Philip Earis, working for the Royal Society of Chemistry, London, moved to Mumbai in June 2013 and has been interacting with scientists all over India since then. Earis, who has been investigating various facets of air quality across the world, spoke to HT.
After living in different cities in the world, what according to you are the problems related to air quality control in Mumbai?
Mumbai suffers from poor air quality, like many fast-developing cities. As a crowded city with a high population density, Mumbai has many people living and working at street level, close to sources of pollution. In areas like Dharavi, industrial activities like plastic melting take place close to residential areas. Such constant proximity means increased exposure to unclean air, with serious negative consequences for health and life expectancy.
The sources of pollution in Mumbai are different from those in other cities. Construction work and dust from roads, inadequately paved surfaces are a big problem. Mumbai also suffers from a lack of awareness about the magnitude of the problem. There is also a lack of awareness of the causes of air pollution, meaning harmful working practices continue. Rubbish is often burned at the side of the street.
Compared to other cities in the world, what does Mumbai lack in air quality control measures?
Till recently, Mumbai lacked clear, current, accurate, visible, trusted and independent monitoring of air quality. The recent introduction of Air Quality Index (AQI) monitoring by the US Consulate is welcome, as it addresses the shortcoming.
They are now publishing live information, updated hourly, on their website, which matters because the air is more dangerous in Mumbai than in many other world cities. In Paris, there is a huge outcry whenever pollution levels occasionally spike to levels that are below the everyday normal in Mumbai.
Having accurate information on the extent of the problem is necessary, but not sufficient. Citizens need to take an active interest and put pressure on elected officials. With air pollution – a problem that seriously damages the health of every city resident – there has been silence and inaction. City residents are dying considerably younger than they would otherwise, as a result.
What are the different measures taken by different cities across the world?
Cities around the world have made significant progress. The UK government introduced a Clean Air Act in 1956 in response to the dangerous London smog. More recently, London has set up a Low Emissions Zone, using a combination of charges and geographical restrictions. Paris has limited cars driving on the roads, in periods of bad pollution. Beijing’s residents have demanded action after the US Embassy there started publishing AQI data, to good effect. Encouraging cleaner forms of energy such as solar power would help reduce coal burning, which releases pollutants.
Cleaner air is not in conflict with economic growth, and nor do attempts to improve air need to be costly. Many simple measures in Mumbai (like properly paving roads) would help spur economic growth and bring allied public health benefits.
Addressing the root causes of air pollution – open incineration, burning dirty fuels, old vehicles with poor emissions standards – is the best approach.
What is your vision for Mumbai?
A global city that is respected as a healthy place to live, work, study and play, with development goals that the city can unite behind – having air that is safe to breath, more open space – and development activities being aligned to these goals.