Innovations for cleaner air

Monitoring air pollution alone isn’t enough; India needs context-specific solutions to tackle the problem

December 14, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:25 am IST

Over the past decade, India has made significant progress in monitoring air pollution. There are more than 250 continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations and more than 800 ambient air quality monitoring stations operating across the country. It is owing to these that we are able to understand the magnitude of the challenge of air pollution. There has been a tremendous effort in improving awareness of citizens through campaigns around air pollution and its adverse impact on health and environment. However, while these efforts need to amplify, it is equally important to have systemic changes at the policy and strategy levels.

Welcoming policy interventions

Public policy is already responding positively. The budget allocation for air pollution increased substantially in 2020-21 from what it was in 2018-19 to ensure cleaner air in cities having populations above one million. The establishment of the Commission for Air Quality Management with penal provisions against polluters in the NCR and adjoining areas is a welcome move. India has jumped from BSIV to BSVI vehicles. There is an increased focus on e-mobility. Through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, there has been an effort to reduce indoor air pollution in rural areas by increasing LPG coverage. While these measures will have a major impact in the long term, India needs innovations to deliver on the promise of cleaner air in the immediate future.

Also read | Air pollution now biggest health risk in India, says report

There are many institutions involved in developing solutions. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s PUSA Bio Decomposer, which turns crop residue into manure in 15-20 days, could become a cost-effective alternative to tackle stubble burning. UNDP is also promoting startup-led innovations such as a filter-less retrofit device for cutting particulate matter at source in industries and vehicles, and a nature-based solution to amplify air purification through breathing roots technology for improving indoor air quality.

Air pollution in India has numerous sources that are spread across vast geographies, which is a challenge for environmental regulators with limited capacity and manpower. In such conditions, it is imperative to leverage advance digital technologies, such as geospatial technology and AI, to upgrade our capacities to identify, monitor, regulate and mitigate air pollution hotspots. For instance, the GeoAI platform for brick kilns, developed by UNDP in partnership with the University of Nottingham, is supporting environment regulators to identify non-complaint brick kilns from space. The platform has already mapped over 37,000 brick manufacturing units across the Indo-Gangetic plains. Given the complexity and magnitude of air pollution, India needs context-specific innovations not only in the technological but also in the economic, social, legal, educational, political and institutional domains. It is important for it to develop a single window online platform for showcasing innovations with the potential to mitigate the challenges of air pollution.

What more should be done?

The need of the hour is provide an enabling ecosystem for innovations to address context-specific air pollution challenges. There needs to be significant government support for enterprises to come up with scalable pollution abatement technologies. Resources need to be allocated to support testing, certifying and scaling of innovative solutions and also to extend support for intellectual property rights protection.

Also read | India’s air quality data for comparing annual pollution is patchy

It is equally important to mobilise private sector participation. Businesses and enterprises need to innovate their operations and functioning, building in emission and pollution controls and reducing institutional carbon footprint to the lowest possible levels. The private sector has strong potential to develop commercially viable products to combat air pollution and boost the innovation ecosystem. Also, if one quantifies the impact of interventions that reduce air pollution with healthcare cost, disability-adjusted life years, or economic cost, it could lead to diversification of funding sources for that intervention.

Rozita Singh, Krishnan S. and Swetha Kolluri work with Accelerator Lab, UNDP India

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