For clean air, get citizens involved

The pollution control boards and municipal corporations could benefit from engaging citizens by: Empanelling monitoring groups; encouraging citizen science; and amplifying the use of complaint redressal portals
Local governments should work with citizen groups to identify and prioritise areas for intervention (Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Local governments should work with citizen groups to identify and prioritise areas for intervention (Hindustan Times)
Updated on Nov 18, 2021 05:21 PM IST
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ByTanushree Ganguly

With the onset of winter, the Indo-Gangetic plain is, once again, enveloped in thick smoke. While Delhi is at the centre of the discourse on air pollution, the clamour for clean air is gaining traction across the country.

In the last two weeks, I have travelled across three states — Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, and West Bengal — and noticed a rising demand for clean air. From addressing pollution from sugar and paper mills in UP’s Muzaffarnagar district to managing fumes from the landfill site on Ludhiana’s Tajpur road to increasing focus on non-motorised transport in Kolkata, citizen collectives have identified issues that need attention from policymakers.

Even India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) identifies public awareness for participation in air pollution management as one of its key objectives. In fact, the pollution control boards and municipal corporations could benefit from engaging citizens by using a three-pronged approach: Empanelling monitoring groups; encouraging citizen science; and amplifying the use of complaint redressal portals.

First, local governments should work with citizen groups to identify and prioritise areas for intervention. While city action plans made under the NCAP were created with the intention of identifying these priorities, a 2020 study finds that less than 25% of these plans contain relevant information on sources — needed for prioritising activities. Local governments should leverage thecollective knowledge of communities to identify their implementation priorities.

For instance, efforts to highlight industrial air pollution by residents of Maharashtra's Kharghar-Taloja-Panvel region were noticed by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board. It then committed to deploying two air quality monitors to ensure round-the-clock air quality monitoring. While this alone may not be the solution, it is an acknowledgement of their efforts.

Second, local agencies should support citizen science projects aimed at improving local air quality monitoring. This is in line with the NCAP’s recommendation to empower communities “with tools and information to take action and improve local air quality”.

Currently, most citizen science experiments in India are led by academic institutions and civil society organisations. Government agencies looking to launch similar projects can take inspiration from Belgium’s CurieuzeNeuzen (Curious Noses), the world’s largest citizen science project on air quality. Supported by a local environmental agency, the initiative used a newspaper listing to recruit over 20,000 citizen scientists to measure nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in the Flanders region. It demonstrates how institutional support for citizen science can help generate community-level insights on air quality.

Third, policymakers should promote the use of pollution complaint portals beyond Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). The NCAP requires all states to set up such facilities. Examples include the Central Pollution Control Board’s SAMEER app, the Delhi government’s Green Delhi app and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s Swachh Vayu app. Further, such portals should be subject to regular reviews to ensure they are not being underutilised. For example, Swachh Vayu received just 30 complaints from Kanpur and Lucknow in the first half of 2021. In contrast, Green Delhi received over 7,000 complaints within a month of its launch. The reality in Lucknow became clear when the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW)’s researchers detected more than 400 dispersed sources of pollution in the city in a six-week period preceding the second Covid-19 wave. Scientific estimates suggest that dispersed sources of pollution could contribute as much as 25% of the pollution burden in cities like Lucknow and Kanpur. Grievance redressal portals can turn citizens into air quality sentinels and generate information on pollution sources for further investigation.

Active public participation is largely responsible for the success of government programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Mission. Local authorities should engage communities in managing air pollution as well.

Tanushree Ganguly is a programme lead, CEEW

The views expressed are personal

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Thursday, December 09, 2021