Joshua Apte undertook a four-month ‘auto-rickshaw study’ aimed at understanding level of air pollution that Delhi residents are exposed to while commuting daily.
In the past few years, he has conducted several studies on Delhi’s air quality. A frequent traveller to India, presently, he is studying the ambient outdoor pollution in the area between Connaught Place and India gate.
Apte made headlines last year for his four-month ‘auto-rickshaw study’ aimed at understanding the level of air pollution that Delhi residents are exposed to for about 1-2 hours that they spend on roads, commuting, every day.
Breaking away from the convention of installing equipment at fixed places, Apte hired an autorickshaw, put a computer and calibrated air quality monitors inside and travelled with his equipment on several routes across the city. Mainly, he drove about 80 times or 180 hours during morning and evening rush hours, covering a wide range of traffic conditions between South Delhi (CR Park/ GK 2) and Connaught Place. The idea was to systematically sample the same route over and over again using carefully calibrated instruments to conduct a detailed analysis of on-road air quality.
For four months he travelled on the route from inside GK2, along the outer ring road in South Delhi, August Kranti Marg to Lodhi Road, and then Lodhi Garden.
“Official air quality monitors are typically located far from roads, and don’t accurately represent the true exposures in traffic. I chose to use auto-rickshaws since they are unenclosed, and therefore provided an ideal platform to measure something close to the average onroad air quality. Moreover, they are a common transport mode for the middle class in Delhi,” says Apte who is an assistant professor with department of Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering at University of Texas.
“Delhi’s air quality has fascinated me for a long time. When I first started working on air pollution in India in 2007, the attention and awareness about Delhi’s pollution was much lower than it is today, and so there were many questions I had that had not been answered well,” he adds.
Apte’s findings are a particular cause for concern for those who spend a lot of time commuting. The study found that levels of pollution in traffic are 1.5 to 8 times higher than urban background readings measured by official monitors. “Our on-road pollution measurements in Delhi rank among the highest levels of pollution measured on roads or in vehicles anywhere in the world,” he says. “Black carbon and ultrafine particles are better indicators for vehicle emissions, and those levels were respectively 4 and 8 times higher in traffic,” he adds.
“Delhi’s people move through the city often spending many hours in heavily polluted conditions. And one also must think of the people who work and live in close proximity to major roads. These are people from all walks of life in Delhi: wealthy South Delhi residents who live near the ring road, auto-drivers, traffic policemen and hawkers, and even the families who live on roads and under flyovers,” he says.
Apte also measured levels of particulate matter emitted from vehicles in the posh Lutyens’ Delhi —which has a considerable green cover and often witnesses lower vehicular concentration. “The reason for this is because traffic speeds are comparatively high there, which allows for higher ultrafine particle emissions.”
Confirming claims that interstate trucks are a major cause of pollution in Delhi, data collected by Apte shows that Outer Ring Road and Mathura Road had five to ten times more concentration of particulate matter during night -- when truck ply -- than that recorded during daytime.
Apte, however, feels that it would be wrong to label Delhi as the “most polluted city” in the world. He points out that there are many other polluted cities that may be as bad or worse, but lack official monitoring data. “Moreover, these comparisons are besides the point. We know that air in Delhi is at least 15 times more polluted than what’s healthy, and that alone should be a call for action,” he says.
Apart from its 8 million vehicles, Delhi has many other sources of pollution — burning of wood and waste, diesel generators, brick kilns outside the city, industrial emissions, etc.
“A comprehensive plan must address many or all of these sources,” he says. He also suggests a slew of measures such as implementing Bharat/Euro Stage 5 emissions norms and cleaner fuels for vehicles, strengthening public transport system to cut down use of private vehicles.
When asked if Delhi has reached a point of no return as far as air pollution is concerned, Apte says things could improve quickly if people and the government embrace change.
Apte also speaks fondly of the auto driver he hired for his research who he said was very cooperative and a key member of the research team.