Soon after being inducted as Environment Minister in the Bihar government earlier this month, Niraj Kumar Singh held a meeting with Principal Secretary, Forest, Environment and Climate Change department Dipak Kumar Singh and others and informed that smog tower and cycle tracks would be constructed in the capital city Patna in order to fight air pollution.

For the last few years, several reports have highlighted the worsening air quality in various cities of Bihar, including Patna. In 2016, Patna was declared as the sixth most polluted city in the world according to a report by the World Health Organisation. The annual particulate matter PM2.5 levels in Patna were recorded at 149 ug/m3.

In global IQ Air reports, Patna recorded average annual air quality ranging from 118.5 µg/m3 in 2017, 119.7 µg/m3 in 2018 to 82.1 µg/m3 in 2019 in terms of annual PM2.5 concentration. Such air quality levels are much higher than the prescribed World Health Organization standard of 10 ug/m3 annual PM2.5 concentration as well as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Despite real-time data showing the dangerous level of pollution in various districts of Bihar, none of the districts found a mention in the central government National Clean Air Program introduced in 2018, a national strategy to tackle the increasing air pollution problem across the country. It was only after deliberate negotiations from the state government and environmental organisations were Patna and Muzaffarpur included in National Clean Air Program.

Ajay Mittal, director of the Climate Change program, Earth Day network compared the government’s decision to wiping the floor of the bathroom while there is a running tap.

“It is important to control the sources of emissions from its origin,” Mittal said. “Smog towers are a very bad idea. There are multiple other effective ways today available to tackle pollution crisis.” He also highlighted the need to increase the number of monitoring stations in the state as that would give more clarity on the actual pollution crisis in the state.

Most of the small eateries and domestic cooking is done on coal-fired, open-air hearths. Photo credit: Rohin Kumar

In 2019, several civil society organisations, in collaboration with the Bihar government, released a comprehensive Clean Air Action Plan for Patna.

According to the plan, “In 2030, the highest pollution-concentration (annual average) contributors in Patna are estimated to be outside sources – 23%, domestic (including cooking, heating and lighting) and transportation, 19%.”

“Apart from these sources, contributions are expected to be from the following sources: industries (12%), open waste burning (11%), dust (11%) and diesel generator sets (4%),” it stated.

It suggested several actions points to tackle pollution such as a complete ban on two-stroke autos and replacing them with CNG-based vehicle, adopting new technologies for brick kilns, installation of waste composting plants, waste to energy plants and others to name a few. The idea of smog towers was not among all the measures suggested under the clean air city plan for Patna.

Delhi’s smog tower

In 2020, a smog tower, 24 feet high, was piloted in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. However, the people living near it say they find it useless.

“We do not have the data nor have the authorities shared any data if this smog tower has really has had any impact on controlling air pollution,” said Manu Sodhi, a resident of Lajpat Nagar. “But what is visible to me as an individual when I check for air quality is that the air we are breathing is still hazardous and responsible for various respiratory ailments.” Reportedly, the smog tower at Lajpat Nagar would purify the air only within a circumference of 750 metres.

In November 2019, the Union environment secretary itself raised doubts over the efficiency of smog towers. In the same month, the Supreme Court of India, designated the centre and Delhi government to set up a panel of experts to study the accuracy of smog towers.

The only smog towers said to have been operating is in China’s Xi’an. But even for the tower in Xi’an, there is no data available in the public domain. Delhi Government in its own admission in 2019 said, “no publication of the measured data to conclude the impact” of the smog tower in Xi’an. It also mentioned that there is no technical evidence available to critically evaluate the efficacy of the demonstration, reported The Wire.

However, even as experts have categorically and repeatedly pointed out that smog towers have no scientific basis as a policy measure, smog towers continue to play a distraction to the emission control discourse in India.

Burning of waste in the open is very common in the state. Photo credit: Rohin Kumar

Pressure to do something

At least for quite some time, environment and air pollution, in particular, has found their mention in election manifestos of the political parties. Worsening air quality over the years has also prompted the electorates to hold them accountable. Thus, the governments possibly under performance pressure, come with ideas like installing smog tower to tackle pollution – this is how largely experts view it.

Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in 2015, had legislated stricter rules to control and reduce the emissions from power plants. The ministry gave them time till December 2017 to install fuel gas de-sulphurization units. The units control industrial sulphur emissions by up to 80%.

The deadline was extended again extended for two years, up to December 2019. But even until recently, most of the power plants have missed the deadline. In fact, the Ministry of Power and Association of Power Producers argued that installing the units by the proposed timeline is an unworkable time schedule and would burden utilities leading to an increase in power tariffs. Presently, the timeline has been extended to 2022.

“The point is not that Bihar does not have a coal-fired power plant,” said Bhagwaan Keswat from Vatavaran, an environment-based organisation. “If you see the stretch of the Indo-Gangetic plain from Kolkata to Amritsar even if there would be a coal-fired power plant in Kolkata, it is bound to impact the air quality of Patna. Thus, controlling emissions from the source is crucial.”

He added that smog towers are no solution to the crisis also when the state doesn’t have enough monitoring stations. And, unavailability of data further adds to the woes.

A senior official from the Department of Forests, Environment and Climate Change on the conditions of anonymity said, “Installing one air quality monitor costs something around Rs 1 crore to Rs 1.2 crore.”

“The government already is struggling with finances and technically there is no pot amount in the state-designated only for dealing with air pollution,” the senior official said. “Even if one closely observes the Budget 2021, National Clean Air Program budgetary allocation has been slashed significantly from Rs 460 crores to Rs 280 crores.”

“That means, cities like Patna that already received less than Rs 10 crores for a year, would not get even less than that in the current scenario,” the senior official said. “Then, how are we supposed to even increase the number of monitoring stations, leave alone the noble strategies to take on pollution menace.”

The environment minister and the principal secretary, department of forest, environment and climate change despite several attempts could not be reached.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.