choking cities

As Delhi dominates the airpocalypse narrative, the rest of India quietly chokes to death

Let’s drop the focus on air quality rankings. It’s not a Delhi problem. It is a national problem.

In early 2015, the World Health Organisation released its annual Ambient Air Pollution Database, which catalogues levels of particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10) across 91 countries and 1,600 cities, ranking them on the basis of annual average ambient concentration of both pollutants.

The database placed 13 Indian cities in the top 20 most polluted around the world, ranking Delhi first in terms of annual average concentration of PM2.5 – which is particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, or about 30 times finer than a human hair – the more harmful of the two pollutants.

This ranking triggered a period of sustained media coverage of the deplorable air quality in the national capital, along with a series of feverish repudiations from policymakers with objections raised regarding the validity of the data and the methodology employed. Articles reporting on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index the previous year, which ranked India as worse off than China and several of its South Asian neighbours, triggered a similar debate that quickly disintegrated into a Delhi vs Beijing squabble.

During both years, as with reporting on the latest World Health Organisation Ambient Air Pollution database earlier this year, the media as well as the general public, completely lost sight of the bigger picture. The spotlight in each case was reserved exclusively for Delhi, given its centrality in the Indian media and political discourse, with little attention provided to the broader message being conveyed by either the environmental performance index or the Ambient Air Pollution database, which is that the issue is regional in its influence, national in its import, and with severe implications for the health of the Indian citizenry.

Lack of data

The Ambient Air Pollution database exercise involves compiling data across multiple sources including data reported by national agencies, regional networks, UN agencies, other development agencies, and peer-reviewed literature. The vastness of the exercise and the sparseness of the monitoring, especially in a country like India, means that there is often a lack of data on either PM 10, or more often, PM 2.5.

This gap is plugged through national conversion factors that provide a reasonable proxy of the ambient concentrations. The lack of temporal coverage also ensures that a few readings collected through the year are averaged out to produce a picture that provides plausible deniability when questions are raised with policymakers. With these caveats in place, it is important to understand that the exercise remains useful in identifying hotspots for expanded monitoring, or regions that require urgent policy action.

The media and policymakers, while ignoring the above issue, committed the cardinal sin of focusing solely on Delhi in their narrative, ignoring the fact that in both instances, a dozen other Indian cities were listed alongside Delhi in the top 20, with ambient concentrations often in the same range. These included rapidly industrialising tier-2 and tier-3 cities such as Agra, Varanasi, Kanpur, Gwalior, Patna, Raipur and Ludhiana, many of which are earmarked to become smart cities as part of the government’s flagship urbanisation programme.

The big picture

If one were to take a step back and look at work done in satellite-based estimations of PM2.5, validated by ground monitoring data, the picture starts to look clearer. Taking off from the proverbial blind men and elephant tale, the focus on Delhi, even over the last few weeks, ensured ignorance of the vast swathe of the Indo-Gangetic plain which suffers exposures seven to 15 times above what the World Health Organisation deems safe.

Annual ambient air quality exposure in India.
Annual ambient air quality exposure in India.

The picture painted by satellite data shows us that the problem is in fact regional, with the inter-connectedness of the Indo-Gangetic plain ensuring that no action plan that ignores the states around Delhi will ever be successful in improving air quality. It also tells us that the focus now needs to extend beyond Delhi, which is quite well monitored, to these tier-2 and tier-3 towns where monitoring is sparse, awareness is non-existent, and accountability is virtually absent. Our own analysis of the data from the last year shows us that the annual variability of PM 2.5 of select cities in the Indo-Gangetic plain, in comparison with Delhi, is not very different, reaffirming the need for a regional multi-sectoral action plan, with focus on all sources of air pollution.

Comparison of air quality across four cities in the Indo-Gangetic plain for the period November 2015 to October 2016. (Source: Central Pollution Control Board.)
Comparison of air quality across four cities in the Indo-Gangetic plain for the period November 2015 to October 2016. (Source: Central Pollution Control Board.)

This exercise also shows us that the need for open and accessible air quality monitoring data in tier-2 and tier-3 cities is greater than ever. There are large gaps in the data sets from these cities, and given the lack of technical manpower in the State Pollution Control Boards, a high likelihood of calibration errors as well.

The Central Pollution Control Board’s move last year to also remove historical data from its website and to move towards a 24-hour rolling average for the Air Quality Index only makes the need for data from other sources more immediate. Ultimately, what ranking cities in India has resulted in is some form of action to alleviate the woes of Delhi residents, while ignoring the vast swathe of the Indian population that continues to suffer from alarming levels of air pollution exposure.

Bhargav Krishna manages the Centre for Environmental Health at the Public Health Foundation of India, and is a co-Founder of Care for Air. Kishore Kumar Madhipatla of the Public Health Foundation of India also contributed to this article.

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The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.