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Shyam Ponappa: A systems approach to clean air

It's best to start now on long-term solutions

Shyam Ponappa 

Shyam Ponappa

One might say that the conveniences of modern living are in the category of "never seen" (jamais vu) for broad reaches of our society. The conveniences of steady electricity, reliable communications services and so on are strangely unfamiliar. This epitomises our lack of infrastructure - let alone the inadequacy of second and third-order services, namely basic health and education, and financial services like banking and insurance, respectively. Even with regard to communications, the remarkable success story of the past decade, it turns out that we are poorly served not only by way of broadband but also voice services. It is in these disabling circumstances, our attention distracted by seemingly unconnected crises, that we must force ourselves to focus on our longer-term needs and objectives, and to the extent we can, especially of those who lead and administer this society. After losing so much time, at least now, we must act with resolve for the attributes that we know are essential for people to be productive and to live in reasonable comfort: Stable law and order, electricity, communications, convenient transportation, water supply and sewerage, and higher-order services like health and education at a basic level.

It's obvious that business-as-usual is not going to bring order and convenience or clean air to our lives. Something's obviously wrong with our models. And they need to be reconfigured to deliver functional competence. Also, it's reasonably clear that many seemingly disparate matters are interconnected and have a combined effect that we have not acted on in our previous experience. The crisis in air quality in the capital and in much of the country is one example of this.

A complicating aspect in dealing with air pollution or any such issue is that a number of factors affect each other. Solutions, therefore, require coordinated action at many levels across broad geographies, because the response has to be systemic. Institutionally, this is difficult in India because of the absence of a broadly collaborative approach to systems. It is especially acute in the absence of clear leadership on convergence and coordination. However, this is an obstacle that we and our government agencies will have to work out if we are to get results.

The present crisis with atmospheric pollution cannot be resolved with one-off actions in Delhi, because a number of distinct elements need to be addressed. One is widespread burning of agricultural residue and other waste in other states. Other major causes of fine particulates include these activities in Delhi: Burning of wood and coal, use of diesel generators, and construction and road dust. While vehicular traffic also contributes to air pollution, two-wheelers with two-stroke engines can be as bad as or worse than cars with efficient Bharat Stage-IV engines and fuel.

So, the first critical requirement is for the lawyers representing Delhi and those representing automobile manufacturers to adduce and present comprehensive evidence to help the judges reach a proper understanding of the situation and enable them to arrive at informed conclusions. If expert witnesses who have knowledge of these domains with excellent presentation skills haven't been mobilised, this is the immediate need. Otherwise, the analysis could be biased because of inadequate knowledge and/or data, and could lead to erroneous conclusions and outcomes. And, if decisions are based on just a handful of collection centres, another critical requirement is data from a sufficiently broad network of sources.

The next requirement is more difficult: Formulating workable solutions for each major factor, which must then be implemented. For instance, burning agricultural stubble is a widespread practice, despite regulatory measures by central, state and local governments. A number of studies report that this is a major contributor to atmospheric pollution, in particular to volatile organic compounds.1 In the vicinity of Delhi, the practice is widespread not only in Punjab and Haryana, but also in Uttar Pradesh. Many small, medium and large farms do this to quickly clear the land and prepare it for the next crop, despite the negative effects on nutrients, soil structure, and smoke and other emissions.

This practice has low direct costs, as society bears the major indirect costs. Therefore, a strategy to reduce pollution by stopping the burning of crop residue must enable a quick turnaround to prepare the land for planting, as well as be affordable. Perhaps domain experts have solutions. These need to be collated and popularised by government agencies and the media as part of an integrated incentives-and-penalties approach. Effective extension work to achieve this in fields may be difficult, but there may be no easier alternative.

Another instance is the widespread use of diesel generators because of the unreliable power supply. This leads to the bigger question of how to set up reliable long-term power supply, whereas the reality in Delhi is the adversarial stance between the present government and power suppliers. This situation is untenable in the long run, and some form of coordinated solution has to necessarily be worked out for stable power. Otherwise, imagine the hardship if there's a sudden ban on the use of diesel generators.

Solutions in the same vein need to be devised and implemented for each major source of pollutants, such as construction dust, road dust, and brick kilns - not least being the phased resolution of low-emissions fuel and engines over a period. The monumental task of righting the communications systems to reduce pollution also remains, in that the more effective our communications services, the more feasible it will be to use telecommuting for a wide variety of purposes.

"Spatio-temporal characterization of agriculture residue burning…", Kiran Chand Thumaty et al, ISRO, 2015:

"Emission of Air Pollutants from Crop Residue Burning in India", Niveta Jain et al, IARI, 2014:

"Paddy residue burning and bezenoids", Chinmoy Sarkar et al, IISc, 2012:
http://www.currentscience /Volumes / 104/12/1703.pdf

First Published: Wed, January 06 2016. 21:50 IST