Air quality

Counterview: The listing of Indian cities with good air quality is based on bad data interpretation

A rejoinder to an article on Scroll.in that listed 52 cities without deadly air pollution.

As a public policy and environmental researcher, I often spend a good part of my working day understanding data and numbers, particularly on air quality, in order to decipher trends and impacts. The major challenge in this exercise is to sift the reliable data from the noise. The next crucial stage is the interpretation of the findings, preferably for an audience of lay people whose expertise may lie in other vocations. Needless to say, unreliable data will generate questionable outputs but good data badly interpreted leads to misrepresentation of facts, often contradicting the ground realities.

In this context, it was rather odd to see an article published on January 31 in Scroll.in that carried this statement, “Here is the list of those 52 cities in India where you could live without deadly air pollution.” The article went on to list cities where the air quality is reportedly safe. This included Korba in Chhattisgarh, Cuddalore and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, Kochi in Kerala and Mangalore in Karnataka.

Surprisingly, all these places were notified as either “critically polluted” or “severely polluted” in 2016 by the Central Pollution Control Board of India in its Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index. In other words, all these regions experience high levels of air, water and land pollution.

“Critically polluted” or “severely polluted” regions in 2016, according to the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index:

  • Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu (Critically polluted)
  • Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu (Critically polluted)
  • Mangalore, Karnataka (Critically polluted)
  • Korba, Chhattisgarh (Critically polluted)
  • Kochi, Kerala (Severely polluted)

However, the piece qualified these cities as ideal places to live in. It based its findings on an annexure of a Greenpeace report titled Airpocalypse 2 that was released in January. The Greenpeace report relies on air quality data generated by a network of monitoring stations operated by State and Central Pollution Control Boards. Air quality is measured in terms of the number of small particles – particularly those smaller than 2.5 micrograms (PM2.5) or 10 micrograms (PM10) – in every cubic meter of air. At the same time, the Greenpeace report raises concerns about the reliability of the data, citing poor data quality and lack of technical vigour. It states, “The other factors are the location of monitoring stations and data collection from them in the case of far-flung and remote areas. These often become dysfunctional for long periods of time making the average values somewhat skewed.”

The report then goes on to list cities based on their yearly average pollution levels (2015 or 2016). A layperson could interpret the list as a sort of ranking in which towns/cities that averaged below the Indian standard of 60 micrograms per cubic meter (PM10 level) would be safe to breathe in. This is exactly how the article interpreted the findings of the report.

Getting the correct averages

At this point, it is crucial to understand the logic behind averages, which is the primary metric employed by environmental regulatory agencies like the Central Pollution Control Board in communicating pollution figures. In the context of air pollution, there are a few prerequisites that need to be in order before averages are calculated. One, the number of data points; two, the number of samples taken. The Central Pollution Control Board monitoring mechanism fails on both aspects.

Consider Korba in Chhattisgarh in 2016: the two Central Pollution Control Board monitors in the entire region worked only for 70 and 73 days, which is grossly inadequate data to derive an average. Furthermore, two monitors are insufficient to study pollution trends in a critically polluted region like Korba with a high density of coal mines and power plants. A similar situation prevails in the other critically polluted areas of Cuddalore, Kochi, Coimbatore and Mangalore.

In contrast, Mumbai-based data research group Urban Sciences placed a network of real time monitors at five locations in Korba. The PM2.5 readings since January have revealed only between one and eight good air days in the region.

Accurate data interpretation

Air pollution is a complex phenomenon and understanding its causes and consequences requires a critical eye and an attention to detail. The onus of accurate interpretation thus lies on the experts. Putting out data without context leads to over-simplification of complex issues like air pollution. Despite the caveat of skewed averages in the Greenpeace report, the analysis remains incomplete in the absence of a thorough critique of the same.

The need to go beyond mere caveats is essential to avoid contradictions in the analysis. For instance, the Greenpeace report claims, “Burning of fossil fuels [coal and oil] contributes majorly to air pollution levels across regions.” The Central Indian region of Korba in Chhattisgarh, which is the country’s coal and power hub, recorded an average PM10 level of only 58 micrograms per cubic meter in 2016. This is counterintuitive when pitched against the ground realities in Korba, which houses seven power plants (total capacity 5,290 mega watts), an alumina smelter and three coal mines (combined capacity 70 metric tonnes per annum). The data presented in the report is, thus, counter to the claims made by the report.

While the recommendations of improving monitoring capacity and developing policies in line with credible data are worthwhile, it is untenable to present data that is known to be unreliable. The report would have served a better cause by critiquing the flawed monitoring infrastructure and resulting data gaps rather than endorsing it as acceptable data.

Dharmesh Shah is an independent public policy researcher. His areas of interest include waste, environmental health and industrial pollution.

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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.