Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Nov 13, 2019
What if Delhi-NCR followed San Francisco's air pollution protocol As New Delhi and neighbouring cities hit 'severe' levels of air pollution in several parts for the second time in two weeks, a question worth exploring is does this population of over twenty-two million need a new protocol to protect them? One of the most detailed response protocols has recently been put together in San Francisco, although many responses like closing schools have already been in use. Called the Bay Area Regional Air Quality Messaging Toolkit, it is a detailed document especially on taking action and effective communication. Here’s a look at what it does compared to what happens in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), from sports to schools and even tweeting. The key is decentralization. The Toolkit says, "Many organizations – including school districts, employers, and event organizers – are responsible for making decisions about how they will implement this guidance and how they will operate during times of poor air quality.” In Delhi-NCR the response is, on paper, governed largely by the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA), its Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) and a ‘Task Force’ headed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). What about closing schools during high pollution events? The Californian document says, “School closure and event cancellations are ultimately determined by each individual school district based on local conditions.” These conditions are determined by the American Environmental Protection Agency or EPA’s AQI or any other air quality monitoring methodology used in that jurisdiction. In November 2019, schools were closed when the AQI touched 261; under the US EPA system, this corresponds to PM 2.5 concentration of 211 ug/m3. A major sports match was also called off, for the first time in over five decades, with just 27 hours to go, most unlike the T20 cricket match played on November 3rd in Delhi when the AQI was almost off the charts at 494. In Delhi-NCR, such levels are seen as par for the course. In fact, on paper, closing schools is governed by GRAP and only when the PM 2.5. levels cross 300 µg/m3 and persist for 48 hours or more, and even after this the CPCB-led ‘Task Force’ has to take a “decision on any additional steps including shutting of schools”. The futility of this situation was accepted by the government itself when for the first time, this month, it announced the closure of Delhi schools without this 48 hour requirement. Perhaps the most telling difference is in communications. The Messaging Toolkit has templates for not just for text alerts, but also for Twitter, Facebook, even blogs and websites. For example, in the highest AQI level, Hazardous, there are eight templates for SMSs and tweets, for Facebook, blogs, and websites, there’s a 500 word+ template. Tips include “Avoid all physical activity outdoors. Sensitive groups: Remain indoors & keep activity levels low. Visit for more information.” Another one, “Check on others. Older adults/pregnant individuals/children/people w/respiratory illness are at risk when air quality is poor.” Or even “Go to a cleaner air location if you are unable to seal your home”. Much of the document is oriented towards tackling the smoke from California’s wildfires. In a broad sense, that’s similar to Delhi which has smoke from stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana. So what’s the situation in India? CPCB is on Twitter, @CPCB_OFFICIAL. But it largely spouts officialese. True, there are comments on the air quality worsening or “improving” to Very Poor category, but these are generic and there’s nothing directly relatable or actionable from an individual’s point of view. See Figure 1, the CPCB tweet on a day air pollution was already severe and rising. Even if one worked out “Possibility Thundery,” how many would really need to know about the “Maximum Ventilation Index”? Figure 1: CPCB tweet in officialese on Oct 31st, 2019, a day ahead of schools being shut because of ‘Severe’ air pollution. Not a word here about shutting down schools or any health advisory whatsoever. In contrast the San Francisco Messaging Toolkit is not too hung up technicalities. If the air is bad, that’s good enough for it to ensure that those in-charge send out messages and which are helpful. Messages on how to protect yourself, which masks to use, how to help others, what to do and what to avoid. The aim of the San Francisco Toolkit is not just to de-jargonise and offer practical guidelines on protecting yourself from poor quality air, but to also communicate with “hard-to-reach populations, such as people with access and functional needs, including, but not limited to people with disabilities, older adults, immigrant populations, and people with limited English proficiency.” EPCA, in sharp contrast, despite being the key agency in-charge of pollution control in Delhi-NCR is absent from Twitter and Facebook, and its website is hardly updated even during peak pollution season when one would imagine its engagement with the public should be peaking as well. To be sure CPCB has a useful app and it has scaled up its Twitter account whose managers are responsive to complaints from the public. But the reorientation as a crucial service - to help breathe clean air - is far from done. On the 2nd and 3rd of November, 2019, which saw the worst air pollution in three years, @CPCB_Official tweeted nothing. This was the weekend. Figure 2: Closed for the weekend? No tweets from @CPCB_OFFICIAL on Nov 2nd-3rd which saw the highest AQI reported in Delhi in three years. Fortunately, the Californian Messaging Toolkit has detailed tips, apart from using social media. The goal is to be effective. Tips are as detailed as “Place #hashtags or @mentions at the end of the tweet. Avoid using unfamiliar acronyms. Use ‘CamelCase’ (upper and lowercase) for multiple words in hashtags.” There is a more fundamental difference which is that the US AQI system starts ringing the alarm bells a lot sooner on the index scale than the Indian one. The US EPA’s AQI of 201-300 is ‘Very Unhealthy’ and it’s the second-worst level of warning, with the PM 2.5 concentration level between 150.5 to 250.4 micrograms/cubic meter or μg/m3. India’s AQI of 201-300 is ‘Poor’ and it’s the third-worst level, lower down the AQI scale. The PM 2.5 concentration level range is 91-120 μg/m3. So the same AQI but different concentration levels and different danger levels on the AQI scale. Now how does this affect the health warning triggers? The US AQI warns that (emphasis added) “everyone may experience more serious health effects.” India’s AQI warns “Breathing discomfort to most people on prolonged exposure.” These are phrases from the main AQI charts of the two protocols and show a remarkable difference in urgency. EPA alerts ‘everyone’, CPCB ‘most people’; ‘more serious’ vs ‘breathing discomfort… on prolonged exposure.’ The EPA’s most dangerous air quality level is ‘Hazardous’ which begins at an AQI of 301. But at 301, India’s AQI is only the second most-dangerous known as ‘Very Poor’. EPA’s AQI of 301 measures against a PM 2.5 concentration level of 250.5 ug/m3, while India’s AQI of 301 is equal to 121 μg/m3. Not surprisingly, the tone of the warnings of the two AQIs of 301 differs. America’s is “Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.” And India’s, “Respiratory illness on prolonged exposure.” Incidentally, in contrast to America’s “emergency conditions (for) the entire population,” India’s most dangerous level’s warning is toned down - “affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases.” But for anyone suffering Delhi’s toxic air for days or weeks on end, perhaps the most surprising protective measure in the US plan is the provision for Cleaner Air Centers. These could be indoor shopping malls, local government buildings, even Designated Cleaner Air Centers. The main idea is simple- avoid poor quality air. And this advisory kicks in at an AQI 151, which corresponds to PM 2.5 concentration level of just 55.5 μg/m3. This amount of PM 2.5 in India’s National AQI is “satisfactory.” One could argue that California, which by itself is estimated to be the world’s fifth-largest economy and not as densely populated as Delhi-NCR, can afford to do this but that’s hardly a defense on why a government, aspiring to achieve a $5 trillion economy in a few years, cannot protect its people. What is not satisfactory is Delhi and neighboring states’ systemically underwhelming response. Episodes of extreme pollution should not be happening year after year. Equally damaging is limited and ad-hoc engagement with the public. Authorities here could do well to take a leaf or ten out of the Air Quality Messaging Toolkit or develop their own. #Quickly.
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