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Air Quality Data Dissemination

Legal and Policy Challenges

Keith Varghese ( is with Enviro-Legal Defence Firm, New Delhi and M P Ram Mohan ( is with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Comprehensive air quality monitoring and its data dissemination remain the key factors that determine our ability to understand the quality of the environment in which we live. The Supreme Court’s dictum of the right to a clean environment and healthy living under Article 21 of the Constitution could also include in its ambit the right to have knowledge of the quality of air we breathe. The Central Pollution Control Board should also consider multiple policy and technological options, including adopting low-cost AQM towards better implementation of national air quality standards.

In recent years, the issue of air pollution in certain states received national and international attention, displaying seriousness of the adverse health impacts of pollution on the citizens. The issue of air pollution is not restricted to metropolitan cities, but also tier-two cities. Though health effects of air pollution are well-documented, what we see is the lax policy and regulatory mechanism in dealing with this national issue.

The Supreme Court as early as in 1985 through M C Mehta v Union of India (1985) (henceforth, M C Mehta case) has been playing a major role towards curbing air pollution ordering conversion of buses in Delhi to compressed natural gas (CNG),1 preparation of action plan for polluting cities,2 not allowing trucks that are not destined for Delhi,3 etc. However, the inordinate delay in the implementation of these orders highlights the deficiency in the regulatory mechanisms. One of the major problems in effective air pollution monitoring is inadequacy of data regarding the pollution level across cities. Without widespread adoption and use of the air quality monitoring (AQM) stations, and subsequent data gathering, appropriate measures to deal with air pollution cannot be taken scientifically and systematically. The courts have time and again highlighted the importance of continuous air pollution monitoring and data dissemination. The pollution control boards have, to a certain extent, implemented numerous programmes, but a lot remains to be done.

Ambient Air Quality Standards

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is the nodal authority to improve the quality of air and to prevent, control or abate air pollution,4 and also lays down the air quality standards.5 Pursuant to this, the CPCB first notified air quality standards vide a notification in 19946 which was later superseded by another notification in 19987 and the latest notification which is still in force was published in 2009,8 wherein the current National Ambient Air Quality Standards were notified. All these notifications, including the 1994 and 1998, defined the parameters for different pollutants such as Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), Sulphur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter PM2.5, PM10 etc. What we see in these different notifications is the increased number of pollutants being added. For instance, the 1994 notification had six pollutants, whereas the 2009 notification has 12 pollutants mentioned. Moreover, the maximum permissible limits of the pollutants have also decreased over the period of time in the said notifications. It is pertinent to understand the various air monitoring programmes as enacted by the CPCB.

National AQM Programme

The CPCB initiated National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring (NAAQM) programme in 1984 with seven stations, which was later renamed to National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAQMP or NAMP). The network consists of 683 operating stations covering 300 cities/towns in 29 states and six union territories. Air pollutants monitored at the aforementioned locations are SO2, NO2, PM10, PM2.5.9 The monitoring is being carried out with the help of CPCB, State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), Pollution Control Committees and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). The CPCB acknowledges that the data is procured with the help of a large number of personnel and equipment thereby increasing the probability of variation biases in data, and advises that the data be treated as only indicative.10 Further, data collected through NAMP on a quick perusal suggests voluminous and not intelligible to the public.

Against this backdrop of the Commonwealth Games in September 2010, the Ministry of Earth Sciences introduced System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) to provide information on air quality in real time and its forecast for the public.11 This was developed by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune along with the Indian Meteorological Department and the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting. The objective of this initiative is to disseminate AQM data to the public in real time12 in form of colour codes. The AQI used herein is similar to the National Air Quality Index (NAQI) which is discussed here later; the difference being that in SAFAR, the colour code depicting good and satisfactory air quality is a single colour, whereas in NAQI it is represented by two different colours. SAFAR started with disseminating AQM data of Delhi and now monitors data in four cities—New Delhi, Pune, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.13

Significance of the NAQI

Taking the initiative forward, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) launched NAQI on 17 October 2014, for public to judge the air quality of their vicinity.14 NAQI is a colour-coded system based on the concentration of air pollutants—PM10, PM2.5, NO2, SO2, Carbon monoxide (CO), Ozone (O3), Ammonia (NH3), and Lead (Pb). The colour code shows quality of the air which ranges from good to severe.15 The colours range from green which depicts the air quality will have minimal impact, to maroon which is severe, which means that the air quality affects healthy people and seriously affects those with existing diseases. The main aim behind this initiative is for the ease of the public to understand the air quality. For the success of NAQI it is necessary that data from all the areas in a city are disseminated.


The NAQI has been prone to criticism16 such that it does not depict an exact picture of the air pollution situation. One of the reasons attributed to this is that there is a deficit in the AQM stations which is the base for the colour coding of air quality. The number of AQM stations, though, has increased manifold in the recent past. However, with the magnitude and size of India there is much left to be done. Driving the point of inadequate data gathering, the website of NAQI shows that for certain cities the AQM stations’ distribution within cities remains fragmented, and in many cities it is limited to only one. Single AQM station cannot in any way be a representative of the AQI of the entire city. For instance, for Ahmedabad in Gujarat, AQI is shown for only a particular region of Maninagar and the data shown therein was of 23 March 2017. Further, within Ahmedabad there are several industrial clusters, where the air pollution could be a more serious issue (Pathak et al 2015). As an example with respect to inconsistency of data mapping, the website17 of Gujarat Pollution Control Board differs from NAQI data and states that there are seven AQM stations, and the SAFAR shows the presence of 10 AQM stations.18 Three different government platforms are showing a totally different picture on air quality of a city, clearly showcasing the multiplicity in the AQM programmes leading to inefficient data dissemination.

Air Pollution and Courts in Action

In Vardhaman Kaushik v Union of India (2014), the National Green Tribunal (NGT), while hearing this case, took note of the deteriorating air quality of National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi as violating existing prescribed standards. This was the tipping point for the plethora of directions such as banning of 10-year and older diesel vehicles, ban on registration of new diesel cars, temporary ban on constructions amongst others. This case, apart from highlighting the inferior air quality, also pointed out the inadequate AQM technology in India. For instance, Rajasthan on 10 November 2016 in the above case accepted lack of instruments to measure PM. This submission highlights the much-needed technological advancement for AQM stations in India. The Central Monitoring Committee established by the NGT, also highlighted the importance of AQM stations in their first meeting held on 17 November 2016. The Supreme Court in the M C Mehta case vide orders as recent as 10 November 2016, 2 December 2016 and 6 January 2017 have dealt with issues regarding the AQM stations. Moreover, on 6 February 2017, when CPCB requested the Supreme Court for funds out of the Environment Protection Charge19 for setting up of AQM stations and upgrading existing ones, the Court released more than the asked amount, with no objections from the bar or the bench. Even the recently notified Graded Action Plan,20 reiterates the need for dissemination of air quality information. The courts (Bandhua Muktui Morcha v Union of India & Ors (1984)) have been consistently highlighting the need for AQM stations and data dissemination, and have tied the air quality issue with right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution, mandating governmental authorities to act comprehensively.

Air Quality Monitoring: Challenges

In measuring air quality, two types of AQM stations are primarily used—manual stations and real time monitoring stations (RTMS). It is reported that the data from the RTMS is comparatively more accurate than the manual monitoring stations as it is less dependent on manual interference and collation. However, it is imperative to understand that setting up an AQM station, depending on the technology, could be capital-intensive. There are numerous fixed and operational costs incurred during establishing such stations such as costs for machines, operation and maintenance of machines, batteries, etc. Further, the RTMS is established in a permanent structure with minimum two air conditioners, computers, software and a huge battery backup21 which only adds upon the cost of operating such stations. For setting up an RTMS it takes approximately ₹1.5 crore for the stations and ₹8 lakh for the annual operation and maintenance of the station. Further, for setting up a manual monitoring station, around ₹5 lakh is required and ₹3.5 lakh for annual operation and maintenance is required.22 Such huge costs are an impeding factor towards establishment of AQM stations all across India.

Development of Low-cost AQM

Effective solution to this problem is to frame policies to encourage research and development in low-cost AQM systems. Such systems are also being encouraged and developed by the United Nations Environment Programme in Africa.23 Government agencies all over the world have started adopting low-cost AQM devices (Kumar et al 2015). Environment Protection Agency of the United States has also acknowledged the upcoming technology of the low-cost AQM (Judge and Wayland 2014) and has a dedicated web page for the developers, scientists and public wherein they are disseminating, data validation from the low-cost air quality sensors available in the market to the data from their monitoring stations.24

The CPCB took an initiative to discuss with low-cost AQM device manufacturers and though there have been news reports25 that CPCB is planning on developing standards for low-cost AQM devices, but as of now there is no clear policy document yet. There have been concerns raised regarding the accuracy of the low-cost AQM, but in order to arrive at a conclusion, it is imperative to conduct a long-term data validation exercise of all low-cost AQM devices available in India. The CPCB could also examine the issue of certifications by experts such as the Bureau of Indian Standards, etc, and explore using low-cost AQM devices in the existing AQM programmes.


The public is forced to live in ignorance of the fact that the air they are breathing could be much more harmful than the prescribed safe parameters. Such an information deficit goes against the fundamental idea of healthy living. The courts have consistently been asking the government to improve country’s ability to gather and disseminate high quality air quality data as a step towards constitutional obligation of state towards providing citizens a right to healthy living under Article 21, the right to life. It would be desirable if the government prepares a national policy and guidelines for various technology options on AQM, including low-cost AQM. Further, a rigorous data validation exercise on the existing low-cost AQM devices vis-à-vis other AQM would help in choosing the right technology. Once we achieve AQM data coverage across India, it is imperative that it is disseminated through a common platform and necessary awareness programmes are in place. This will deepen the democratic process and also our understanding of the air pollution in a locality, allowing communities to engage in its mitigating efforts.


1 M C Mehta Case, vide order dated 28 July 1998.

2 M C Mehta Case, vide order dated 14 August 2003.

3 Order dated 6 December 2001.

4 Section 16(1) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

5 Section 2(h) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

6 CPCB, vide notification No S O 384 (E), dated 11 April 1994.

7 CPCB, notification No S O 935 (E), dated 14 October 1998.

8 CPCB, vide notification No S O B–29016 /20/90/PCI–I, dated 18 November 2009.

9 Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, available at, last accessed on 30 June 2017.

10 National Air Quality Monitoring Programme, CPCB, available at, last accessed on 1 July 2017.

11 Available at Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Earth Science, Government of India; relid=65912, last accessed on 30 June 2017.

12 System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research, Ministry of Earth Science, Government of India, available at, last accessed on 30 June 2017.

13 System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research, Ministry of Earth Science, Government of India, available at, last accessed on 1July 2017.

14 “National Air Quality Index (AQI) Launched by the Environment Minister AQI is a Huge Initiative under ‘Swachh Bharat,’” Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, 17 October 2014, available at, last accessed on 27 June 2017.

15 National Air Quality Index, Central pollution Control Board, MoEF&CC, available at http: //, last accessed on
1 July 2017.

16 Bithal (2015); Sunil Dahiya, “Analysing the National Air Quality Index Platform,” 6 April 2016, available at, last accessed on 28 June 2017.

17 “Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Data of
Amdavad City at Selected Locations,” Gujarat Pollution Control Board, available at last accessed on 1July 2017.

18 SAFAR India, Ministry of Earth Science, Government of India, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, available at, last accessed on 1 July 2017.

19 This fund was set up by the Supreme Court through earlier orders in the M C Mehta case: WP (C) 13029/1985 for collection of the 1% Environment cess towards registration of new diesel vehicles of more than 2000 cc in NCR.

20 MoEFCC, Government of India, vide notification S O No 118 (E), dated 12 January 2017.

21 Technical Specifications for Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Station (Real Time), CPCB, available at, pdf, last accessed on 1 July 2017.

22 Vide Notification S O No 118 (E), dated 12 January 2017, p 13.

23 “Low-Cost Device Can Revolutionise Air Quality Monitoring and Help Countries Prevent Deaths from Outdoor Pollution,” UN Environment, available at 2015/low-cost-device-can-revolutionize-air-quality-monitoring-and-help-countries-prevent-deaths, last accessed on 1 July 2017.

24 Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists, Researchers and Developers, US EPA, available
at, last accessed on 1 July 2017.

25 Homemade Technology for Low-cost, Reliable Monitoring of Pollution,” available at, last accessed on 1 July 2017.


Bandhua Muktui Morcha v Union of India & Ors (1984): 3, SCC, p 161.

Bithal, Shirin (2015): “National Air Quality Index: A Solution with too Many Problems,” Down to Earth, 30 November.

Pathak, Chintan Y, Hiren Chandrakant Mandalia, Debananda Roy and R B Jadeja (2015): “Comparative Study of Ambient Air Quality Status of Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar City in Gujarat, India,” Chemical Science Transactions, 4(1), 90.

Judge, Robert and Richard Wayland (2014): “Regulatory Considerations of Lower Cost Air Pollution Sensor Data Performance,” Air and Waste Management Association, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, available at, last accessed on 1 July 2017.

Kumar, Prashant, Lida Morawska, Claudio Martani and Rex Britter (2015): “The Rise of Low-cost Sensing for Managing Air Pollution in Cities,” Environment International, pp 199–205.

M C Mehta v Union of India (1985): Writ Petition, (C) 13029.

Roychowdhury, Anumita, Vivek Chattopadhyaya and Shambhavi Shukla (2016): Reinventing Air Quality Monitoring, New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment, p 9.

UNEP (2015): “Low-Cost Device Can Revolutionise Air Quality Monitoring and Help Countries Prevent Deaths from Outdoor Pollution,” available at, last accessed on 1 July 2017.

Vardhaman Kaushik v Union of India (2014): O A 21.

Updated On : 17th Oct, 2017


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