Technology alone isn’t the solution: on the air pollution crisis

In the annals of the story of air pollution, December 3, 2017 will likely become a pivotal moment. On Day 2 of the final Test match between India and Sri Lanka in Delhi, bowlers Lahiru Gamage and Suranga Lakmal left the Kotla cricket ground early in the game complaining of breathing difficulties. For the first time in Test cricket, a match was disrupted because of air pollution. Indian captain Virat Kohli later asked publicly what Indians are doing about it.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing at the Delhi and Central governments for not being prepared for the dreadful air quality episodes during north India’s winter season. Most people, across party lines, have been nervous about this winter ever since Diwali in 2016, when an unexpected confluence of conditions caused terrifyingly high concentrations of particulates and a witch’s brew of indeterminate gases.

 

No government can eliminate air pollution within the span of a single term in office. Neither the previous United Progressive Alliance government nor the current National Democratic Alliance government is alone culpable — business, the media, and the middle and upper classes are equally to blame. In fact, the government may not even have the tools to ‘solve’ the problem of air pollution in our cities. It may take years of worse conditions before things get better, unless some transformational alternatives are seriously considered. You need not be a cynic or a pessimist to see why this is so. Air pollution science has an almost artless arithmetical logic, simple in its details.

Explaining urban air pollution

Urban air pollution refers largely to the mixture of gases and small particles in the lowest hundred or so metres, a result of human activity associated with vehicles, road dust, domestic cooking and heating, power plants and other industries nearby, diesel generator sets, and the open burning of waste.

In Delhi, in recent weeks, concentrations of particulates below 2.5 thousandths of a…

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