COMMENTARY: Will India’s new Air Quality Index spur action?

The simple-to-use system is a step toward transparency and an informed public, but where the path leads remains unclear.

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You don’t need a color-coded system to know that air quality is a problem in Indian cities; not when views like the one above, from Kalinganagar in Odisha, or this one, of Delhi’s famous India Gate, are commonplace. But India launched just such a system this week–its first-ever Air Quality Index–in an attempt to help the public understand exactly what’s in the air they’re breathing.

Using a model developed by IIT Kanpur, the Index compiles data on five types of air pollution into a single number, which corresponds to a color on a spectrum. For example, an AQI in the 1-50 range is green, which means “Good.” At the other end, an AQI of 401-500 shows up in red, meaning “Severe.” The orange-and-red end of the spectrum comes with dire warnings about breathing discomfort, respiratory illness, and other “serious impacts.” It’s an easy system to comprehend, and the website is pretty engaging to play around with.

What remains to be seen is precisely what use this Index will be. Rukmini S writes in The Hindu: “The biggest problem with the AQI [is] it hasn’t been attached to an action plan. We don’t yet know what to do with [it], except look at it and panic.”

The first few days of results revealed some surprises: Bangalore ranked at the bottom of India’s major cities in air quality (though this was partly due to a glitch), while notoriously smoggy Delhi was somewhere in the middle, with a “Moderate” rating. This raised a few eyebrows, and some doubts about the system’s accuracy.

Assuming it is reasonably accurate, the system is perhaps most useful to residents on an hour-by-hour basis, as opposed to long-term averages. For example, in Delhi air pollution peaks in the early morning hours when thousands of trucks enter the city, temporarily pushing air breathability into the red zone. Keeping track of these fluctuations might allow people to manage their own exposure to the worst pollution levels.
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But while it may help parents plan when to let their children play outside, it’s not clear whether the AQI is part of a comprehensive program to address the underlying problem of emissions and air pollution. Prime Minister Modi noted that “unless we bring a change in our lifestyle, we will not be able to save the environment.” But what exactly he meant by this remains a mystery.

It’s true enough that a move toward sustainability in daily life is needed–even more so for Western countries, which are far more consumptive than India despite having a fraction of the population. But what action should the ordinary person take in order to help relieve air quality issues? How can a commuter in Delhi or Mumbai be expected to give up their car, truck, or motorbike when there’s little infrastructure to provide an alternative? This speaks to the need for systemic change at the government level.

Modi’s task is an unenviable one. If India continues to develop along current lines, with booming industries and more and more people aspiring to electricity use and car ownership, then fossil fuel demands and environmental problems will only worsen. As many commentators have noted, it’s not fair that India and other developing nations should be lectured on the environment by the chief perpetrators of global pollution–i.e. the United States. Nor is it fair that they be restrained from industrial development when Western countries have profited immensely from that sector.

Nevertheless, as the world’s fastest growing nation, and soon to be its largest, a huge responsibility will fall upon India. Rather than repeating the mistakes of the U.S. and Great Britain, India has the opportunity to develop through clean technologies and energy sources. Whether the AQI will spur action any more than the smog people can see with their own eyes, only time will tell.

Photos: 1. Kalinganagar by Mayank Ojha 2. Screen capture from Air Quality Index