Don’t get obsessed with technical fixes; cut pollution

More than the technology prowess, it is important to follow the basic principles of public health protection which demands control of pollution sources

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Tuesday 01 November 2016
Governments shy away from addressing the root cause of the problem and get obsessed with technical fixes and gizmos
Governments shy away from addressing the root cause of the problem and get obsessed with technical fixes and gizmos Governments shy away from addressing the root cause of the problem and get obsessed with technical fixes and gizmos

I was baffled when I heard about Delhi government’s plans to vacuum clean outdoor air at five to seven traffic intersections in Delhi. This announcement has come at the onset of severe winter pollution when no other priority measure has been listed to drastically cut pollution during winter and beyond. This literally amounts to saying—carry on with the usual polluting activities, the government will take care by blowing clean air bubbles for the motorists at the intersections!!

I have never heard of governments resorting to such gizmos as a regulatory measure to purify outdoor air. Of course it is not impossible to create colossal purifiers. In Rotterdam, Netherlands, a Dutch inventor and artist has set up a giant cleaner in public space for people to come and sit around it. A 23-ft-high smog-eating system has been placed in Beijing as well for an experiment and to connect people with the problem and experience. In fact, Ma Jun, an environmental activist in Beijing, is reported to have called it “performance art” aimed at raising awareness about air pollution. The inventor even plans to filter smog in cubes and make junk jewellery out of them. The carbon particles from the air will be compressed and sealed in acrylic in the form of rings, cuff links and cubes, and then sold, they say. Does Delhi plan to take creativity to that level?

May be there is an opportunity for private interest in harvesting smog to make products or create small oasis of fresh air to appeal to people! But none of these cities have made regulatory claims of improving ambient air quality with outdoor purifiers to reduce ill health. The only good and useful application of big purifiers has been seen in semi-enclosed outdoor situations like the metro stations, underground parking garages and hospitals, as seen in South Korean cities.

Here, we are—so impressionable—selling the idea and weaving a dream of expensive magic wands encouraged by our official scientists. Delhi has already experimented with outdoor purifiers once before in 2010 to realise that these don’t work. New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) had set up an air cleaner near Palika Bazaar capable of filtering 10,000 cubic metres of air an hour. When CSE team visited to check out how it worked they were shown the difference between the ambient particulate concentration and the quality of filtered air at the outlet of the machine to make claims of improvement. But they had no data to show how it was impacting the surrounding ambient air in dynamic wind condition. In fact, the NDMC officials have now gone on record to say that it barely made a difference.

While putting out this novel idea, Delhi government has not shared any evidence to justify the merit of this decision and investment. Nor has it obtained any data from Mumbai which is yet another city that is piloting these purifiers. In fact, Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board is silent on the results of this experiment so far in Mumbai (where sea breeze is the biggest purifier). Delhi government is talking about purifiers and misting at intersections with effective radius of 20-30 metres. There are claims of 30-40 per cent reduction in air pollution without clarifying if it is at the outlet point of the machine or the potential impact on the surrounding ambient air. Even if few machines show a wee bit lightening of heavy pollution around it, how will it reduce exposure of people across the city? These are expected to be set up within a month challenging our street designers to cater to yet another stakeholder at congested intersections!

Reduce pollution, don't mop end of the pipe

We know purifiers can filter air within confined environment like homes and offices. But outdoor air is a complex chemistry with dynamic movement patterns. Pollution levels vary dramatically across micro climates. More than the technology prowess, it is important to follow the basic principles of public health protection which demands control of pollution sources and reduction of direct exposures for millions across micro climates where people live. What can five to seven pockets with 20 to 30-metre radius do in a city as large as 1400 sq km (with 17 million people) traversed by intense and continuous traffic; in grip of power plant and industrial pollution and widely dispersed waste burning and construction activities?

Winter pollution needs serious and aggressive measures. Delhi government knows from its own experiment with emergency measure of odd and even scheme last year what a battle it is to control winter pollution. After removing so many cars across the city it could only slow down peaking of pollution. Yes, without that measure pollution would have been worse, but a lot more had to be done to achieve perceptible improvement. This winter will be no different. This time, we could have been better prepared with an array of measures for a meaningful impact, instead of such efforts to dumb down the issue.

It is a puzzle why governments across cities shy away from addressing the root cause of the problem and get obsessed with technical fixes and gizmos. Technology can be useful but it cannot stand alone. It is not possible to clean up the tail end without reducing the pollution first. Is purification the best use of tax payers’ money without fundamentally addressing causes of pollution? The cost of purification is high and will increase as capacity of filtration gets bigger.  

This money could have been spent more wisely and productively. This could have helped to wipe out the biomass chulhas in poor peoples’ home that are damaging lungs of women and children as well as replace polluting ovens of open eateries with LPG. A sub-station could have been set up to shut down Badarpur power plant; improve electricity access to eliminate diesel generator sets; ensure reliable bus services with ITS; make composting pits for leaf litter and organise segregation of waste to stop waste burning and pave and design roads and pavements quickly with vegetation to douse the dust. These are all pending measures that are part of the unfinished agenda of the government and need to gather momentum. We have to get serious. Not a few intersections but each and every neighbourhood of Delhi needs intervention to escape the choking pollution that clogs lungs. 

Let us not justify the new toy in town on the grounds that even Beijing has piloted an air purifier and tech fixes have opportunities. Instead, we should check out how aggressive Beijing has been to cut industrial and power plant pollution, cap the sale of cars, scale up public transport and ban diesel cars. As emergency action for smoggy days, it even enforced odd and even, shut manufacturing units, banned fireworks and bonfire and many more. It is still battling pollution.

Can our scientists get more real and help to bring some good science and sanity in air quality management to meet clean air targets in our cities? We have not started to look for Harry Potter for magic solutions yet, right?

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