All that you breathe is deadly; time to act is now

ByAarti Khosla
Dec 29, 2022 01:06 AM IST

While the city generates large amounts of pollutants through anthropogenic sources, it has always had the geographical advantage where the strong sea breeze sweeps air pollutants away from the land. This year, as wind patterns changed, Mumbai’s phase with poor air quality was prolonged

Mumbai: This winter, Mumbai experienced what is usually Delhi’s story to tell. The city often had days of poor air quality, grey skies and low visibility throughout November and December, raising the alarm for a more robust monitoring and policy framework for air pollution management.

As a non-attainment city under the National Clean Air Programme, Mumbai has, until the 2021-22 financial year, received <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>750 crore for its air pollution-fighting measures. However, despite the funds, Central Pollution Control Board’s data shows that Mumbai PM 10 levels have declined since 2017 but have increased from 98 ug/m3 in 2020-21 to 106 ug/m3 in 2021-22, about two times the CPCB’s safety limit of 60 ug/m3. (Vijay Bate/HT Photo)
As a non-attainment city under the National Clean Air Programme, Mumbai has, until the 2021-22 financial year, received 750 crore for its air pollution-fighting measures. However, despite the funds, Central Pollution Control Board’s data shows that Mumbai PM 10 levels have declined since 2017 but have increased from 98 ug/m3 in 2020-21 to 106 ug/m3 in 2021-22, about two times the CPCB’s safety limit of 60 ug/m3. (Vijay Bate/HT Photo)

While the city generates large amounts of pollutants through anthropogenic sources, it has always had the geographical advantage where the strong sea breeze sweeps air pollutants away from the land. This year, as wind patterns changed, Mumbai’s phase with poor air quality was prolonged. On several occasions, the city saw worse air quality than Delhi. It gave Mumbaikars a glimpse into what the city could face if it lost its advantage.

As a non-attainment city under the National Clean Air Programme, Mumbai has, until the 2021-22 financial year, received 750 crore for its air pollution-fighting measures. However, despite the funds, Central Pollution Control Board’s data shows that Mumbai PM 10 levels have declined since 2017 but have increased from 98 ug/m3 in 2020-21 to 106 ug/m3 in 2021-22, about two times the CPCB’s safety limit of 60 ug/m3. While annual average PM 2.5 levels are not significantly different from last year, levels during the winter months of October to December have remained progressively higher in Mumbai as in the rest of North India.

The NCAP Tracker’s City Action Plan Dashboard shows that the government’s current actions largely focus on reducing vehicular emissions with maximum action points around them. The city is also spending a bulk of its NCAP and 15th Finance Commission (FC) funds on electrifying public transport under its Electric Vehicle (EV) Policy 2021.

The scientific view of air quality management has now revealed that strategies are needed for each source of pollution, like transport, industry, biomass burning, and waste management. Secondary sources of pollution, like ozone, also need to be acted upon and require robust monitoring in the first place. According to the Mumbai Climate Action Plan’s Air Pollution Risk Assessment, Particulate Matter (PM) PM2.5, PM10 and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are critical pollutants in the city mostly generated from vehicular emissions, construction sites, industrial units and power plants. Hence, the city’s control measures must not only have holistic management action points in case of acute air pollution but also create long-term pathways for low emissions across these sectors.

It is now that the government must act swiftly to prevent the city’s air quality management from being reactive to bad air days and have a strong action plan to stop it from going the Delhi way. Delhi now has a Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM), an overarching body to carry out science-based air quality management. The city’s Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) is now based on forecasts of at least three days rather than days of poor AQI. Mumbai, too, must have in place measures that can be rolled out based on weather forecasts, local sources and air quality data.

But, to solve the problem and formulate policy, there must be a robust monitoring system that helps authorities understand the gaps. However, the city’s monitoring network is sparse, with just 11 Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) of the state pollution control board and nine more by the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) and five manual monitoring stations.

To enhance coverage, the city must increase the number of the CAAQMS and complement it with low-cost indigenous sensors and real-time monitoring technology. In 2020-21, Maharashtra undertook a pilot that calibrated low-cost sensors and regulatory grade monitors and found the error to be less than 15%. Not only is this an opportunity for a denser network at a lower cost, but it could also provide more frequent data allowing the possibility to trace the source of local pollution and create hyperlocal pollution mitigation policies on the road ahead.

The MCAP assessment also identifies air pollution impacting public health, especially among those more exposed, as one of the three key risk areas for the city. A study from SAFAR in 2019 showed that although the mass concentration of PM 2.5 particles in Mumbai is much lower than in Delhi, Mumbai’s pollutants have more toxic elements due to meteorological conditions that allow the tinier, deadlier pollutants to stay in the air longer. This is not widely understood but requires more attention to the health impacts of air pollution exposure. Authorities must hence undertake health assessment studies and address local sources to reduce impacts.

(Aarti Khosla is the founder and director of Climate Trends, a research-based consulting and capacity-building initiative that aims to bring greater focus on issues of environment, climate change and sustainable development.)

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