Game of Indicators


My Professor friend and I walked into the waiting room of the Minister of Environment in Delhi. The secretary asked the Professor to insert his Green Card in the slot machine. When Professor did, the machine made a chuckling sound like the R2D2 of Star Wars and flashed a number. That number was the sequence number for us to see the Minister. Professor’s Green Card must be highly respectable or valued as we were ushered right away to the Ministers Cabin.

When we finished our meeting (which was typically inconsequential) and reached the elevators, I asked Professor about the Green Card. Professor explained that this was Ministers pet subject and a pilot that he is soon thinking of launching all over the country.

The Green Card was proposed to be linked to the Aadhar card and pool into the central database, all the environment related parameters or attributes of the person. The Card when used for transactions (e.g. for purchasing goods at the stores, making payments at a hotel or restaurant, purchasing fuel at the petrol/diesel station, buying an air ticket etc.) will assign appropriate “green points”  and calculate the person’s Green Index and rate between 0-10. If your Green Index is less than 5 for example, then you will be considered as an irresponsible citizen, and penalized so that you will be encouraged to behave responsibly. For this your Green Index should cross the minimum of 5.

Other day, one of the top executives of a Company (who was in the pilot project) realized that each time he went to the restaurant to dine, his bill was taxed 10% more as his Green Index was less than 5. When he started ordering organic food on a regular basis and chose restaurants who had energy efficient fixtures, the Green Index moved a bit beyond 6 and he got out of the 10% surcharge.  So to save money and at the same time protect the environment, he had to make a behavour change. Imagine the impact once the first lot of 10 million Green Cards is issued to India’s rich and high middle class citizens. Launch of Green Card with Green Index will tame our highly consumptive and carbon intensive lifestyles. Professor said.

I thought this was rather visionary and very impressive. Perhaps, Professor’s Green Index must be close to 9 and that’s why we were the priority visitors to the Minister. (I was later told that the Visa and MasterCard companies were already holding talks with Government of India, how to bring in these elements on a universal basis on their card chips.)

“You know this Environment Minister is very fond of indicators. He likes to bring in data together and make a number out of it as an Index and disseminate the Index to the people so that they become aware. Have you read about his announcement on Air Quality Index (AQI) in Indian cities? This index has been developed by IIT Kanpur. It provides one consolidated number after tracking eight pollutants and uses color coding to describe the severity in terms of associated health impacts”

I looked up on the web and found the description of AQI and also articles that say that the Indian AQI is not so easy to understand and is not so much action oriented. (See ).

When I mentioned about this observation, Professor said that making complicated indices is the current state of the art (or science). How can you have a simple index for complex issues on environment?

I suggested that why don’t we show data on the sale of respiratory drugs and inhalers instead of measuring PM10 and PM2.5? Higher is the level of PM10/PM2.5, more will be the sale of the respiratory drugs and the inhalers. So the sales statistics will serve as an Index.

I continued

We could speak to Cipla Pharmaceuticals as they have nearly 50% of the market share on such products and would be happy to sponsor a number of display boards that will post their sales each day. We will save moneys on the expensive automated air quality monitors and in fact instead earn advertising revenues. In any case, veracity of the data collected at the automated air quality monitors is rather questionable and data is as good as random numbers” I said

But the Professor probably did not hear me. He continued.

Few years ago, a Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) was developed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to rank India’s industrial estates. This index was developed by IIT Delhi that made use of several complicated variables such as pollutant, pathway, receptor and additional high risk elements. (see the full report at ). Indeed, CEPI was complicated to understand but was applied over 88 industrial estates. The index was actually used for policy and taking actions. For example, the analysis showed that there were 43 industrial areas/clusters out of the 88 estates that had CEPI crossing 70. These estates were  declared as critically polluted. These critically polluted industrial clusters/ areas were recommended for further detailed investigations to assess the extent of damage and a formulation of appropriate remedial action plan. In this process, several action plans got created. Don’t know how many were implemented though.

I recalled the criticism on CEPI, its questionable formulation of aggregation (e.g. additive function) and the poor quality field data that was used in arriving at the Index. The impact of publishing and using CEPI was however high as a freeze was brought on expansion and modernization of industrial units in the critically polluted areas. The Industry Associations protested. CEPI was pushed as a Policy without a proper scientific debate and stakeholder consultation.

I was wondering why simple data points could not be used to develop indicator for industrial estates/clusters. These data points could have been – overall water consumption as against water available, energy and fuel consumption, materials brought in (with octroi collected as proxy), number of workers/staff in the estate and in the neighborhood of say 1-2 kms, presence, functioning and disposal point  regarding common environmental infrastructure (like common effluent treatment plant and common hazardous waste treatment and disposal facility), number of public complaints received, issues and severity etc.

The Professor was continuing as we took a taxi. He asked the taxi driver to take us to the Neeti Ayog – new avatara of the earlier planning commission. “Hope you will join me there” He said. The Primate Minister has asked me to develop an Environmental Performance Index (EPI) for each State. The EPI, like usual, will range from 0-10 and higher is the value, the State will be considered as better performing on environmental matters. EPI will be used to allocate the State budgets. Todays meeting is to finalize the parameters that will be used to arrive at the EPI apart from the mathematical function (e.g.linear, weighted linear, maximum operator etc.) and the weights. It’s a high level meeting as it has the “money stake”. This approach will however transform India from an “unsustainable nation” towards path for sustainability. I have come with a fuzzy formulation of EPI to account for the foggy, manipulated and incomplete data.   And I feel that this kind of formulation will make EPI look “state of the art” or contemporary and impressive.

I was overwhelmed. I realized the importance of environmental indicators in the progress of India, in environmental management (like using CEPI), in environmental communication (like the AQI) and in influencing our lifestyles through mechanisms like the Green Card.

Professor paid the taxi bill, looked at me intensely for a while and then said with his characteristic serious tone “Prasad, its finally a game. Minister wants me to develop that structure of EPI which will somehow provide least central allocation to the States ruled by the Opposition – I am identifying therefore those parameters that are representative and defensible and yet help me achieve this differential objective”

I wasn’t then envious of Professors job.

I also realized how and why such indicators were developed – essentially to fudge the real data and project the outcome what we want…. Clever.

(Cover image sourced from



14 thoughts on “Game of Indicators

  1. Today morning, front page of TOI Navi Mumbai edition has news on AQI. For Navi Mumbai AQI is reported as satisfactory and critical pollutant reported is CO. I stay is Navi Mumbai, and just hoping that no one will qustion to me is really CO the most critical pollutant in Navi Mumbai and if Navi Mumbai air quality is just “satisfactory” what is “good air quality”. Without assessing adequacy of monitoring stations, auditing QA/QC, assessing how much area a typical monitoring station can represent, we are just in hurry to have “shining” tools such as NAQI. Are we making ourselves laughable stock?


    • Dear Vijay

      You really hit on the nail. CO concentrations in ambient air are so transient that it is questionable how could this be a criteria pollutant. How could a station represent air quality of the city is another question.



  2. Dear Dr. Modak,

    I have been following your blogs for some time, and I must say, I am a real fan of how you engage the readers in clever story-telling and put across some really pertinent observations in an extremely subtle manner.

    Warm regards!


  3. I fully agree with and has been pressing for also that the indices should be based on response of the human physiology and not being mere numbers. We have data of many decades of the study of DR Kamath of KEM hospital Mumbai (and some more similar studies carried out across the country), that should be used in developing “causal linkage based indicators”. The article is extremely thought provoking of developing “Indian standards” for “Indian condition”.


    • Akhilendra

      We need a clever combination of “effects” and “proxy” parameter monitoring to complement direct parameter measurements. Some parameters are best monitored with sophisticated instruments by the scientific community; some like effects monitoring steered by the citizens and proxy parameters pulled out from the Government machinery

      We need much more innovative approach



  4. Dear Dr, another excellent article ! I like the satire in your blogs the best !! You have linked the indicators to credit cards very cleverly. Also, is anything really happening in the area of environmental protection at the NITI Ayog ? Best regards, Anand


  5. Dear Dr. Prasad,
    I am following your blog with here in UNSW Canberra where I am Visiting Professor. The I congratulate you for thought provoking article.
    university, by mistake, invited me . for designing MS course: Fuzzy Methods for Big Data Intelligence The concept of air/water or for that matter any quality are imprecise/ muddy and therefore fuzzy. So, why to have an index for such concepts. Why not describe Air/water quality straightway in linguistic terms with certain degree of linguistic degree of certainty attached to each term? It is hard to convenience in my own country, therefore following a longer route. No issue. You might have gone through my papers. This is complete departure from the traditional AQI/WQI.I agee with Dr. Vijay that NAQI is just a old wine in a new bottle.
    Professor Ashok Deshpande on Academic visit to UNSW Canberra


    • Dear Professor Ashok

      I really like your suggestion on using straight linguistic expressions with qualifiers. We will need to set up mapping for that i.e. for cardinal data to descriptors capturing other contextual parameters e.g. for air pollutant, the state of local meteorology. AQI scaled down based on data on mixing heights, calmness of winds for instance will help to understand situation much better than just the AQI



  6. The humor, as usual, is subtle- keeping a thin boundary between satire and criticism. Great read indeed. “Some are wise. How about others? They are otherwise. Hats off to our decision (support?) system.


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