bank and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) indicates that India might experience large climate change co-benefits from focusing on air pollution through a clean air route out to 2030.

The World Bank will help Indian cities, states, and the Indo-Gangetic Plain develop state and regional airshed plans for cleaner air for everybody over the medium- to long-term. The emphasis will be on establishing systems that are essential for transformation and building institutional skills. Bringing the best local and international specialists to bear on the air quality issue would be made possible by working with the government and diverse stakeholders.

By updating the previous objective of a 20 to 30% reduction by 2024, the Center has set a new target of a 40% reduction in particulate matter concentration in cities covered by the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) by 2026.

Cities with sufficient amounts of vegetation (trees, plants) have lower temperatures and improved air quality. However, there are more and more cases of reduced green cover as a result of concretization (building of infrastructure and structures in cities) and the expansion of unauthorized/unplanned constructions (houses, stores). Farmland and open space have decreased as a result of cities’ outward spatial growth. Given that plants aid in lowering carbon dioxide levels and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, it is essential to preserve existing green cover and expand it in a planned manner. Plants and trees also aid in lowering the amount of heat produced by various activities including the transportation industry.

Solar Energy: India has already started many of the crucial “sector transitions” required in managing air quality due to its convergence with climate change. India, for instance, is leading the solar energy revolution. Today, the 750 MW Rewa Solar Project in Madhya Pradesh provides 60 per cent of Delhi Metro’s daytime energy needs, reducing the city’s reliance on coal and generating over $170 million in savings over the next 25 years.

Electric Vehicles: A switch to electric cars (EVs) can assist in improving air quality. There is sufficient evidence to show that pollutants generated by conventional (i.e. fossil fuel-powered) motor vehicles considerably contribute to global emissions. For instance, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has found that EV greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 17–30% lower than those of conventional vehicles. It is now more important than ever to regulate the issue of motor vehicle emissions because of the growing demand for mobility and the growth of the worldwide population. The electrification of transportation lowers the need for oil, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and improves health results.

Over 2 million electric vehicles (EVs) were registered in the country as of February 2023, and there were 5,151 charging points. However, electric two- and three-wheelers, which account for over 95% of sales, are still uncommon in the four-wheeler market. It is essential to boost the electrification of four-wheelers (cars, buses, and trucks), as they make up a sizable portion of the vehicles that travel city streets and produce considerable amounts of emissions.

However, one emerging concern about EVs is the dilemma of charging the EVs which would put pressure on the thermal power plants & thus air pollution increase. In order to balance off the reductions in tailpipe emissions, the rise in the number of electric vehicles is anticipated to raise the demand for electricity, which could lead to an increase in emissions from thermal power plants. This study examines the effects of switching the fleet from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) to electric vehicles (EVs) on coal power plants as well as its environmental effects in India.

In India’s current energy production scenario, a comparison of direct and indirect emissions from internal combustion engine vehicles and electric vehicles (powered by coal power generation) reveals that electric vehicles emit less CO2 and CO, whereas SO2 and Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) emissions (indirectly from the thermal power plant), are more prevalent.


In conclusion, India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) stands as a pivotal endeavour to combat the grave menace of air pollution. The program’s recognition of the far-reaching impacts of particulate matter pollution on public health and the economy underscores its urgency. With a targeted reduction of particulate matter concentration by 40% by 2026, the NCAP signifies a determined push towards tangible improvements.

Collaboration emerges as a cornerstone, as the NCAP involves a multi-pronged approach encompassing policy, monitoring, and performance-based grants. The alignment of air quality goals with climate change initiatives offers a unique opportunity for co-benefits that can reshape India’s environmental landscape.

As India forges ahead with renewable energy transition, and as its people demand a healthier environment, the NCAP takes on added significance. By integrating proven strategies, harnessing collective expertise, and maintaining rigorous implementation, India can chart a path towards cleaner air and healthier lives. The NCAP’s journey reflects a commitment to sustainable development and underscores that cleaner air is not just a necessity but a fundamental right for every Indian citizen. The road to cleaner air is challenging, but the NCAP exemplifies India’s potential to overcome the odds, fostering a future where breathability and well-being prevail.


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Abhivyakti is a research intern at IMPRI.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Priyanka Negi, Mansi Garg and Aaswash Mahanta for their kind comments and suggestions to improve the article.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation. 

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