What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is the presence of dust, fumes, gas, mist, odor, smoke or vapour, in the atmosphere, in quantities that can cause injury to human, plant or animal life or harm the environment.1 The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the quantities of these pollutants in the atmosphere in an area. The causes of air pollution include:2

  • Solid Air Pollutant. For example, burning of solid fuels such as firewood, crop residue, cow dung cakes, coal, lignite and charcoal.3
  • Liquid Air Pollutant. For example, use of gasoline, kerosene and diesel in households. 
  • Gaseous Air Pollutant. For example, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. 
  • Noise Pollutant. For example, harsh sounds from traffic, engines, generators and fireworks.

The National Ambient Air Quality Standards, set by the Central Pollution Control Board, lay down the permissible limits of twelve pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, trioxygen, lead, carbon monoxide, ammonia, benzene, arsenic, nickel and particulate matter. These limits differ for industrial, residential, rural, ecologically sensitive areas and other areas created by the Central Government.4


Right to Clean Environment

The right to a clean environment is a right available to all citizens in India.5 Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950 lays down the right to life and personal liberty, which includes the right to pollution-free air6 and a clean environment. Art. 51A(g) of the Constitution also creates a duty upon every citizen to protect and preserve the environment.7

If a person is suffering from health issues, due to air pollution, they have a right to complain under the law. Read more in our explainer “Who can you complain to regarding a grievance under the law?

  2. Section 2(a), Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  3. Indicators of Social Consumption, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, accessed at: http://mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/Report_585_75th_round_Education_final_1507_0.pdf.[]
  4. National Ambient Air Quality Standards and Trends 2019, cpcb.nic.in, accessed  at: https://cpcb.nic.in/upload/NAAQS_2019.pdf.[]
  5. Shri. Sachidanand Pandey v. State of West Bengal, AIR 1987 SC 1109.[]
  6. Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar, AIR  (1991) 1 SCC 598; M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Aravalli Mining case) (2004) 12 SCC 118.[]
  7. Article 51A(g), The Constitution of India, 1950.[]

What are the sources and effects of air pollution?

Air pollution is associated with many sectors, which include power, transport, industry, residential, construction, and agriculture.

Sources of Air Pollution

Burning of fossil fuels and emissions

The majority of air pollution comes from the use of energy like the burning of fossil fuels which releases toxic gases and chemicals into the air.1 The two most common types of air pollution are smog and soot, caused by burning of fossil fuels like coal or natural gases. The small airborne particles present in soot or smog are extremely dangerous, as they enter lungs and blood and can lead to bronchitis and heart diseases which can be fatal. 

Other sources of harmful air pollutants are in the emissions from industry, vehicles, road dust, construction, garbage burning, domestic households and diesel generator sets.1

Use of Air Conditioners

Increased use of air conditioners leads to a direct increase in the demand for electricity. This demand for electricity consequently increases the dependence on fossil fuels to meet the collective energy needs. The electricity sector, thus, is the largest source of polluting greenhouse gas emissions. Increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for climate change and air pollution. Therefore, increased usage of air conditioners is one of the causes of air pollution and is a threat to public health.2

However, a case cannot be filed against any single individual for such an act, as no one person is solely responsible for the increased demand of energy or air pollution. It is a result of increased use of air conditioners as a community which leads to these harmful effects of air pollution.

Vehicular Pollution

Emissions from vehicles are the source of 60-70% of overall air pollution. The Government is trying to control such emissions through measures like stricter mass emission standards and protocols, phasing out of old vehicles,3 increased awareness about vehicle maintenance and lane discipline, revised fuel efficiency norms like use of alternative fuel programmes and blending of biofuels, promotion of electric or hybrid vehicles and increased use of public transport like metros, e-rickshaws.4

Effects of Air Pollution

Climate Change 

Air pollution is both the cause as well as an effect of climate change. The emissions of carbon dioxide and methane raise the earth’s temperature. Consequently, increased heat leads to smog (smoke and fog) and increased UV radiation.5

Health Impacts 

Air pollution is extremely concerning due to its life-threatening health impacts. However, the impact of air pollution is not limited to health but extends to agriculture and the general well-being of human, plant and animal life. Other effects of air pollution can be irritation of the eyes and throat, damage to the lungs and can trigger allergies and asthma attacks.1 Long term exposure to polluted air may also cause skin problems, harm to liver and reproductive organs. Presence of hazardous chemicals, like lead and mercury, in the air can damage children’s brain function.5 Patients with lung or heart ailments are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.



  1. National Clean Air Programme, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, accessed at http://moef.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/NCAP_Report.pdf.[][][]
  2. National Research Development Corporation, accessed at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/vijay-limaye/ac-cools-us-warmer-world-dirties-air-harms-health.[]
  3. Report of Working Group on Environment and Environmental Regulatory Mechanisms, NITI AAYOG, accessed at: https://niti.gov.in/planningcommission.gov.in/docs/aboutus/committee/wrkgrp11/wg_envtal.pdf.[]
  4. Reference Note, Vehicular Pollution in India, Lok Sabha, accessed at: https://niti.gov.in/planningcommission.gov.in/docs/aboutus/committee/wrkgrp11/wg_envtal.pdf.[]
  5. Air Pollution, National Research Development Corporation, accessed at: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/air-pollution-everything-you-need-know#sec1.[][]

Who are the authorities under the air pollution laws?

The Central Pollution Control Board1 and the State Pollution Control Boards2 have been set up under the law to monitor air pollution in India. They have the following powers and functions:

  • Advise the Central and State governments on all matters relating to the prevention, control and reduction of air pollution.  
  • Planning and executing the programmes for the control of air pollution.
  • Prescribing the standards of air quality/AQI.
  • Giving permission to industrial plants to operate in a State.  No industrial plant can be set up or operated without prior permission of that State’s Pollution Control Board.3

Appellate Authorities

The state governments form Appellate Authorities to handle disputes relating to the environment and pollution. For example, in the state of Karnataka, a three member Karnataka State Appellate Authority headed by a retired judge, is the appellate authority.4 Anyone who wants to appeal against an order of a State Pollution Control Board can go before the appellate authorities,5 not any other civil court.6

A person who wants to appeal against the decisions and orders of the Appellate Authority can go before the National Green Tribunal,7 which has legal authority over all civil cases raising a substantial question relating to the environment, including enforcement of any legal right relating to the environment. 

Pollution Control Committees

The Pollution Control Committees are regulatory bodies, set up by the Central Pollution Control Board. The Board can delegate its powers and functions to these Committees for certain areas. For example, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee  was established in 1991 to perform the functions as that of a State Board for the Union Territory of Delhi.8


  1. Section 16, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  2. Section 17, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  3. Section 21, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  4. Shibani Ghosh, Sharachchandra Lele and Nakul Heble, ‘Appellate Authorities under Pollution Control Laws in India: Powers, Problems and Potential’, 14/1 Law, Environment and Development Journal (2018), available at http://www.lead-journal.org/content/18045.pdf.[]
  5. Section 31, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  6. Section 46, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  7. Section 16(f), National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.[]
  8. Delhi Pollution Control Committee, accessed at:https://www.dpcc.delhigovt.nic.in/about#gsc.tab=0.[]

What is the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme?

The Central Pollution Control Board established the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP) to track air quality across 29 states and 6 union territories. The aim of NAMP is to:1

  • Determine the status and trends of ambient air quality.
  • Determine whether the prescribed ambient air quality standards are being violated.
  • Identify cities that do not meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) over a 5-year period consistently and designate them as non-attainment cities.
  • Gather knowledge and proper understanding for developing preventive and corrective measures.
  • Understand the natural cleaning process taking place in the environment through pollution dilution, dispersion, wind-based movement, dry deposition, precipitation and chemical transformation of pollutants.


The NAMP monitors the four major pollutants as part of the AQI – sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, respirable particulate matter and fine particulate matter. It also checks wind speed and direction along with relative humidity and temperature.

The NAMP is a result of the joint efforts of the Central Pollution Control Board, State Pollution Control Boards, Pollution Control Committees and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur.


  1. Central Pollution Control Board, available at  https://cpcb.nic.in/about-namp/.[]

Who can you complain to about a grievance under air pollution law?


Anyone can file a complaint at the nearest police station and can even register an FIR (First Information Report) for public nuisance1 against the establishment, industry or person responsible for air pollution. 


Central and State Pollution Control Boards

CPCB stands for the Central Pollution Control Board. It is a body constituted under the law to prevent and control water and air pollution in India. It also provides technical services to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and runs the air and water quality monitoring programme to help regulate and decrease the level of pollution.2 It has a complaint portal on its website to report air pollution in Delhi NCR.

An aggrieved person can approach the State Pollution Control Board office in their state or visit the website to file a complaint for air pollution. The State Pollution Control Boards have the power to:

  • Approach a court for restraining any person who is likely to cause air pollution.3
  • Obtain information about emissions from industrial plants, enter and inspect premises, take samples of emissions and send for analysis.4 
  • Direct the closure of such polluting establishments or cut off or regulate its water or power supply. 


District Magistrate

Anyone can approach the Magistrate to file a civil suit for remedy against public nuisance with the help of a lawyer. The Magistrate also has the power to  issue a notice under Sec. 133 CrPC5 (order for removal of nuisance) to stop the polluting activities.

National Green Tribunal

Complaints can be registered at the official website of the National Green Tribunal. (NGT). The complaint can be filed as an individual, advocate, a representative of a law firm or NGO or as a representative of the Government of India.

When the proceedings are initiated, the NGT can provide relief and compensation as well as order return and restoration of property damaged and the environment of the area.6  The NGT orders compensation for instances of death, disability, injury or sickness, loss of wages and medical expenses7 to the person responsible for causing the damage to the environment.8

The Tribunal also has the power to grant:

  • Interim orders or a stay 
  • Orders requiring a person to cease and desist. 
  1. Section 268, Indian Penal Code, 1860.[]
  2. Central Pollution Control Board, accessed at: https://cpcb.nic.in/Introduction/.[]
  3. Section 22A(1), Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  4. Section 24-26,Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  5. Section 133, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.[]
  6. Section 15, The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.[]
  7. Schedule II, The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.[]
  8. Section 17, The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.[]

What are the offences and punishments under air pollution laws?


Crime Law Punishment
Causing air pollution beyond air quality limits The law bans industries from releasing any air pollutants more than the limits the State Pollution Control Board has laid down.1 If they do, the person in-charge of the establishment has to immediately notify the State Pollution Control Board2 and they have to pay for any corrective measures that the agencies undertake to reduce the impact of such harmful emissions3 as per the polluter pays principle.   The concerned State Pollution Control Board can make an application to a  Court (not below a Metropolitan Magistrate or a Judicial Magistrate of the First Class) for restraining the offender from emitting the air pollutant.4

The polluter will have to reimburse the costs (plus interest the State departments have to bear to control the pollution.

An industrial plant is set up or operated without proper permission It is a crime for an industrial plant to set up or operate without the proper permissions from the State Pollution Control Board5 or exceed the allowed emission limits1 or the proper pollution control equipment.6 The punishment is jail time of  one and half years to six years, along with a fine.7 If the violation continues, then an added fine of Rs. 5,000 (maximum) can also be imposed for each day it continues. 

If such failure continues for more than a year, then the offender can be punished with jail time for two to seven years, with fine.8

Use of vehicle in unsafe condition If a vehicle is driven in a public place, which violates the standards laid down in relation to noise and air pollution, it is a punishable offence.9 The punishment is a fine of Rs. 1,000 for a first offence and Rs. 2,000 for a second offence.  
Violation of PUC(Pollution Under Control) Certificate  A person using a motor vehicle will be fined if they are not carrying a valid PUC (Pollution under Control) certificate issued by the Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways. The punishment is a fine of Rs. 10,000.10
Environmental pollution: pollution of air, water or land Violation of any provision of the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 i.e pollution of air, water or land or any harm to the environment is a crime. The punishment is jail time upto 5 years along with a fine that may extend to Rs. 1,00,000. Continued failure to comply with the law will lead to an additional fine of Rs. 5,000 for every day of non-compliance.11
Releasing of harmful pollutants  into the environment Releasing harmful pollutants into the environment forms part of the offence of public nuisance12 as they make the air toxic and are injurious to the health of people. Even smoking in public places is considered to be a crime of public nuisance.13 The  punishment is a fine of Rs. 500.14 
Engaging in activities that are harmful to the health and physical comfort of the community  Operating industries and other processes that release air pollutants causing harmful health issues as well as discomfort to the people is an offence. This includes any conduct of any such trade or business that is harmful and causes imminent danger to the health of the people and threatens their physical discomfort. A Magistrate can pass an order15 for removal of nuisance to stop such activities.


  1. Section 22, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[][]
  2. Section 23, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  3. Section 23(3), Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  4. Section 22A, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  5. Section 21, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  6. Section 31A, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  7. Section 37, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  8. Section 37(2), Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]
  9. Section 190(2), Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.[]
  10. Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019.[]
  11.  Section 15, Environmental Protection Act, 1986.[]
  12. Ratlam Municipality v. Vardhi Chandra, 1980 AIR 1622.[]
  13. K Ramkrishnan v. the State of Kerala, AIR 1999 Ker 385.[]
  14. Section 290, Indian Penal Code, 1860.[]
  15. Section 133, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.[]

What happens if the air pollution is caused by Government Departments?

When an offence is committed by a government department, the head or heads of that department will be held responsible for that particular offence and legal proceedings can be initiated against them.  In addition to this, if it is proven that the offence was committed with the consent, involvement, or neglect of any officer of the Government department, except the Head of Department, then that officer would be held responsible for the offence and not the head of department. Read more in our explainer on “What are the offences and punishments under this law”.

However if the offence was committed without the knowledge of the head of department or if all precautions were taken to avoid such an offence, then they would not be held responsible.1  

  1. Section 41, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.[]