Hailed as the first step towards improving the air quality of cities in India by PM Modi, the National Air Quality Index was launched a week ago today.
It was supposed to keep citizens informed about the air that they breathe and allow authorities to take action when levels reached danger levels.
However, one week on and it’s clear that the Environment Ministry has its work cut out if it’s to create a robust, accurate and trustworthy source of air quality data.
The first sign that something was seriously amiss came just a day after the scheme was announced when it was reported that the air quality in a residential neighbourhood in Bangalore was far more toxic than that of Delhi.
Needless to say, this rasised more than a few eyebrows, not least in Bangalore’s own Pollution Control Board.
It was quickly discovered that the air monitoring unit contained a glitch and the concentration of PM 2.5 particles (the most damaging of air particles to human health) was being calculated on the Carbon Monoxide (CO) levels, causing the readings to show 500 mg/m3 of PM 2.5 and pushing the air quality off the charts.
This ‘glitch’ combined with the media houses that reported it show how much still needs to be done both from an infrastructure and education perspective. If meters are reporting the wrong data, how can the Indian public have faith that the air quality being reported is accurate?
Similarly, when a meter in a Bangalore residential neighbourhood is reporting pollution levels 1,200% higher than in Delhi, clearly the journalist needs to ask themselves if the data is accurate.
Still, these are not the only problems which the NAQI needs to figure out.
Anyone monitoring the NAQI page on the IIT Kanpur website will be disappointed if they wished to know the air quality at the present moment. At the time of writing, a number of cities have not been updated in the last three days and still more monitoring stations don’t have enough data to report an air quality index.
The final piece of the jigsaw is to report on the ground air quality as the results can otherwise be misleading.
While it is standard practice to locate air quality monitoring stations away from heavy sources of pollution in order to get the ambient air quality, it is often far from the ground reality.
Actual air quality on and next to the roads, where most people spend their lives is much worse.
A US scientist did a four month auto-rickshaw study on the streets of Delhi to measure the air quality that the vast majority of the population is exposed to.
The results are a stark reminder that simply installing and publishing the official air quality index for cities is the first step on a very long, politically tenuous journey.
It was found that air pollution on the streets of Delhi are often 1.5 to 8 times worse than what’s officially reported. That means that when NAQI website reports dangerous levels of air pollution, the reality for most of India’s population is is far, far worse.
While the NAQI website is a good first step for India, there are plenty more ‘glitches’ that need to be worked out before it becomes an effective reporting and information resource.