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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Water challenges in urban India

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Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

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Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

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Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

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Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

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