Four days before the Bhogi festival, the state Environment Minister, K C Karupannan had flagged off an awareness campaign at the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) office in Guindy with a view to ensuring an improved post-Bhogi situation in the city. “Auto rickshaws sounded a recorded message over microphones as they plied across the city, warning citizens against the hazardous pollution created by festival practices. We sensitised people in all the fifteen zones in Chennai,” said a spokesperson from the TNPCB.
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But all claims by the TNPCB came to nought on Bhogi day when thick smoke engulfed the city, suffocating citizens and resulting in the delay of many flights. The biggest irony perhaps was that the TNPCB building itself remained hidden in smog on Bhogi day.
Citizens and activists from all zones in the city, meanwhile, seemed oblivious of any awareness campaigns having been undertaken before the festival. “We did not witness any campaigning activity in North Chennai. 90 percent of the population burnt furniture and tires to celebrate a long, smoky Bhogi,” said R.L. Srinivasan, a fisherman, who is a part of the Ennore Anaithu Minava Grama Kootamaipu. People from other zones in Chennai voiced the same.
The myth that Bhogi should be celebrated by burning old furniture evidently still exists among us, despite the TNPCB claims that they have been conducting awareness campaigns since more than ten years. Even though sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide were within prescribed limits of 80mg/m3 on pre-Bhogi and Bhogi day, according to TNPCB data, mounting PM10 levels were observed in thirteen zones of the Chennai Corporation.
The press release issued by the TNPCB attributed the increasing pollution levels to the high humidity, low temperature and low wind speed on Bhogi day. But the Air Quality Index at Chennai has been poor even when climatic conditions were not in themselves conducive to pollution.
PM2.5 data missing
Along with industrial advancement, pollution levels have also been advancing with Particulate Matter 2.5 levels mounting up in the cities. PM2.5 was introduced in 2009 as a ‘criteria pollutant’ that is directly linked to human health. But unfortunately, neither pre-Bhogi nor post-Bhogi statistics released by the TNPCB has any mention of PM2.5, the small polluting particles that can cause lung diseases.
“Statistics from the Central Pollution Control Board states that PM2.5 levels in Manali station was between 800mg/m3 to 1000mg/m3 on Bhogi morning during 5.30 am to 10.30 am. It is at least sixteen times more than the prescribed limit by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, which sets the upper limit at 60mg/m3,” said Swetha Narayan, Co-ordinator, Healthy Energy Initiative India.
The display board outside the TNPCB office has blanks in the PM2.5 column for at least two stations. An official seeking anonymity said that the stations have no PM2.5 monitors as they are expensive.
“Any pollutant which is microscopic is most dangerous. The 2.5 microns would stay put in the human body leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Not just on Bhogi and Diwali, PM2.5 levels always cross 100mg/m3 every day in any of the stations in Chennai,” Dr Hisamuddin Papa, a pulmonologist said.
Do we have enough stations?
Chennai district with an area of 426 sq km has only eight continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations (CAAQMS) and one mobile CAAQMS. The six stations are located at Koyambedu, Royapuram, Kodungaiyur, Perungudi, Manali, Alandur, IIT-Madras and SIPCOT Gummadipoondi, while the mobile station is allocated to one locality every day.
According to research conducted by Urban Emissions (India), an independent research group on air pollution and disseminating air quality, Chennai requires 38 more real time air quality monitoring stations. The data from the existing stations in Chennai are not published on a day-to-day basis on the TNPCB website, thus indicating large gaps in the data.
Besides the CAAQMS, Chennai has eight manual monitoring stations in the residential, commercial and industrial areas.
Data in the black hole
The data accessed through manual monitoring is uploaded on the TNPCB website only after 24-48 hours of collection of the data. “As the pollutants are manually tested in the laboratories, it is time consuming,” said a senior TNPCB official.
“Manual stations do not allow daily relay of real time air quality for immediate action. They do not allow daily reporting of real time air quality data and smog alter for action and public health protection. Air Quality Index values go missing for more than ten percent of the days in 22 Indian cities including Chennai,” said a press release from Centre for Science and Environment, while releasing the air quality index data for Indian cities.
It has been pointed out by various experts that insights based on hourly real-time data can actually make a direct policy level impact. Ronak Sutaria, founder of UrbanSciences – an initiative focused on building a scientifically-validated air quality monitoring network in India — writes,
“School timings, especially timings for outdoor/playground activities can be adjusted based on real-time PM2.5 levels.The Haryana Education Minister released a directive on November 8 to officially change the school timings to 9am to 3.30pm. Steps such as these are examples of a responsive government policy framework. More such policy directives should be encouraged, which are brought about by citizen voices and backed by sound scientific data and information.”
It is also evident from the Bhogi air statistics released by the TNPCB that manual procedures completely miss estimation of the levels of PM2.5 in the air, which is a key pollutant. According to TNPCB officials, however, the inclusion of PM2.5 data in their records is being considered and may soon be uploaded on the site.