Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

Tway to clear air pol­lu­tion is to not HE EAS­I­EST know how bad it is.This is what In­dia prac­tices— in most parts of the coun­try. There is vir­tu­ally no equip­ment to mon­i­tor the air we breathe and no sys­tem that tells us what we should do when pol­lu­tion lev­els are up and un­healthy. In fact,it is only in Delhi that there is some in­fra­struc­ture to check air qual­ity.The Delhi Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Com­mit­tee (dpcc) has six au­to­matic air-mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions. For most of the time th­ese work and data is avail­able in real time. In ad­di­tion, the Cen­tral Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board has five au­to­matic sta­tions for real-time mon­i­tor­ing. But strangely, it does not check for Delhi’s key pol­lu­tant, PM 2.5, the small air toxin, which is par­tic­u­larly bad for health. Then, the Min­istry of Earth Sciences (be­cause of the Com­mon­wealth Games) set up 10 sta­tions, in­clud­ing one each in Noida and Gur­gaon. Since this premier sci­en­tific agency gives only an in­dex—a num­ber com­puted on the ba­sis of the read­ings to de­ter­mine air qual­ity—it is dif­fi­cult to read or com­pare. So, while Delhi has 19 sta­tions, the data, which is avail­able on a daily ba­sis, is from four­five work­ing sta­tions of dpcc.

This is still much bet­ter than the rest of the coun­try. The Haryana Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board has three sta­tions in the na­tional cap­i­tal re­gion, one each in Gur­gaon, Farid­abad and Ro­htak.But cur­rently, the data is not avail­able on a real time ba­sis. Why? Ei­ther be­cause the high-tech ma­chines are out of or­der or the soft­ware, which would col­late and trans­mit the data, is not work­ing. Across the coun­try, there are only 22 con­tin­u­ous mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions, which can check pol­lu­tion in real time. Of th­ese, data is avail­able for only 12 sta­tions, and worse, none checks for PM 2.5, ex­cept for one lo­ca­tion in Navi Mumbai (but here also data is old).

We need in­for­ma­tion about air qual­ity so that we can take pre­cau­tions.The air qual­ity in­dex (aqi) is a glob­ally es­tab­lished tool to de­fine how air pol­lu­tion lev­els im­pact hu­man health. Last month, In­dia also launched its aqi, which for the first time tells us the health risk as­so­ci­ated with poor air qual­ity. For in­stance, the na­tional stan­dard (mea­sured over 24 hour av­er­age) for PM 2.5 is 60 mi­cro­gram per cu­bic me­tre and if the level is higher than 250 mi­cro­gram per cu- bic me­tre then the air is clas­si­fied as “se­verely pol­luted”. The health ad­vi­sory is that this pol­lu­tion “may cause res­pi­ra­tory ef­fects even on healthy peo­ple and it would have se­ri­ous health im­pacts on peo­ple with lung or heart dis­ease”.

Glob­ally, aqi is linked to the pre­cau­tions peo­ple need to take and the steps the city gov­ern­ment should take to com­bat pol­lu­tion. So, Beijing closes schools on red alert days; Paris does not al­low diesel cars inside the city on its smoggy days. Data is used to in­form and then to act.

In In­dia, we can’t do this.We do not have the net­work of sta­tions,ex­cept in Delhi, that can in­form us in real time of the dan­gers. What we have are some 580 man­ual sta­tions to col­lect sam­ples and send them for anal­y­sis in lab­o­ra­to­ries. Th­ese man­ual sta­tions can give daily av­er­age data after 24 hours and that too only if some­one col­lects, analy­ses and man­u­ally puts out the in­for­ma­tion in the pub­lic do­main, and does it reg­u­larly. This is rarely done; most data is over two years old.

It is also a fact that In­dia can­not af­ford, fi­nan­cially or tech­ni­cally, the 1,000-odd au­to­matic sta­tions it would need. Each real-time mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion costs roughly ` 1 crore. It will cost 18-20 per cent of this an­nu­ally for main­te­nance and then more for run­ning the sta­tions.In con­trast, a man­ual sta­tion costs ` 8-10 lakh at the most, with rel­a­tively nom­i­nal op­er­a­tional costs.We need a ju­gad for mon­i­tor­ing air qual­ity. At the Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment, my col­leagues have bought a por­ta­ble ma­chine, which can check our ex­po­sure to bad air. It gives us in­for­ma­tion to act. This is what we need much more of.We need to in­no­vate to set up new kinds of sam­plers, from road­side mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment and sen­sors to satel­lite-based mon­i­tors and ev­ery­thing else that tells us about the air qual­ity.

Let’s be clear: our air is not clean; we need to know ex­actly how bad it is so that we stop in­hal­ing poi­son with ev­ery breath we take.

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