Clean Tech

Breathing death

M Ramesh | Updated on January 16, 2018

Action needed Sunset over Varanasi. Air pollution in Uttar Pradesh is far more acute than Delhi, and Varanasi is one of the worst affected SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Air quality needs better measuring methods and urgent attention in Uttar Pradesh, writes M Ramesh

Early next year there will be elections for the 403 Assembly seats of Uttar Pradesh. Doubtless, many issues will be before the voters—demonetisation, development, communalism among others. However, the one problem – the biggest the State is facing, due to which thousands of people are dying every year – is unlikely to even get a mention in the discussions because very few people are even aware of it.

Air pollution in Uttar Pradesh (indeed over the entire Indo-Gangetic plain) is far more acute than the celebrated case of Delhi. The holy city of Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi’s constituency, is one of the worst affected.

Recently, the Central Pollution Control Board put out data of air quality measurements in six cities of Uttar Pradesh, taken in 2015. Each city was measured for a certain number of days, and they divided the data into ‘good air quality’ and ‘bad air quality’ days.

Two cities –Varanasi and (the nearby) Allahabad – had zero good air quality days. Over the six cities, good air quality days amounted to a paltry 6 per cent of the total number of days when monitoring happened.

This is counter-intuitive. People tend to connect air pollution with industries and auto mobiles, but surprise, the problem is more acute over the Indo-Gangetic plain than in the industrialised States of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Prof Sachchida N Tripathi of IIT-Kharagpur, an expert on the subject, says the fact of the matter is that air pollution is not yet properly understood—because it is not yet properly measured. The ignorance leads to sub-optimal actions. For example, the ‘odd-even’ system brought for Delhi did, as the National Green Tribunal observed in an order, little to improve air quality of the capital. To cite another example, last year, burning of dung cakes (for cooking purposes) was banned in the city of Agra to mitigate discolouration of the Taj, but Prof Tripathi’s research has found out that burning of municipal solid waste to be ten times more damaging than dung cake burning.

Killer of a problem

Air pollution is a bigger problem in India than people imagine. The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) data compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle, shows that the number of daily deaths due to air pollution in India has risen from 1,432 in 2010 to 3,282 in 2015 – overtaking China’s 3,233.

The reason for India’s poor record is ignorance. The first step in tackling air pollution is measuring it properly, and then determining the sources. Data shows India failing in the very first step. There are 342 monitoring stations in 127 cities and towns; China has 945 in 190. But the problem is deeper than that.

Air quality monitoring stations are of two types: the offline, where ‘collectors’ pick up samples from the air, which are taken to labs at certain intervals of time for analysis, and online, which give real time data. Offline stations are of very limited use. Even the Central Pollution Control Board admits that. “Large number of personnel and equipments are involved in the sampling, chemical analyses, data reporting etc. It increases the probability of variation and personnel biases reflecting in the data, hence it is pertinent to mention that these data be treated as indicative rather than absolute,” it says.

Only online stations can measure very fine particles – PM 2.5 and PM 1. PM stands for ‘particulate matter’ and the number denotes the size in microns (a micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre). These fine particles are particularly dangerous as they escape all the filters (including nose hairs), get into the blood stream and then into cells, causing cancer.

So, it is necessary to measure fine particles and we need online stations for that – after all, people breathe all the time, not once in a few hours. Of the 342 monitoring stations that India has, only 30 are online; in contrast, Beijing alone has 35, and plans to add another 30.

Prof Tripathi stresses the need to have more online monitoring stations in India. Lauri Myllyvirta, an air pollution specialist at Greenpeace, observes that India has “a long way to go” in terms of monitoring network coverage and data quality.

Low cost air quality monitoring devices are coming into the market, which could make way for rapid deployment. But the problem does not end with setting up monitoring stations.

Particles, after all, are just that, and it is important to know what they are made of. A particle could contain many, many – even thousands of – chemicals. It is important to analyse the particles and determine the source of the pollution. Or else, you will end up with situations like shutting down a power plant while the bigger contributor is biomass burning in the next state.

Learning from experience

For sure, many other global cities have experienced the bad air problem—London, Mexico City, Beijing, Los Angeles, Paris, to name a few. However, these cities have come out of the problem. India, apparently, has yet to learn from their experiences. Myllyvirta points out that China’s pollution levels were rising rapidly in the 2000s and peaked in 2011, but have fallen rapidly since then. On the other hand, “India’s pollution levels have risen fast and the rise has been accelerating in the recent years,” he says.

According to him, almost a quarter of air pollution deaths in India happen only in Uttar Pradesh, a State with 16 per cent of India’s population. Yet this grotesque problem has penetrated so little in public consciousness that it may not even be mentioned in the election manifestos.

Published on December 20, 2016

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