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A $3 billion pollution ‘solution’ in Delhi – but will it work?

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Last week, the Ministry of Urban Development announced a Rs. 19,762 crore ($2.95 billion) solution to reduce vehicular pollution in Delhi. If approved, the proposal will seek to reduce emissions from the over 8.8 million vehicles in the city, mostly owned by the rising middle and upper classes.  Despite this class differential in vehicular emissions, some of the improvements sought include:

  • Seven pilot parking management districts
  • An integration of  207 metro stations with other forms of public transit systems
  • Construction of cycling tracks and footpaths with crossings at least every 250 meters, with first use of street space to pedestrians
  • Removal of choke points across the city
  • A procurement of 2,000 new buses immediately and 4,000 new buses in the next phase
  • Development of a Bus Rapid Transit System on high-density routes
  • Parking fees and congestion tax to discourage private vehicles

While several of these suggestions, namely parking management districts and imposing congestion taxes, may curb vehicle use, the rest of the plan largely ignores the intersection of class and the environment in the city. Academics such as Asher Ghertner and Sunalini Kumar have argued that past environmental efforts in Delhi have largely failed due to “bourgeois environmentalism” wherein middle class biases and interests take over environmental efforts that are genuinely in the public interest.

This may very well be the case with the Ministry’s air pollution proposals, which largely focus on bus and metro expansion. In today’s age, car ownership is no longer a practical necessity but rather a symbol of class, prestige, and status. In 2001, Delhi had 900,000 registered private cars. Today, there are more than 2.6 million. Though small in comparison to the city’s population, the increasing use of cars in a deeply congested city is unlikely to be deterred by  building new bus and metro routes. In fact, the Supreme Court acknowledged the problem in January when it asked DMRC to explore the option of creating a ‘premium‘ class service on the Delhi Metro to make the train seem more friendly for the wealthy.

We’ve already seen a big failure in convincing the middle class to use public transport through the Bus Rapid Transit system in 2008, which displaced cars from three lanes to two and dedicated a special lane to bus use. Rather than getting support, the BRT received a hugely negative and critical media campaign by middle-class journalists who lived in colonies along the route. Their complaints centered on the fact that the special bus route increased car travel times by 20 minutes or more, leading to inconveniences for car users. This argument went to the Supreme Court when an activist argued that the BRT system ignored the “wealth creators” of the city who preferred cars. It seems that these reactions to public transport have gone unnoticed in the latest proposals.

Also ignored are larger contributors to air pollution than cars—trucks and two-wheelers—which contribute to 24-25% and 18% of PM 2.5, respectively. Cars, on the other hand, contribute to 14-15%. While public transport may attract owners of two-wheelers, typically lower-middle class, it won’t make big progress in changing truck usage. Policies considering trucks and two-wheelers seem absent from the proposals.

Ultimately, Delhi’s air pollution solutions need a broader perspective and incentive model that accounts for the behaviors driving modes of transport. If Delhi is to curb pollution, it needs to create marketing and norms to get managers, CEOs, members of parliament, and other middle- or upper-class individuals to prioritize public transport. The idea is not as crazy as it sounds; such consumers readily take on public transport in cities like London and New York. However, behavioral nudges must come along-side policies that disincentive car ownership by higher costs to purchasing cars, especially second cars. A prime example is Singapore’s Vehicle Quota System, which makes vehicles 3-5 times the actual cost, thereby incentivizing people to use public transport. The same must go for two-wheelers, and strict environmental regulations must be put on exhaust of all vehicles, including trucks.

It’s time to create norms that are set for everyone, not just the poor. Just as lower-class auto drivers have been forced into using CNG to curb pollution, and over 3 million squatters have been evicted from their land for ‘polluting’ the land, it’s time to create policies that promote the middle- and upper-classes to create a better environment. Though increasing public transport is well-intentioned, it is not the answer. The Ministry of Urban Development must take into account deeper considerations of culture, behavior, and norms and use the increasingly expanding world of marketing and behavioral economics to change what is normal.

 

 

Feeling the heat? You’re feeling the pollution too.

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Had trouble breathing lately? It might be because despite popular opinion, Delhi’s air pollution levels aren’t doing so great in the summer heat.

Our team regularly monitors air quality through the Air Quality Index Widget on our phone, which uses U.S. Embassy Air Quality data. The U.S. Embassy converts P.M. 2.5 (mg per cubic meter) to an Air Quality Index (AQI) to easily guide health decisions. It is fairly typical for Delhi figures to be in the orange or red zone, considered unhealthy at an AQI of 151 to 200, in the summer. Winters typically see figures in the ‘Very Unhealthy’ violet category with an AQI ranging from 201 to 300.

US embassy AQI
U.S. Mission NowCast Air Quality Key

 

Though April AQIs have been, on average, showing moderate AQIs below 100, the pollution levels in the last week of April spiked.

April 28th, 29th, and 30th averaged at ‘very unhealthy’ levels of air pollution with average AQIs of 248, 246, and 300, respectively. Such high levels of pollution can cause significant aggregation for those with heart or lung problems.

The highest hourly averages on these days were above 500, with the maximum of 592 on 29th April. To put this into perspective, the U.S. Embassy Air Quality key maxes out at 500, which marks the maximum in the worst category, ‘hazardous.’ Hazardous levels of air pollution may cause serious heart and lung risks, even leading to mortality amongst those with cardiopulmonary disease. At levels above an AQI of 500, these effects may worsen.

Though there are is no evidence to help us understand the unusual spike, the high amount of air pollution may be a result of two on-going activities. One, the end of April brings an end to the wheat season. To clear the land of wheat stubbles in preparation of planting other crops, farmers often burn the wheat residue. According to Umendra Dutt of the Kheti Virasat Mission, however, only 16% of wheat reside is burned, so it is unclear how strongly the activity contributes to the PM 2.5 levels. Two, water-parched areas in Uttarakhand have resulted in an unusual number of forest fires. As of last weekend, 427 fires were simultaneously burning in the region, with reports of air pollution and poor air visibility.

Though the reasons for the poor air quality is unknown, Delhi government has yet to put precautions in place to protect public health. Contrastingly, China has frequently triggered red alerts in cities across the country when smog levels rise to unusual levels. Red alerts, which include recommendations that people should stay indoors and vehicles should be restricted, are issued when regions see an AQI of 300 or above. Delhi is seeing almost double this number during peak pollution hours, yet the government has taken limited precautions beyond odd-even. Until institutional factors are not addressed, air pollution will persist in high amounts. Such factors include industrial policies in Delhi and neighboring regions, implementation of policies restricting crop burning, and measures to reduce negative health and environmental impact of droughts.

Does Spring bring better air to Delhi?

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Spring in Delhi, is the air clean?
Spring in Delhi, is the air clean?


Delhi Winters are notoriously known for bad levels of air pollution, but we often hear that air gets cleaner come Spring. We were curious what was happening in our own backyard, so we put out our Dylos Particle Counter on a rooftop near our Saket office.  The Particle Counter measures particle counts between 0.5 to 2.5 micron in size per 0.01 cubic ft. From this number, we can estimate PM 2.5, which are microns approximately 30 times smaller than human hair. PM 2.5 is considered harmful to human health since these particles can get lodged deep into the lungs and cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

Here is the data from November 2015 – March 2016. Though air pollution levels do drop in March, notice that the month still had zero days of ‘good’ or ‘moderate’ quality air. Due to fluctuations in hourly air quality, some of the maximums in March are higher than the average pollution levels between November and February.

Though Delhi air may get better in the Spring, it doesn’t improve enough to be considered clean or healthy. Keep those masks and air filters handy!

Smart Air Filters featured in The Hindu

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On March 31, Smart Air Filters was exclusively featured in The Hindu’s Business Line. In “Making cleaner air affordable the DIY way,” Chetna Mehra highlighted our commitment to providing clean air at a low-cost. Here’s an excerpt from the article – you can read more here.

If you are living in Delhi, you are already deprived of clean air, and may be ready to pay a hefty price to get lungfuls of this precious resource. But how much should clean air cost? Most will say it should be free; but the most affordable tag on it now is ₹3,400.

Social innovation firm Smart Air is selling affordable DIY (do-it-yourself) air-purifiers that clean indoor air as well as any expensive air-purifier available in Indian market in the ₹16,000-30,000 price range.

To find out more about our range of clean air products, check out our online shop.

How healthy are Delhi kids’ lungs?

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From: The Hindu

In 2008, the Chittranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) in Kolkata published the results from a study examining the health of lung function among school children, aged 4-17, in Delhi. To test whether children in Delhi fared worse than those outside of the city, the study compared 11,628 children from different parts of Delhi to 4,536 children in rural West Bengal and rural Uttaranchal—notably less polluted areas—over the course of 3 years.

Children are thought to be particularly susceptible to air pollution. They have higher oxygen demands then adults, leading to higher respiration rates. Their airways are also smaller than those of adults, so they are more likely to get inflammation due to air pollution. And because their immunity is still building up, they are more prone to illnesses from pollution than adults. If they are exposed to chronic pollution, children may develop lung damage into adult life.

The results from the study, summarized below, indicate that Delhi children show significantly worse outcomes for respiratory health and lung function compared to those in the control group. Children from lower socioeconomic groups usually fare worse because they have higher exposure to outdoor and indoor pollutants. The study further stated that children spend 2/3 of their time indoors, meaning air quality at schools and homes have a significant impact on health.

Many of the solutions to improve health outcomes for Delhi’s children necessitate policy changes — ensuring that schools are built far away from polluting sources, stricter monitoring of polluting sources, and better access to health services, to name a few. But ensuring kids avoid physical activity during high-pollution hours and wear anti-pollution masks whenever possible can help. For clean air indoors, check out Smart Air Filters’ low-cost air purifiers.

 

Smart Air Filters featured on CNN Money

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Charles Riley, a journalist with CNN Money, recently published a long-form article on Delhi’s air quality and its impact on individuals—particularly children and those with asthma. Smart Air Filters was thrilled to be featured as one of the groups making Delhi’s air cleaner through our low-cost, DIY air filters. The article also featured Saurabh Bhasin, a lawyer taking up legislative battles with the Supreme Court and Dr. Naresh Trehan, who has called for government reforms to promote cleaner air.

Check out the full article on CNN Money’s website.

Video: Air pollution in Delhi is affecting school kids

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New study in India directly links air pollution to deteriorating health of school kids in Delhi. The Indian Express has put together a video to highlight the major findings of the study:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqpJSZH-834&w=560&h=315]