Even as the gentle city of soft, light breezes, namma Bengaluru, is getting gritty with particulate matter, there seems to be a disconnect between the citizen and the data. What exactly is blowing around? Is it possible to sense and detect the quality of air?
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How does Bangalore rate in the Air Quality Index (AQI)? Not too good. It has been found that the biggest air pollutant in the city is particulate matter (PM), specifically PM10 and PM2.5. These are tiny, irritant suspensions in the air that tend to enter and cause respiratory and even cardiovascular diseases.
In 2015, Greenpeace undertook trials that showed air quality monitoring at major Bengaluru landmarks, right from Christ College to the Reserve Bank of India. It was shown to give PM10 readings and violated national and international safety standards. The worst affected seemed to be the busy Peenya junction, which has a peak pollution of almost 1300 ug/m3. It is 26 times more than the safety standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and also 13 times India’s pollution recommendation.
Hence, namma ooru ranks 63rd among 168 cities for PM 2.5 levels in 2015-16, according to a Greenpeace report titled ‘Airpocalypse’ that examined the air quality in 24 states and union territories. Other cities in the state, including Hassan, Mangaluru, Mysuru, Mandya and Chitradurga, were found to be the least polluted, but Bengaluru’s air quality levels shot up much above the safety standards. The main cause of air pollution was vehicular emission.
So how do we arrive at these findings? There are a number of monitoring stations all over the state, installed by public as well as private organisations, that give us a good indication. We have listed some of them.
Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) is the official, governmental body that monitors air quality in the city. Last year, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) installed five continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations (CAAQMS) in different parts of the city at various places, including Kavika on Mysore Road, Nimhans, Hebbal, Silk Board and Jayanagar 5th block. It added to the pool of air monitoring stations, which totals 24. KSPCB Chairman Laxman told Deccan Chronicle that all the monitoring stations are being standardised. Once that is done, there will be daily, not monthly updation, which is the current due process.
Every monitoring station cost the state Rs 1 crore, but new stations will now be expensed at Rs 2 crore, according to the state budget. The high cost is probably due to the bureaucracy attached to it, according to citizen activists who want to remain unnamed.
Some issues in the KSPCB monitors
Although none of the monitoring stations offer real-time updates on air quality index (AQI), the board’s website gives an update on the monthly average, not daily air quality. In fact, the real-time data is available only with the Central Pollution Control Board, which is in the process of standardising the monitoring stations to provide real time data.
Citizens are also skeptical that the data that is collected is not really revealed to the public, but stored in a database, without being accessible. According to activists, the PCB is simply not accessible to the public, and the data that has been collected is stored so carefully that it is never found!
Hence, either an RTI has to be filed by citizens, or there would be a tie-up with someone in the board. Even after the data is released, it would be already three months old, and becomes quite redundant and useless for the user!
How useful would the data be for action? “Most of the data available tends to tone down the seriousness of the issue,” explains Mukund. The monitoring sensors are installed not at ground level, or just five feet above the ground, but pretty high up, which makes the air quality at that level not as serious as at ground levels, or nearer “human” levels.
The KSPCB’s actions, then, is simply not satisfactory enough. A number of individuals and organisations have got into the act of checking air levels in their different areas, so that they can make data in their areas more accessible and useful for action.
Centre for Science and Environment
In 2015, the Centre for Science and Environment use the KSCPB monitoring sensors and also its own realtime and portable monitors to conduct speedy diagnostic exposure monitors in various areas. CSE is trying to grasp different levels of pollution that people are exposed to.
CSE uses a highly advanced portable air quality monitoring equipment to check pollution during travel. The Dustrak Aerosol monitor assesses the mass and size fraction of particulate matter. The hotspots included for testing were hospitals (Fortis, Manipal Hospital), schools (Bishop Cotton boys and girls), industrial area (Peenya), Electronic city, and residential areas. The monitoring happened on various transport modes including walking, bus, car and auto. It was compared to the background ambient levels that were overseen by the CPCB for the city.
The monitors showed that Bengaluru shows an increase of 57% in PM10 between 2010 and 2014. This is the highest amongst southern cities in just four years. Between just a year, ie 2013-14 and 2014-15, the levels shot up by 23%. However, NOx levels, even though usually low, are also showing a rise.
In November, 2016, Bengaluru-based personal assistant app Helpchat began a new filter monitoring the air in a particular area, and also offered air quality updates through mobile apps.
Showing the Air Quality Index (AQI) reading from 0 to 500, the app also offers some suggestions to improve the environment. As soon as the app senses problems at one point, it would send alarms to the user’s smartphone. It would also list out the areas that should be avoided, while visiting an area. The app’s AQI index gives a measurement of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, and even cleaning agents or allergens affecting the lungs and health of the citizens. It also alerts users regarding the climate conditions, so that the user is aware of various issues related to them.
Campaigning against air pollution and campaigning for clean air quality in the city has been the focus of Jhatkaa.org for three years. Avijit Michael, Director of the group, says that his organisation has launched pilot projects to monitor air quality at two places – Koramangala and Indiranagar at Old Madras Road.
The monitoring measures in these areas involves using low-cost pollution monitors that could sense particulate matters in certain areas.
In search for solutions, Jhatkaa has got almost 4,000 citizens involved in multiple drives to fight pollution, says Avijit. They are struggling to implement small as well as big campaigns. “What we have realized is that a lot of people don’t really understand the health impact of air pollution,” he adds.
To begin with, his organisation wants to help people to buy and don anti-pollution gear that can prevent polluted air from entering and putting their lungs to risk. “The effort is to start with masks,” he says. “It is the easiest and simplest step that can be taken, and also the most visible. It would help the government in an election year, after all!”
The next step is to move on to the bigger campaigns. It involves mobilising Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation to try adding new electric buses to its fleet, in order to replace fossil-fuel buses, bringing down carbon emissions. Other measures would involve action by smaller organisations to send legal notices and petitions to municipal corporations, which could report on important issues such as garbage burning and large-scale pollution.
“The need is to get things to happen at larger levels and get the government to take on projects,” says Avijit. The government does “say the right things”, but there is a need to go beyond only words and begin to act.
Varun Hemachandran, founder of Talking Earth, explains that he has four to five members in his team, who have been pursuing pilot projects to test the air quality for a month at a couple of schools in Vasanthnagar. The team monitors the air with 10 Ambi sensors, which are able to gauge the air particulate matter from 2.5 to 10 micrograms. The low cost sensors require an investment of only Rs 10,000 per sensor. When pitted against the Rs 2 crore expenses of the government machinery, it reads as very low cost.
The reading samples of Talking Earth indicate that the areas show pollution levels to be 180 to 300 PMs, which is way above the 60 PM that is considered ‘normal’. Having compiled and collated air pollution data, the team has also worked out a series of air alerts, extending an order which would help projects go through ‘safer’ areas. Almost 70% of the days surveyed, the team has found that AQI is above permissible levels.
Varun explains that though they had visited many schools to request participation, most of them declined because they were afraid that the data compiled by them would be used against the school’s functioning. Although they finally got cooperation from the students of the Environmental Science Group of the Mount Carmel School to take on voluntary work for a project, the team has decided that for their next project, it will move to peripheral zones in order to conduct surveys.
While their campaigns are running well, there also needs to be a lot of political pressure that should stop garbage burning, and also address the issues of traffic congestion, which, according to Varun, is a major worry.
Kuldeep Dantewadia, co-founder of Reap Benefit, is excited that their organisation has installed low cost monitors in 12 to 13 neighbouring areas. Their sensors detect 2.5 PM pollution levels, pressure as well as humidity levels. The team has 35 members, and also involves students to solve local issues near them.
“Winter is usually more serious, due to high-level constructions,” he says.
An Air Quality Monitor (AQM) called the ‘Climekit’ is a unique kit contributed by Reap Benefit, which believes in arriving at solutions such that civilians can understand pollution levels and work out answers on their own. While most AQMs are expensive, Climekit is affordable, readable and simple.
With a DHT22 sensor, Climekit can assess everyday temperature and humidity. A sharp dust sensor measuring dust particles and carbon monoxide (PM 2.5) density is composed of a two-split system that might leverage Wi-Fi to upload data on the one hand, or a mobile sim card with internet connectivity on the other.
Hence, the devil lies in the air, but also in details. Finding out what exactly is wrong, and how much, is definitely an important point for the city.