Professor called me Sunday morning of last week and asked me to join the high power roundtable on Delhi’s emergency on air pollution. “I will pick you up – the event is at the Habitat Centre” – he said.
“But why the roundtable?” I asked– In these round tables, you will simply go round and round and end up with nothing. For years, we have been proposing air quality action plans for Delhi but there is no action on the ground – I guess it will it be a yet another session of PowerPoint presentations with rhetoric, blame games or passing of the buck – or an exercise of scientific acrobatics ”
“Oh Dr Modak – don’t be so bitter and sadistic” said the Professor– This time we will have some of Delhi’s top politicians attending. Administrators working at the Pollution Control Boards will also be there, Academicians (including those from Columbia, Harvard and University of California, San Diego) and NGOs like Centre for Science and Environment will speak with new PowerPoints”. Professor said
“I am sure Mr. Rahul Gandhi will be there” – I said. He loves to be like a common man attending hospitals to share and feel the pain and express his intimate concerns. I was told that he took a morcha on Delhi’s air pollution at India Gate without wearing a mask – is this true?” I asked
Unfortunately not said the Professor, Mr. Gandhi is currently focusing on joining the queue outside the ATM machines to attempt withdrawing money or exchanging the 500 and 1000 Rs notes – he is not yet advised by the party to capitalize on the problem of Delhi’s air pollution” Professor answered
While driving to the Habitat Centre, I asked “How about the National Green Tribunal (NGT)? Have you invited Justice Swatanter Kumar – Chairperson of the NGT bench?
“Yes, we have invited him. But because he is coming, the Government representatives of the States of Punjab and Haryana are not participating. The NGT just pulled up these Governments for not controlling the burning of agricultural residues. These Governments don’t want to face Justice Swatanter Kumar again as there has been no action. Remember that elections are due in Punjab” I thought the Professor made a valid point.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) defined the term “environmental emergency” and listed measures to be taken by Delhi and its neighboring States whenever the air quality index crosses “severe” levels.
“The States owe a Constitutional, statutory and public law obligation to provide to its citizens at least breathable if not absolutely clear air to breathe,” said the NGT bench headed by chairperson justice Swatanter Kumar. He pointed out that the Supreme Court had declared nearly a decade ago that Article 21 of the Constitution should be expanded to include clean environment as a fundamental right.
When we reached the Habitat Centre, there were people with Tee-Shirts with slogans “Let me Breath” and “I have Right to Breath” etc. They were wearing masks and were holding banners with graffiti such as trees with no leaves etc. All this helps to create the right setting for a serious discussion I thought – admiring the creativity of NGOs who run projects with international sponsorship.
There was a crowd in the corridor where I saw someone important or a VIP resembling the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP). He was explaining to the Journalists “UP is one of the most progressive States in the country. We are doing well in every segment of economy, development and of course the environment. For example, some of the highest Air Quality Indices (AQI) can be found only in the cities of UP. We are simply on the top”
I couldn’t resist stopping him and let him know that higher is the AQI, worse is the air quality i.e. other way round. Alas, our politicians understood this basics.
Talking about AQI, Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Govt. of India, introduced a major national initiative, “System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research” known as “SAFAR”
The SAFAR system was developed by Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, along with India Meteorological Department (IMD) and National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF).
The SAFAR model requires several key inputs for accurate forecasting. Major among them are- emission inventory of pollutants from various sources, weather parameter, topographical data, land use-land cover data, initial and lateral boundary conditions, etc.
I am not really sure how the SAFAR system picks up the “real time” data on emission inventory. SAFAR algorithms have not been widely discussed in the air quality modelling community and appears more like a “black box”. This has been my concern.
Table below shows the six AQI categories based on pollutants prescribed under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
24 hr avg
24 hr avg
8 hr avg
8 hr avg
24 hr avg
|Good + Satisfactory||0-100||0-100||0-60||0-1.7||0-50||0-43|
Given that most of the times, Delhi’s AQI falls in the zone of Severe, I would rather call the SAFAR system as “SUFFER”!
The roundtable was set up and was occupied by all the veterans and experts who mattered in discussing Delhi’s air pollution. Some participants were wearing half spectacles, some were carrying jute bags and some were sporting Modi jackets. Presentations were made on the status on air quality, health impacts, actions earlier proposed and actions that need to be taken etc.
Actions proposed included sprinkling of water (by helicopters), shutting down of stone crushers and construction activities and transportation of construction material until air quality standards are brought below the severe level. The construction industry representative said that now this action is possible as there is no cash with the contractors because of PM Modi’s surgical attack on the 500/1000 Rs notes and arresting the flow of cash or the black money.
Professor joked saying “wish PM comes with a similar surgical attack on addressing the Black Carbon (BC)” BC is a product of incomplete combustion – e.g. from burning fuel in cook stoves; use of diesel cars; emissions from brick kilns etc.
A mention on BC, led to a discussion between some of the Indian and US scientists on the Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) – a term many were not familiar with.
Black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are examples of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). SLCPs have a short lifetime – a few days to a few decades – but their effects on climate and on the air we breathe are much more than brief. SLCPs therefore nees attention as much as the “conventional” air pollutants.
“We need to simultaneously work on both CO2 and SLCP reduction in the interest of improving local air quality, protecting health as well as address the global concern” – The American Indian Professor continued with slides rich with data. He stressed that CO2 stays for 100+ years causing global warming. CO2 should be declared as a pollutant like done in the United States. His important point was however not heard. Some participants listened to him with blank faces, some with skepticism and some decided to focus on the plate of cashew nuts instead.
Then there was volley of questions with explanations demanded on why some of the earlier actions proposed never got implemented e.g. Discussion covered need for another round of odd-even initiative, Shutting down Badarpur coal plant for 10 days, Five-day ban on diesel generators, piloting cloud seeding – a process that induces artificial rain that can help settle pollutants and clear the smog, meeting of cleaner fuel standards by 2020 that will help cut vehicular emissions by 60%., implement Green buffers along traffic corridors within 90 days etc.
Recommendations were also made such as below
- Impound vehicles using city as thoroughfare, no day movement of goods.
- Levy higher tax for fuel guzzling SUVs and incentive for electric cars (latter already done by the Ministry of Power but not well promoted or advertised)
- Hike parking fee, introduce congestion charge in busy areas
- Declare all shopping areas such as CP, Khan Market, and Sarojini Nagar as no vehicle zones. Introduce pedestrian and cycle tracks
- Improve last mile connectivity from all metro stations
- Notify dust management rules for all agencies. Govt and private. Violators have to pay hefty penalty.
- Introduce Clean Air Scorecard system promoted by the Asian Development Bank
Most were convinced that all these actions will never get implemented on priority and it will only be a talk as before.
Wearing masks and installing outdoor air purifiers could be the short term solution to protect the health. In fact, there were whispers during the “health break” of the roundtable, that some of the politicians and administrators were hand in glow with manufacturers of masks and air purifiers.
Supplying masks can be a great business – except we would need to figure out how to dispose the used masks! Remember all these masks that are not biodegradable will ultimately reach Delhi’s landfills.
Air purifiers are expensive but an Assocham survey reported that there has been a jump of nearly 50% in the demand for indoor air purifiers in Delhi-NCR. Now time has come for the Outdoor Air Purifiers.
(Incidentally, the health breaks were sponsored by one of the largest outdoor air purifier company from Hong Kong. The Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi showed a great interest to visit Hong Kong and personally check out the performance of such outdoor air purifier machines. “I have done enough shopping in Norway but haven’t taken advantage of shopping sale in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui” he said)
In Hong Kong, property developer Sino Group has teamed up with engineering-and-urban design experts Arup to develop a roadside air purifier. Placed on the busy Queen’s Road East in Hong Kong’s crowded Wanchai district, the prototype looks like a tram or bus shelter
The outdoor purifier device sucks up air near ground level and, after passing through a filtration bag that removes PM10/ PM2.5 and pumps out fresh air through louvers at the top. If the experiment proves effective, Sino says that the device could be put at bus stops and tram stops as well as outside buildings. Power could come from solar panels or even from piezoelectricity, i.e. power created by stepping on special energy tiles.
At the end of the roundtable discussions, each one us was asked to speak the last sentence. I was sitting at the end and was really reluctant to speak. But when my turn came, I couldn’t resist asking
“Well ladies and gentlemen – the discussions we had today were much thought provoking and interesting. But who is the air quality manager for the city of Delhi? Do we have one? I am a bit confused”
And there was a silence. No one spoke. Indeed, most in the meeting were playing role as “advisors” recommending diverse solutions but the “integrator” agency with responsibilty was missing.
Professor sighed (perhaps in despair).
He closed the roundtable with a vote of thanks.
Reports you must read
BREATHING CLEANER AIR Ten Scalable Solutions for Indian Cities A self-organized task force report for the World Sustainable Development Summit, New Delhi, October 6, 2016 Task-Force Chairs: V. Ramanathan, I. H. Rehman & S. Sharma
Urban air quality management-A review by Sunil Gulia, S.M. Shiva Nagendra, Mukesh Khare and Isha Khanna, Atmospheric Pollution Research, Volume 6, Issue 2, March 2015, Pages 286–304,
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