I wanted to refill petrol in my car so I drove to my usual petrol pump located at Turner road in Bandra. The lane to the petrol pump was choked and it was after more than 15 minutes of ‘car crawl’ that I finally managed to reach the pump. When I asked Abdul, my usual pump mechanic, he pointed me to a billboard that red – “Buy 40 liters of petrol and get 2
Portable Oxygen Cylinders Free”. Apparently this “hot deal” was the reason for the rush. “Oxygen cylinders for what?”, I asked and the guy ahead of me in the queue said “to save you from air pollution” in a matter-of-fact tone. I didn’t quite like the idea of marketing emissions (i.e. petrol) with oxygen!
I was visualizing the city of Mumbai looking like a planet with no atmosphere and people carrying oxygen cylinders like astronauts. I was simply horrified at the thought.
“Are we exaggerating this issue of air pollution in Indian cities?” I called on my Professor friend in anguish. “Given the contaminated food we eat and the polluted water we drink, air pollution that we breathe in should not be a big deal. We know how to survive or otherwise. We better worry about the high incidence of lifestyle disorders like diabetes. We should offer sugar-free candies at the petrol pumps instead of oxygen cylinders. These candies should be sponsored with the CSR budgets of Parley or Cadbury”
My Professor friend was busy taking a close look at one of the N-95 masks that was produced by a Chinese company for marketing in Mumbai. This company was planning to manufacture some 1 million masks a month for Mumbai, to start with. The mask carried a certification “Proven Effective in Beijing”. The Professor turned to me and said, “Look at these masks – they filter almost all the PM2.5 matter in the air and cost only Rs. 5! Next time you go the shopping mall, you will be asked – do you want to buy a carry bag or a mask?”
“Wearing masks will help in many ways – he said. It will reduce the incidence of H1N1 and the future H2N2 series. And since it will be difficult to know who is behind the mask – masks will reduce the incidents of eve teasing by ogling men at bus stops – That could be an immense social benefit – something not easily understood and appreciated”
“But what about disposal of the 1 million used masks” I ventured to argue with the Professor. We will need to dedicate a special landfill site for getting rid of used masks. Besides the city will look like a place infested by dacoits like in the movie ‘Sholay’. The Professor was in no mood to listen.
“We have to think out of the box for reducing air pollution first” he said. The 100 smart cities program of the Prime Minister is hoping to achieve, for instance, optimization of traffic signals based on real-time measurement of air pollution. When the air quality index at a traffic junction goes high, you will be asked to change your route and will be
guided accordingly to reach your destination”
I was wondering how hard it will then be to drive from my office in Nariman point to home on Carter road, if such an intelligent air pollution sensitive system was put in place. I would perhaps be ‘circling’ the whole town for over two hours to help reduce air pollution at a traffic signal but emitting an extra ton of air pollutants in the process. Not such a smart an idea I thought.
Professor had more ideas to share. “I have recommended to the Secretary, Transport to introduce a rule whereby vehicles ending with odd number plates will be allowed on the road for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and those with even number plates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sundays will be for cars with number plates ending in zero. This will greatly reduce the road traffic and hence the air emissions. Public transport will be encouraged”
“People will use fake number plates, Professor and have duplicate plate numbers” I said with a smirk.
Professor ignored my pessimistic view.
“Display boards will be set up at all major traffic junctions in the city to make people aware of the average air quality they breathe. Mobile apps will be developed so that you can browse the air quality trends and also get some forecasts. If the forecast shows that high levels of air pollution are expected, then the public may decide to stay indoors.” I wasn’t much in the favor of this option as people would stay home watching TV shows giving an excuse of outdoor air pollution.
The Professor then moved the focus to emission monitoring and control. “Directions will be given to industries to monitor emissions from stack online. The emission data will be pooled through the server of the Pollution Control Board. Initially we will measure the Particulate Matter (PM) and provide a star rating. Industry with PM emissions well below the prescribed standard for instance will get a 5-star rating” Impressive Professor – I said.
“Hold on – the big game is much more than just emission monitoring and rating”. Professor said this with a mysterious smile.
The star ratings will be displayed real time at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE). This will greatly influence the psyche of the stock traders. More stocks will be bought of companies with 5-star ratings and companies with one star rating will simply be dumped – independent of their financial performance.
(I started visualizing that air pollution sensitive and committed stock trader of BSE …)
“I am conducting a series of training programs for stock traders in Gujarati (PMO likes that) to explain air pollution, its seriousness, stock traders’ responsibility and the environmental and economic implications. You should give a couple of lectures in my course, my friend”
I was even more impressed even though my Gujarati was no good …
“The Indian insurance industry has already initiated discussions on re-fixing premiums based on an Air Quality Index (AQI). Lower is the AQI (implying higher level of air pollution), higher will be the premium,” Professor explained. That’s another economic implication.
But why don’t you think more radically, Professor? All this discussion is happening because we are perhaps monitoring and reporting air quality from wrong locations in the cities. Many of the stations that are operated are next to streets under direct influence of traffic emissions and not reflecting the ambient levels where the prescribed standards are strictly applicable. City of Pune for instance was declared as highly polluted because the reporting was done from a kerbside monitoring station and ambient air quality standards were compared! The air quality levels ‘improved’, the moment the station was shifted.
“Oh – for a change you are talking sense,” The Professor said taking a deep puff from his cigar. He looked outside the window at a grey sky. “Let me come up with a national site audit program right away for re-siting of monitoring stations to be done on an immediate basis. Relocating stations at correct and representative places will indeed lead to lower level of air pollution and the problem will be solved bang at the source!!”
I left Professor’s office with the N-95 mask that the Chinese company had left behind on his desk.
The Union Minister of Environment & Forests in India has announced a national Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI will reflect eight major pollutants that impact respiratory health. AQI will be reported first in cities with populations exceeding one million and in the next five years AQI will be gradually mandated to the rest of the country. Details on the proposed AQI could be found in http://cpcb.nic.in/AQI-FINAL-BOOK.pdf.
Do visit www.aqicn.org. This website is supported by a team located in Beijing. Much of the data on this website is driven by the real time data monitored at the US consulates.
You may like to visit http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov/airqualitydata.html to see real time AQ reporting in some of the Indian cities. US Embassies report AQI as per US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in Delhi displays AQ using IMD’s own AQI that is different from that of the U.S. EPA as well as from the proposed national AQI. The State Pollution Control Boards provide data in raw format (concentrations) and currently do not follow any AQI. I guess in the period of next six months, the reporting will happen through the proposed national AQI. The US Consulates should then ideally report results in Indian AQI to avoid confusion. So should be done by the IMD in Delhi.
Speaking about consulates, in India a number of countries have now issued guidelines for their diplomats on how they can protect themselves from air pollution. Countries like US, Germany and Japan have reduced the tenure of their diplomats in Delhi from three years to two years. Further, concerned over high pollution level in the capital, European Union has directed its diplomats here to soon install air purifiers in their offices and residences.
Greenpeace provides a very telling infographics on effects of PM2.5 and how to use N95 masks. See http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/campaigns/air-pollution/problems/coal-hard-truth-air-pollution/ A joint study by universities of Chicago, Yale and Harvard found that half of India’s population may be losing up to three years’ lifespan because of poor air quality.
Beijing has put in place a time-bound action plan with health advisory and a four-level alarm system which includes closing of schools, factories and cutting down the number of cars on the roads depending on pollution levels. Indian metros such as Delhi or Mumbai have no such plan. See http://www.rtcc.org/2015/03/16/toxic-delhi-earths-most-polluted-city-has-no-plan-to-cut-emissions/