The Key to Better Air Quality: Better Pollution Control Strategies

by Simi Thambi, Young Professional

We all remember the great smog that hit the streets of Delhi in November 2016. Schools were closed temporarily and construction work halted as harmful pollutants reached a level several times more than the safe limit. Air quality at that time was the worst Delhi had seen in seventeen years. In the months that followed, several precautionary steps were taken to address the problem in a firefighting mode like the odd-even scheme for vehicles. While commendable efforts have been made in the past few years, to adequately address pollution, strategies that bridge the conspicuous challenges in implementing air quality related measures are required.

1. Data Monitoring Challenges:

Effective policies to combat pollution can be drawn only when one gets a realistic idea of pollution in an area. At present, there are only 573 air quality monitoring stations in India. While Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has moved on to real-time satellite-based monitoring of air pollutants, one can not underestimate the importance of physical monitoring stations to support the satellite based data. Sometimes there are only two stations placed even if it is a big industrial area. For instance, in a region like Noida in Uttar Pradesh with many industries there are just two monitoring stations as per the CPCB website. Steps need to be taken to set up more air quality monitoring stations. Rather than going the conventional way of setting up expensive ones, low cost and efficient monitoring devices can be explored.

The location of a monitoring station is an important variable that affects the data captured. A few months ago, newspaper articles declared Varanasi among the most polluted cities in the world even more polluted than Delhi. There is research that shows that the extent of air pollution has a variation of as high as 70% across different locations within the city when the annual mean of pollution for a 13 year period is compared. The point that is trying to be made here is that if a monitoring station is installed at a location that is extremely polluted, it cannot be taken as representative of the pollution in the city as a whole. Moreover, urban locations change over time as buildings or other pollution emitting structures come up near the monitoring station. A periodic review of existing monitoring stations could be done to check this and if needed those stations which give a biased picture could be relocated. What can also be done is some standardization in the data calibration results of all the players in the market that carry out data monitoring. Not only the government but industry, NGOs, and academia carry out data monitoring independently, a standardization protocol can be set in place which reduces divergence across these activities. This will improve the reliability of these results.

Another issue is that there is limited knowledge on the inventory of air pollution in different cities. The nature of pollutants emitted in a region change based on several factors. For instance, benzene is a pollutant that arises from spillage of oil related products; it needs to be monitored only in areas that have such industries. At present, there is no such categorical area wise separation of pollutants. Likewise, Carbon Monoxide is an extremely harmful pollutant with grave health consequences. It is tested only in around 30% of the government monitoring stations. Furthermore, in Delhi, it is mandatory for every vehicle owner to carry a valid Pollution under Control (PUC) certificate to comply with the prescribed emission norms. However, a report by Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) says that the current PUC testing regime does not take into account emission of SOx, NOx, and PM hence is not much effective in a city like Delhi. Given this background, a proper region-wise examination of the inventory of air pollutants will go a long away.

2. Limited Source Apportionment Studies:

There are several sources of pollutants like transport, construction dust, biomass and other unregulated sources. At present, there are not enough government studies on source apportionment of the pollutants in a region. Such a study helps in quantifying the contribution to pollution by the source that emits it. It is helpful in analyzing whether overtime the contribution of these sources to pollution has increased or decreased. Without a realistic estimate of this, we are just shooting in the dark without a clear target. CPCB conducted such a study for six cities including Delhi in 2006. There is need to update this study and if possible expand it to other cities where air quality is decreasing.

3. Absence of Regional Approach to Air Quality Management:

Air is not static, it moves. The air that flows over Delhi is mostly brought by the north or north-westerly winds. A major source of air pollution in Delhi last year was crop residue burning in Punjab and Haryana. Although National Green Tribunal (NGT) has put a complete ban on crop burning in these states, it continues to be a problem. Images from NASA Fire Mapper between April 25th and May 3rd show a massive spike in crop residue burning. Therefore, planning for Delhi air woes without finding a solution to crop burning issue cannot be done. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana give economic reasons for crop residue burning. Crop burning is the fastest way to grow the next cash crop in time. Machine run harvester does not chop off the crop from the roots. Next cash crop cannot be grown until the previous crop is completely cleared. The fastest way to completely clear the field is burning. This wasn’t a problem until a decade ago because then this was done manually, which enabled cutting the crop off from the root. A durable solution to the problem of crop burning thus needs to be found either by subsidizing those farmers or through an alternative way. The point being accentuated is that we need to move on from a project base approach to a regional approach of improving air quality. If such regional level planning has to be done, which organization will have jurisdiction over it? These are related issues that will have to be addressed.

4. Capacity Challenges:

There is a severe shortage of technical staff adept at handling air quality related issues at the Centre and State level of pollution control boards. If more monitoring stations and more studies have to be conducted as listed above, a complementary step will be to train and induct necessary talent into the system.

5. Lack of Clarity in Funds to Improve Air quality:

Every state government levies a green tax on its vehicles that are older than a certain number of years. The Motor Vehicle Act requires this revenue to be used for improving air quality. However, that has not been followed in some states, and the funds are redirected to other uses. A system needs to be set instituted where states can show that funds earmarked for air quality were spent on that.

The five points listed above give only a glimpse of the problems that lie at the heart of our air pollution woes. Unless these gaps are appropriately filled through targeted strategies, a durable and sustainable solution to the problem of air pollution will not be in place.

(Simi Thambi is a Young Professional in the Energy Division)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not represent the views of NITI Aayog.