Air quality

Green court's order for an audit of buildings in Delhi is a new frontier in the fight for clean air

Indoor air quality receives far less attention even though a significant portion of the population spends 90% of their time inside.

As if by tradition, this year’s firecracker-laden festival season gave way to a rather sombre, introspective period. Delhi, once again, was asking itself what to do about its air quality, a condition now described as catastrophic. Amidst the usual crop of recommendations, and a robust Supreme Court ban on November 25 on the sale of firecrackers in the National Capital Region, there was a rather unorthodox entrant into the discourse. Two days before the top court’s order, the National Green Tribunal, responding to a petition on Delhi’s toxic air, directed all government buildings in the city – including offices, hospitals, schools and colleges – to be subjected to a minimum environmental audit. The green court, motivated by the “fundamental right to a clean environment”, sought an assessment of the solid waste, sewage, and outdoor and indoor air quality systems of such buildings to ensure “that no hazardous result follows in relation to public health”.

Are the environmental conditions of buildings relevant to the crisis of outdoor air pollution? Intuitively, as a measure to improve air quality, this directive may seem beside the point. Air pollution is caused, in varying measure, by widely dispersed sources – road dust, construction activities, waste burning, vehicle emissions, diesel generators, industries, power plants, brick kilns, and biomass-based cooking. Of these, only a handful have a direct relationship with operational building structures. Why, then, is the tribunal directive even worth noting?

There are two reasons for this: the audit will, even if partially, further the current information base on air-quality data; and somewhat unconventionally, in laying emphasis on buildings, the order enables analysis on a variety of environmental issues, despite their lack of direct relevance to air quality.

Benefits of an audit

First, the proposed audit will help monitor and make available data on air pollution that is sourced in and co-related with building use, such as particulate matter – tiny particles suspended in the air, many of which are hazardous to health – released from diesel generators or harmful chemicals that are a result of untreated sewage. More so, it aims to include measurements of indoor air quality, which has often received far less attention even though a significant portion of the population typically spends more than 90% of their time indoors. Such an audit will help identify areas within buildings that are prone to higher concentrations of pollutants, which is especially valuable when there are vulnerable populations involved such as in hospitals and schools. Children are often asked to stay indoors during high pollution days. Yet, ill-operated and unventilated buildings can lead to unhealthy indoor conditions as well. An ably designed audit will be able to point to these connections.

Second, it opens up the space for information to be collected on other issues, beyond air pollution, that are relevant to the environmental impact of buildings. For instance, it will likely bring forth data about energy consumption through lighting, heating and cooling among others. Given the scale of India’s real estate growth, such data is key to inform urban planning and the country’s energy future. Analogously, an audit that tracks waste streams can help promote the segregation and recycling of material such as paper, plastic and metals that, if properly disposed, can divert from further accumulation in Delhi’s immense landfills.

Ultimately, the order sets a precedent for examining the multiple dimensions through which the built and the natural world interact, often with a serious environmental footprint. Buildings have long lives, and once constructed, can lock in consumption and activity patterns within them. One example is built-in central air-conditioning, without options for natural ventilation, in glass-clad structures preferred by contemporary real estate developers. Given the transitions taking place in infrastructure – by some estimates, two-thirds of India’s buildings that will exist in 2030 remain to be built – the tribunal’s measure could be an important starting point to reconsider consumption patterns with the potential to prevent unintended lock-in to unsustainable pathways.

Implementation is key

Much will depend on whether the audit is ably designed and implemented. The National Green Tribunal had called upon the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change, and the Central Pollution Control Board to draw up a set of guidelines for the audit in two weeks. Yet, so far, none have been made available to the public. As the details unfold in the coming weeks, the results will hinge on two factors.

First, the comprehensiveness of the scope of the audit guidelines. At the least, it must aim to raise awareness among building inhabitants, and provide recommendations to improve practices relating to the environment, such as for energy, water or waste reduction. Ideally, the audit should also unpack the relationship between building operational practices, environmental pollution levels and exposures, and their effects on social and economic welfare such as on the health and productivity of inhabitants.

Second, the guidelines, when released, should have clarity about compliance procedures, with responsibility given to an agency with requisite capabilities. The latter is central to success, as the multi-sectoral nature of the challenge requires for the auditor to have technical knowledge of buildings, but also of its solid waste, sewage, energy and air quality systems. A coordinated approach that transcends departmental divisions to garner such a cross-section of expertise will be needed for the exercise to be useful. The task is not trivial, but if undertaken effectively, it will set a precedent for how we engage with the structures we inhabit the most.

The authors are Fellow and Research Associate, respectively, at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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