Over 27 million people who live in and around Delhi are susceptible to a variety of health problems caused by this pollutant. 700,000 migrants move to Delhi every year. By 2028, Delhi will be the world’s most populated mega-city, putting even more residents at risk. Air Quality Index (AQI) is the standard measure for air pollution. On one day last month, the AQI of New York was a healthy 5.2. Beijing – infamous for its smog – was at 31. New Delhi’s AQI was an alarming 122 and was rated ‘Very Poor’ through most of November. The number of ‘very unhealthy’ days in terms of air pollution in Delhi rose from 66 in 2015 to 84 in 2017. There was a time last year when even breathing outdoors was equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day! So what are the solutions?
The safe limit for PM10 is 60 micrograms per cubic metre; Delhi’s levels consistently exceed five times this number. India does not take measuring air pollution levels very seriously; the Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change recently admitted admit that the government spends just ₹7 crore on monitoring air quality for over 1.3 billion Indians.
Cities across the world have harnessed existing technologies like sensors, cameras and GPS to collect air pollution data and made it available to citizens. The Array of Things is a citywide network of lamppost-mounted sensors in Chicago, which measures environmental factors like light, vibration, and temperature, creating a city-map of air quality at ground level. It will also track the levels of poisonous gases carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, helping city planners intervene to improve air quality.
Pittsburgh’s Breathe Project employs four panoramic cameras to provide real-time aerial views of Pittsburgh, allowing citizens to zoom in on specific sources of pollution, use software to quantify the emissions, record evidence and monitor emissions over time. The city of Louisville uses GPS devices embedded in inhalers used by asthma patients to collect data on in which areas and and how often do people with asthma suffer aggravated symptoms. Authorities are using this data to identify hotspots of poor air quality. This has the added advantage of providing a personalised analysis of inhaler use to both patients and their doctors.
India released the first draft of its National Clean Air Programme in April this year. The final plan is yet to be made public and is ineffective; it does not include time-bound targets to improve air quality, contains no directives for industries that contribute most to air pollution, and delineates no specific plans for intervention.
In contrast, China – which found itself facing air pollution levels far worse than ours – recognised that it had a problem early on and started its clean air program in 2013 with a target of cutting pollution levels by 30%. It is already implementing its second plan, with region-wise targets that hold authorities accountable for achieving them, strong emission standards comparable to those in Europe and the US, and rigorous enforcement of the rules. China is also investing heavily in renewable sources of power like wind and solar energy, to reduce dependence on and emission from coal-burning or gas-guzzling thermal power plants.
Car ownership in India is expected to increase by a whopping 775% by 2040. More cars equal more noxious fumes; a classic example of the citizenry shooting itself in the leg. The Delhi Government’s odd-even scheme to reduce the number of cars on the road each day made a big dent in improving the city’s air quality but was unpopular with many citizens who were too habituated to drive to work. Chinese officials have demanded that all future gas- and diesel-powered vehicles have better mileage.
India’s Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana is working to electrify every home in the country. India’s electricity need – over half of which is currently fuelled by coal – is only set to rise. At this critical juncture, it is imperative that the government incentivises renewable sources of energy over all others. Its target of achieving 100 GW of solar power by 2022 is a commendable step in this direction.
China has already announced the closure or cancellation of 103 coal-burning plants. Unfortunately, India’s Central Pollution Control Board has postponed the enforcement of stricter pollution control norms for coal plants to 2022.