Air quality

North India has been in a state of air pollution emergency for years, says transport researcher

Anup Bandivadekar of the International Council on Clean Transportation says authorities must view the situation as a public health crisis.

The National Capital Region of Delhi is not the only urban centre in the world to face an air pollution crisis. Many cities across the world have dealt with a similar problem at various stages of their development, and many have successfully resolved it.

Pollution levels peak in the winter months, as they have in Delhi in the past week. But according to Anup Bandivadekar, programme director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, major pollutants exceed safe levels through most of the year. In an interview to Scroll.in, he said that the situation isn’t just an air pollution emergency – it must be seen as a public health crisis that has persisted for several years in the North Indian belt, specially in Delhi.

Differences prevail over what the various sources of pollution are and how governments should prioritise addressing these sources. According to Bandivadekar, the way to prioritise action is not just to consider which source contributes the most to ambient air pollution levels, but to focus on which pollutants cause the greatest damage to human health on prolonged exposure.

Excerpts from the interview.

Anup Bandivadekar of the International Council on Clean Transportation. (Credit: @ICCT / Twitter)
Anup Bandivadekar of the International Council on Clean Transportation. (Credit: @ICCT / Twitter)

What makes Delhi one of the most polluted cities in the world and how did we get here?
Delhi did not become one of the most polluted cities in the world suddenly. We have been approaching this notoriety for over a decade. We got here by initially refusing to acknowledge there was a problem with air quality, or imagining that if there was a problem it was in the eyes of the Western media and health experts, then by refusing to admit the harsh reality of health impact studies conducted by our own scientists, and thinking that we cannot afford to fix the air pollution situation lest it slow down economic growth.

Air pollution has reached crisis levels because the levels of fine particulate matter have exceeded daily national ambient air quality standards by a factor of 10 or more. However, we must remember that even during the rest of the year, levels of fine particulate matter in Delhi exceed annual national ambient air quality standards by a factor of 3 to 5, and nitrous oxide levels exceed annual national ambient air quality standards by a factor of 1.5. In reality, Delhi – and for that matter much of North India – has been in a state of air pollution emergency continuously for several years.

Why do you think India has not been able to handle the air pollution crisis so far?
To be fair, it is not that successive governments at the state and Central levels have not made any effort to alleviate air pollution. However, we must put those efforts in the context of the population and economic growth the country has experienced over this time period. They were simply insufficient, too little too late. Moreover, they were often in response to judicial interventions as opposed to proactive steps taken by the government. Even in cases where policy action has been taken, their enforcement has been lacking in most parts of the country. In addition, we have not engaged in the development and implementation of systematic and comprehensive science-based state and local-level air quality action plans. As a result, we lurch from one emergency to the next.

What are the transportation reforms we need in Delhi and why has the government failed to implement them so far?
The most fundamental transportation reform that has failed to materialise in Delhi is upgrading and expanding the bus network. Delhi needs twice the number of buses it has, perhaps even three times as many, if it is to maintain the modal share of buses [modal share is the percentage of passengers using a particular mode of transport]. And it should be expanding that share, not losing it to private transport. Whether for lack of funds or depot space, or arguments over whether they should be low-floor or not, the required buses have not materialised. In any case, improvement in bus transport is the single most important transport-related reform needed in Delhi.

In addition to more buses, protecting and enhancing the space for walking and cycling is key from the point of view not only of low emissions but of social equity as well.

In the case of vehicles, upgrading the inspection and maintenance practice from the ineffective Pollution Under Control regime to one that is based on remote sensing and on-board diagnostics will be important in keeping in-use emissions low. [In the current system, a computerised test decides if a vehicle meets emission standards and issues Pollution Under Control certificates that have to be renewed periodically].

Finally, Delhi may have to consider implementing low-emission zones where only non-motorised transport, buses and zero-emission vehicles are allowed. The political will for the implementation of such zones is not there yet.

The National Green Tribunal stopped the Delhi government from imposing odd-even car rationing last week. Do you think the odd-even scheme could have helped ease the current situation?
The odd-even scheme is now a part of the Graded Response Action Plan [a set of emergency measures to tackle air pollution]. As such, the scheme should be implemented when ambient PM2.5 concentrations exceed 300 micrograms per cubic meter for more than 48 hours. [A PM2.5 level of 60 micrograms per cubic meter is considered safe while any reading above 300 micrograms per cubic meter is categorised as severe]. The odd-even scheme by itself is unlikely to make a big dent in overall levels of air pollution in Delhi, but it can definitely lower peak concentrations when air pollution levels are at their worst.

For the National Capital Region specifically, what emergency steps should be put in place besides the odd-even plan?
Once again, the Graded Response Action Plan provides a reasonable template for actions that should be undertaken as air quality deteriorates. One can quibble about the specifics of the plan, but more attention needs to be paid to the implementation of the existing plan and even more importantly to figuring out how to lower the base level of pollution load in and around Delhi and the National Capital Region.

Does apportioning of source of pollution need to be definitive before governments can act or is there margin to act even as science and research evolves?
Of course not. There is no such thing as a definitive source apportionment study. All emissions inventories and source apportionments are the best estimates of the scientists at that point in time. These studies need to be carried out on a regular basis and should be used to refine our understanding of the air pollution situation and policy analysis over time. But there is no excuse for failing to take action to bring down air pollution even as we continue to refine our scientific understanding, especially when public health is at stake.

The biggest transport reform required in Delhi is an expansion of its bus network. (Credit: Raj K Raj / HT)
The biggest transport reform required in Delhi is an expansion of its bus network. (Credit: Raj K Raj / HT)

In Delhi there is a greater focus on vehicular pollution than other sources. Is that a correct thing to do? Could you explain the difference between exposure levels and ambient air quality?
Actions related to vehicular air pollution definitely receive a lot of public attention, but if you look historically, a number of actions have been taken on industrial sources. More recently, sources of air pollution – ranging from brick kilns to agricultural residue burning, power plants to garbage burning – have been scrutinised and actions taken to varying degrees of stringency and with varying success.

That said, focus on transport makes sense for a few reasons. One, exhaust from diesel vehicles (whether cars, trucks or construction equipment) is carcinogenic. Therefore, controlling diesel exhaust itself has to be a greater priority than to control, say, road dust.

Looking beyond the toxicity of the source of pollution, it is important to understand the exposure to a particular type of pollution. It is exposure to a pollutant that determines the health impact. However, attributing exposure to specific sources of pollution has traditionally been challenging, although advances in sensor technology is making it easier. By contrast, monitoring ambient air quality within a reasonable margin of error has been possible for some time, and thus the ambient air quality has been regulated as compared with exposure. Even if two sources of pollution contribute equally to the pollution load, it is possible that the human health effects of exposure to pollution from one source are much more serious than from the other. Vehicular emissions are closer to people than many other sources that contribute equally to the overall pollution load. This is especially true in the dense urban environments of India, where a majority of the population lives within a few hundred meters of major roads.

Is Delhi unique for the crisis it is facing or have other cities gone through the same crisis at some point of time, both in the developed and developing worlds? How did they address it?
While Delhi’s meteorological conditions and sources of pollution may be unique, its overall situation is no different than that experienced by other major metropolitan areas around the world. The south coast air basin of California in the United States or Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei) region of China are examples of regions that have spent a lot of time and resources dealing with air quality. While air quality in the south coast basin is no longer at crisis levels, several parts of it are still in non-attainment with United States national ambient air quality standards. Jing-Jin-Ji’s fight with air pollution is more recent, but their efforts have started to show some early results.

Lessons from these places suggest that there are no silver bullets, nor is it possible to fix the air quality situation in a short duration. It takes a combination of public pressure, dogged scientific and technical work, coordinated policy effort across multiple agencies, and a strong political will to ensure compliance with regulations to make a big difference. There is a shortage on nearly all counts in Delhi at present, but there is no reason why Delhi cannot get its act together just like Los Angeles or Beijing did.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.