Dr Sachchida (Sachi) Nand Tripathi, Head of the Civil Engineering Department at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, on the current status of pollution studies in India
What is a significant observation from your Source Apportionment studies that can aid in improving air quality at the regional or national level?
We need to speed up Source Apportionment (SA) studies in cities that have been identified as ‘non-attainable cities’. Considering that nearly half of the cities targeted in the first phase of the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) are located near the Indo-Gangetic Plains, these areas need a special focus. Moreover, following up SA studies with targeted mitigation measures focusing on shifting to cleaner sources is critical to reducing pollution levels. These mitigation strategies should be implemented only after conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the same.
In your opinion, what is the relevance of region-specific air pollution control/mitigation measures, considering their effect is more than that of local emissions?
For city-specific mitigation measures, while acting locally, it is important to keep the regional picture in mind. For cities like Raipur, pollution may be caused only due to local factors, without the influence of regional meteorology or other source factors. However, for cities in IGP, local action should be informed by the situation in neighboring cities as it could contribute to the local pollution load. That is, only mitigating local sources when regional factors are also influencing pollution levels, will not give the desired result. So, in cities like Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow, Patna, Gaya, and right up to Kolkata, along with Punjab (Amritsar) and Gurgaon (partly), one needs to act regionally for source mitigation. In Mumbai, one can act in isolation as it is solely responsible for its pollution (the pollution sources are confined within the city boundaries). Isolated cities like Mumbai should conduct some SA studies, which hasn’t been done for a long time, and start acting on it.
Do you think NCAP is sufficient to tackle pollution in the country? How can it be made more robust in terms of monitoring and measurement?
Air pollution monitoring needs to be more robust and needs improvement, especially in non-attainable cities. Some cities still fail to monitor air pollution due to a lack of monitoring devices. Having identified this problem in the first phase itself, NCAP can enable robust processes for effective placement of monitoring stations. Moreover, due to limited resources, only selected cities have been given priority in NCAP — this can be expanded to include other cities as well.
What is the citizen’s role in handling air pollution?
For citizens to take responsibility for air pollution, education is important. CSTEP’s Centre for Air Pollution Studies (CAPS) is trying to educate people and create awareness. The effectiveness of government-launched mass awareness programmes need to be increased by making them more extensive, pervasive, and percolative. Most importantly, we need to ensure that awareness translates into behavioural change and citizens adopt good practices. For example, the Ujjwala scheme provided incentives that led to behavioural change.
Every fume from each household in villages of northern India is contributing to the larger fume in IGP areas. A huge nexus between Solid Waste Management and air pollution has been identified. The lack of proper solid waste management systems lead to waste burning, which contributes to air pollution. Through SA studies, we can identify the sources of pollution and hold cities responsible of their contribution to pollution. Cities that have proper SWM should be incentivised, which will encourage other cities to switch over to better practices. An important step is to educate city councils to properly handle the solid waste problem.
Lack of data is a key deterrent to effectively managing air pollution. How can high-end instruments help in this regard, and are they suitable for Indian weather conditions?
Some IITs — we were the first — have high-end equipment for air pollution. Considering the need for and lack of adequate and detailed data on air pollution, I think it is now time to identify more locations where high-end instruments can be used. This is important and my experience tells me that one can easily work with these instruments in the Indian condition. Instruments like Aerosol Mass Spectrometer (AMS) are expensive but provide real-time information on about every constituent of aerosol. Therefore, these are very useful instruments in terms of understanding chemistry and doing near real-time SA studies. While the knowledge-base on the need for reference-grade equipment is increasing, the man power required for handling and maintaining such an equipment is still low, and this needs to be addressed through effective capacity building.
Considering that reference-grade equipment is expensive, what is your opinion of low-cost sensors?
Low-cost sensors cannot be a substitute to reference grade monitors, but can complement it by increasing the scope of monitoring. Having a low-cost sensor for every kilometre for neighbourhood monitoring can help us understand exposure and health impacts. What we need is a large network of properly-calibrated and well maintained low-cost sensor network to complement reference-grade monitors. However, a word of caution: in many other countries, it has come to light that these networks are being used to generate massive amounts of data, which is then used for profit-making, violating citizens’ rights. The EU and US have very clear laws about the types of monitors/sensors that can be used and the purpose of the data measured. India too should put in place laws and regulations for installing and maintaining sensor networks, regarding permissible sensors and types of data generated.
How are IITs contributing towards developing effective policies for reducing air pollution?
We have formulated a knowledge network with 17 institutions. 12 IITs and 5 other higher learning institutions have entered into a tripartite agreement with the state pollution control boards (SPCBs) and Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). A nodal faculty member in every state is responsible for coordinating with the SPCB in that particular state, to effectively implement NCAP in that state. The focus is on three domains — 1) technology, 2) science (to put the foundation behind NCAP implementation and legal formulation), and 3) capacity building. The agreement was signed on World Environment Day.
What, in your opinion, is the best step/solution for India to reduce air pollution?
Answering this question is difficult considering that air pollution is such a complex problem. I think the best way to go about this is by engaging the government at all levels, as well as citizen groups and NGOs working together to tackle the problem. We have time, but if we do not act now, the problem is going to slip out of our hands like the current water problem in the country. Air pollution can be tackled only though effective coordination and rigour in both research and implementation, and by treating it as a high priority problem. This requires monitoring networks, source apportionment studies, enforcement, and implementation of existing laws. Violations should be treated with concern and impartially.
An important effort towards meeting this objective is to increase the capacity of Government departments in terms of science, policy, and technology, such that they can understand the requirements of the problem and take suitable action.
(Dr Tripathi is recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Awards-2014 for Science and Technology, in the Earth sciences category.)