Reinventing Air Quality Monitoring

December 01, 2016

With national ambient air quality standards in place, it is important to set up the air quality monitoring grid to generate air quality data ona routine basis. This will help assess risks and implement control measures. While advanced countries including the US, Japan and European nations have evolved advanced monitoring systems, most developing countries of Asia and Africa are still languishing with very basic monitoring or no monitoring at all. Advanced systems are more resource-intensive and need strong and robust infrastructure and technical capacity for quality control of data, operations and dissemination. This is often much beyond the affordability and institutional capacity of cities in the developing world.

This, however, needs to be said with a cave at. Indian cities do not have to wait for monitoring to happen in each and every city to enable action. Mounting evidences on health impacts of air pollution and also diagnostic air quality data that many cities have started to generate are enough to build the case for urgent action. But cities still need plans for rolling out monitoring that will help understand the changing nature of local risk and exposure to refine action. Out of the 5,000 cities and towns in India, a regulatory monitoring network exists only in 268. Out of these, only 24 cities have some capacity to do real time monitoring. The rest rely on manual monitoring which is inefficient, vulnerable to weak quality control and results in inordinate delays in data reporting. In fact, the latest published air quality data under the National.

Ambient Air Quality Programme of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is for the year 2012. This data makes air quality monitoring irrelevant to public health protection as this does not allow informed and instantaneous response or to calibrate stringency of action to meet clean air targets over time. Even public opinion and understanding of risk from air quality remains inert and unresponsive if real-time information is not available. This is a serious concern as according to the Global Burden of Disease estimation, air pollutionis the fifth largest killer in India. Experience of big cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata have shown that public opinion can be a catalyst and it can create bottom up pressure to push for change. Real time monitoring of key pollutant sand its continuous dissemination is important to inform both policy and public opinion. Most cities are in data vacuum today.

Regulatory monitoring that the CPCB and state pollution control boards (SPCBs) administer are elaborate and expensive systems that are taking a while to get implemented nation-wide. In the best case scenario about 700 cities are expected to have modicum of monitoring over the next five years.