A report released earlier this year by Green Peace India found that in Bengaluru air pollution levels were dangerously high. The air quality was five times worse than WHO standards. Yet another study by the Centre of Science and Environment showed that the city had one of the fastest worsening PM 2.5 levels.
Given the alarming situation, experts who gathered at the recently concluded India Clean Air Summit-2023 organised by the Centre for Air Pollution Studies (CAPS) at the Center for Study of Science Technology and Policy (CSTEP), emphasized the need for collective action to arrest the rising levels of air pollution and reverse the downward trend.
“This is the only living planet we know of so far. Since we have only one earth, we have to protect it,” said Prof P.G. Diwakar, ISRO Chair Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), at the summit.
“Many cities in India have a very serious problem of air pollution. The world standards are different, and we are quite away from it.”
He noted how lockdown showed us the impact we could make.
For example, the satellite imageries of Delhi during the period showed even the inroads clearly, which is not the case usually.
“It becomes important for us to change the mechanisms by which we live. It Is everybody’s responsibility that we live by standards that don’t pollute the environment. If we could land on the moon, why can not we keep air pollution in check?” he wondered.
Importance of technology
A pilot project of Geo Artificial Intelligence and Random Forest technologies has been launched in Bengaluru by NIAS to monitor and predict the city’s air quality. Fifty sensors would be procured and put up in educational institutions for monitoring, assessment and prediction of air quality.
The importance of technology and accurate data in developing models to improve air quality was one of the points experts brought up repeatedly during the summit.
“It is necessary for us to see that we have well distributed and strategically placed observation points so that we get ground observations on the kind of pollution happening on the ground...We also need to bring in weather data. We are working on AI-based models,” Prof Diwakar said.
Dr. B. Sengupta, Former Member Secretary, Central Pollution Control Board, echoed similar sentiments. “Technology will lead us towards improving air quality. It is important to follow technology and science-based approach,” he said.
Dr. Sengupta, also presented a comprehensive list of suggestions for the state authorities to consider. He emphasized on the need of calibrating the instruments at air quality monitoring stations.
While there are about 500 online continuous monitoring stations and around 1,500 manual stations, instruments are often not calibrated. This affects the quality of data generated in turn impacting policy formulation.
According to him, it was such flawed data that put Begusarai in Bihar on the list of one of the most polluted cities last year despite the absence of any major polluting industries and relatively low number of vehicles in the city.
Dr. Sengupta’s suggestions also included preparing action plans to address the 43 critically polluted areas identified by CPCB, out of which eight are in Karnataka, and control emissions from the 17 categories of highly polluting industries.
Use of clean fuels, vehicular emission control, use of electrical vehicles, and decarbonisation of industries were some of the other highlights of his list.
Initiatives for improvement
State officials too agreed with the experts on the urgency of the situation and highlighted some of the efforts being put in.
Eshwar Khandre, Minister for Forest, Ecology, and Environment, noted that our collective survival was at stake due to climate change, and therefore, we have a collective duty to protect what is available for future generations. He added that rapid urbanisation was a boon and a bane simultaneously.
“When I became minister, I made a commitment that I will contain environmental degradation, try to reverse it, control pollution, and promote sustainable development in the state. For that I need cooperation and support from all of you,” he said.
He pointed at the high pollution levels Delhi experiences in winter and added that measures needed to be taken to stop Bengaluru going down the same path.
“Every year during winter New Delhi turns into a gas chamber. Bengaluru can also go down that path before which we should arrest the downward spiral and reverse the trend,” he said, noting that within three months of coming to power the government had ensured planting of 2.5 crore saplings across the state.
In June, the minister had announced plans to plan five crore saplings in the state annually with the target of achieving 25 crore saplings within five years.
Dr. Shanth A. Thimmaiah, chairman of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), noted how Karnataka was leading eco-friendly initiatives harvesting of solar energy.
“We should all think about how we can reduce the burning of fossil fuel and implement eco-friendly initiatives like renewable energy, solar harvesting and various other alternate power generation means. Karnataka is already generating about 5,300 megawatts of energy through solar,” he said, highlighting various initiatives by KSPCB.
Karnataka, for example, is the second state in India to implement the GreenCo rating whereby which industries would be given rating based on their environmental performance indices. The best performers would be identified by CII and the board would recognise and reward them, Dr. Thimmaiah said.
KSPCB has also introduced an Institute-Industry-Authority (IIA) model which, according to Dr. Thimmaiah, would look at bridging the gap between research institutions and industries.
“We created a resource development (R&D) division in the board because institutes have the capacity to do R&D on a pilot scale. The pollution control board is trying to interlink institutes and industries. The problems faced by industries will be communicated to institutes by the pollution control board. That way the institutes can do research, innovation, and come up with solution which then industries can implement at a larger scale.”
Air pollution in rural areas
While the narrative on air pollution mostly focuses on cities, there is also the issue of air pollution in rural areas, noted Dr. R. Subramanian, sectoral head - air quality, CSTEP.
“People often burn agricultural waste, and there is also residential burning which exposes women and young children to air pollution. So, there’s significant inequity in the pollution loads. How do we address that? That should be part of our Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) - that is access to clean energy in homes and reducing air pollution in those homes,” he said.
According to him while schemes like Ujjwala Yojana aiming to make cooking fuel available in BPL households in rural areas, it was equally important to ensure that people stick to the behaviour.
“There are also other individual actions we can take like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, minimising the AC use, using public transportation or carpooling and so on. Every little bit helps. At the same time, we do want strong government actions to support those individual actions to make it sustainable for people to make the switch and keep sticking to that switch.