India’s air pollution challenges

With a population of nearly 1.36 billion, India is taking bold steps towards a low carbon future. The reduction of urban emissions is a priority area for India’s environmental policies and programs. While addressing the nation on India’s 74th Independence Day celebration this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a special campaign under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), which takes a holistic approach to reduce air pollution in 100 cities across the country. 

According to the World Bank (2019), 34.47% of India’s population resides in urban areas, a portion expected to grow at the rate of 1.47% for the next decade. This means that by 2031, around 50% of India’s population will live in cities. 

Unfortunately, India is one of the most polluted countries in the world, and Indian cities are among those with the worst air quality globally. Air pollution is one of the biggest health risks in India and presents a significant public health burden. 650 million people across the country live in areas where air pollution exceeds the World Health Organization's recommended guidelines.

The average Indian citizen loses over 5.2 years of their life to air pollution according to the latest study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), with urban residents facing especially high exposures to poor air quality. The study found that nearly 480 million people, or 40% of India’s population, reside in the Indo-Gangetic belt. This area, which includes the national capital of Delhi, is notorious for its unhealthy levels of air pollution. 

The WHO guidelines for particulate matter currently recommend that annual mean PM2.5 values should not exceed 10 μg/m3. Delhi inhabitants could see life expectancy extended by as much as 9.4 years if air quality were improved to meet these guidelines. Even complying with the more lenient Indian National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) of 40 μg/μg/m3 is estimated to add as much as 6.5 years to the average life expectancy for Delhi residents.

Bengaluru is known as the Silicon Valley of India and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, where population growth and economic development are driving rapid urbanization. Growing energy and water consumption, waste generation, and transportation needs are straining the region’s natural resources. According to the same study, the inhabitants of Bengaluru are expected to lose around 3 to 4 years of their life span due to air pollution.

The air quality level in Bengaluru has been deteriorating rapidly over the past several years, and the main culprit is the city's transportation policy. Even though the city has a good bus and suburban rail network system, public transportation options have failed to meet growing demand, leading to a boom in private vehicle usage. The growth in the use of cars, motorcycles, and scooters has resulted in a significant increase in fossil fuel consumption.

Other factors that contribute to the air pollution in Bengaluru include industrial processes, dusty road conditions, waste burning, and the use of diesel generators, but the transportation sector is widely recognized as the agency most responsible for the poor air quality in the city. 

Rising air pollution levels negatively impact health and quality of life, presenting enormous challenges in Bengaluru. The first step to finding solutions to these challenges is understanding how air quality varies across different zones across the city. In this city of over 11 million, there are only 10 official ambient air quality monitoring reference stations connected to CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board). The data from this network does not provide a detailed picture of fine particulate matter in the city's air, as per the latest CREA study. 

Deploying community based air quality monitors at schools and hospitals in Bengaluru

To improve understanding of the nature of air quality and levels of fine particulate matter in Bengaluru, the Global Climate Health Alliance (GCHA), the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), and the Healthy Air Coalition worked with Clarity to install 30* indicative air quality monitors across the city in 2019. The network was deployed at strategic locations frequented by vulnerable populations, with an emphasis on schools and hospitals.

Since being deployed in 2019, the Clarity air quality monitoring network has empowered community members in the city of Bengaluru to better understand the nature of air quality in their city. Access to more granular data has increased the level of awareness around standards related to air quality levels (such as the  WHO’s and India’s national standards). 

A Clarity Node set up on a railing to help measure pollutant levels and increase air quality levels in Bengaluru.
Active Clarity Node-S generating real-time air quality data in a Bengaluru neighborhood

For the first time, the Bengaluru community has access to a reliable, real-time data network providing visibility of air quality trends at the neighborhood level. As a co-campaign design strategist for this advocacy project, I was responsible for deploying Clarity Nodes in the different neighborhoods of the city. 

At the core of Clarity’s pollutant monitoring solution is the Clarity Node. Each sensor contains nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM) sensors in a small, weatherproof shell and can be deployed in less than 5 minutes. Each Node uploads air quality data to the Clarity Cloud in real-time, where remote calibration applies algorithms specific to the region to ensure data quality. Users can retrieve air quality data remotely in real-time via API or by logging into the Clarity Dashboard, a secure web portal that offers air quality data visualization and a download tool. 

As somebody without a technical background, working with the Clarity Nodes has been a delight – they are super easy to use, activate immediately, and emit data in no time." 

- Ritwajit Das, Chief Strategist South Asia Global Call for Climate Action

The pollutant monitoring sensors are sturdy and well-suited for the hot, humid, and dusty conditions in Bengaluru. Another unique feature of Clarity’s air quality monitors is the native solar panel, which allows the monitors to power themselves and operate independently of the electric grid. Pre-paid, natively-integrated cellular connectivity allows each node to reliably connect with the nearest possible mobile network, and the back-end architecture of the Clarity Cloud is one of the best API platforms in the world. The instructions and manuals provided with the sensors are mindfully done, allowing anyone with a little bit of knowledge around computers and the internet to easily activate, manage, and operate Clarity Nodes. 

A Clarity Node being installed by a community member to empower Bengaluru residents to improve air quality levels.
Installing and deploying Clarity Node-S to measure air quality in Bengaluru

Air quality leadership in the community

The Clarity air quality monitoring network has done something simple yet transformative for the community in Bengaluru. With better access to air quality data, community members are asking better questions and joining together to pressure the government for better policies and programs to address the issue of bad air quality in the city. 

One such community group is Varthur Rising, a civic forum that provides a platform for changemakers. Jagadish Reddy Nagappa leads this group and also hosts one of the Clarity Nodes.  

Our neighborhood is undergoing significant development with high-rise residential buildings sprouting all around Varthur lake. Due to the new construction, we’ve lost most of our tree cover and have seen an increase in air pollution-related ailments. With the timely help and guidance from the Clarity team, we were able to create awareness and mobilize the community around the issue of air quality. Thanks to this community engagement, we have been able to push the government to include environmental considerations as part of their urban planning process. We expect Bengaluru city air to become breathable again void of all pollutants. Most importantly, people are now aware of the issues around air quality and can advocate for improving the environment, and for this, we are thankful to the Clarity team."  

- Jagadish Reddy Nagappa, Varthur Rising 

The network is empowering local women to take the lead on pushing for environmental sustainability in Bengaluru. Ms. Meera from the Springfield area and Ms. Varsha Kej from the Indiranagar area are coming of age as leaders in their community and leading advocacy for clean air. As they point out, the lack of integrated planning between different government departments has resulted in a skewed approach to addressing air quality. In the past, the plan and its objectives were limited to the installation of air quality monitors with no real plan for how to use this data to safeguard public health.

Varsha Kej hosting a Clarity Node as a part of the community air quality monitoring initiative in Bengaluru.
Varsha Kej, hosting a Clarity Node in her residence of Indira Nagar

It is important to highlight the gaps in the air quality policy framework and the need for better implementation of plans for tracking and mitigating air pollution. For example, our locality of Springfield is badly hit with vehicular pollution, but in the past, we could not prove this because we didn’t have access to local air quality data. The data coming from the Clarity Nodes has allowed us to call out government inaction on reducing youth exposure to traffic emissions, especially in the morning and evening when they go out for school and play outdoors.”

- Ms. Meera Nair, Resident of Springfield Society, Bangalore

The Clarity network is bridging this gap by putting air quality data in the hands of community citizens. City residents are taking the management of air pollution into their own hands, as demonstrated by groups such as WhiteField Rising. Using air quality data from the Clarity network as evidence, this progressive community group filed cases in the Supreme Court against a polluting graphite plant. Through these efforts they have spearheaded action on air pollution, prompting the local municipal bodies to implement sweeping vans to mitigate road dust.

Clarity’s low-cost air quality sensing monitors have had an enormous impact by empowering the community with more information on the status of air in their immediate surroundings. The ability to readily share air quality information helps to protect the most vulnerable groups like children and elderly people. With the data provided by the Clarity nodes we have been able to develop high-resolution, localized maps, an essential tool to strategically improve air quality and reduce fine particulate matter. 

What gets measured gets done!”

- Clement Jayakumar, Nominated corporator at the BBMP (Bangalore Municipal Corporation)

Clement Jayakumar hosting a Clarity Node as a part of the community air quality monitoring initiative in Bengaluru.
Clement Jayakumar with a Clarity Node at his home in Doddanekundi

As the adage goes, “what gets measured gets done”. As soon as we implemented this community initiative of air quality monitoring, the residents in the neighborhood began pushing government stakeholders for change. 

As a Bengaluru resident of over 18 years, I am also serving as a community champion for the project and hosting a Clarity node. My work as a changemaker and nominated corporator in BBMP (the Bengaluru City Council) included promoting earth-friendly practices in the Doddanekundi neighborhood (fun fact - I have more than 100 varieties of air-purifying plants in my home and garden!). As an air quality advocate, I have worked to ensure the Clarity network has the most impact possible.

Ritwajit Das, a proponent of community air quality monitoring in India, accepting an award on stage.
Author Ritwajit Das accepting the Youth Professional Award 2020 by IHS Alumni International for Excellency & Leadership in Urban Management and Development at the 10th Session of the World Urban Forum.

Engaging the health care sector in community air quality improvement

To move the needle on air quality policy, we have found it important to position air pollution as a health threat rather than a technological issue. That is why we have engaged health experts in the project whenever possible. 

One such project leader is Dr. Sudarshan, Senior Pediatrician and Director with the Bengaluru Municipal Corporation (BBMP), the administrative body responsible for civic amenities and infrastructural assets of the Greater Bangalore metropolitan area. Dr. Sudarshan oversees the public health services and urban medical centers under the BBMP and wanted to have the Clarity air quality monitors in different government hospital buildings across the city. 

A headshot of Dr. Sudarshana, a proponent of community based air quality monitoring in India.

Access to reliable air quality data is very important for managing issues related to public health. Air pollution is creating a massive health risk to the people of Bengaluru and if not countered strategically will only get worse. Data coming from the Clarity Nodes will make doctors and medical systems more aware of this issue. We have installed the nodes in government hospitals so that doctors and administration staff working on these urban medical centers are aware of the level of air quality issues around their hospitals.”

- Dr. Sudarshana BY, Senior Pediatrician, BBMP (Bangalore Municipal Corporation)

Involving health care leaders in the project helps to establish that that bad air quality could lead to a massive public health crisis. This approach sets an important precedent for the discourse around how air pollution is viewed in Indian cities and encourages urban health centers and hospitals to establish procedures and best practices specifically oriented toward air quality. 

Most of the hospital buildings chosen for hosting the Clarity Nodes are maternity wards. The maternity wards are specialized urban medical centers dedicated to mothers and children up to the age of 7 years. Children and mothers had been identified as some of the groups most vulnerable to bad air quality, making it especially important to trace pollutant sources and identify pollution hotspots to quantify and reduce personal exposure, as well as to better forecast pollution events around these facilities.

A doctor in a maternity ward holding a Clarity Node used for air quality monitoring in Bengaluru.
Doctor with a Clarity Node to measure air pollution in a BBMP maternity ward

Data on the magnitude and health impacts of air pollution will help and guide policymakers toward appropriate long-term measures to tackle these public health challenges. There must be better air quality monitoring infrastructure in Bengaluru.” 

- Dr. Prashant Thankachan, St. John’s Research Institute

Better air quality data empowers the city of Bengaluru to take action on air pollution

The visibility of air quality provided by the Clarity network has empowered the community to work with the local government to evaluate the effectiveness of air pollution policy and design targeted interventions. Community members are constantly thinking of ways to use the data from our Clarity network for air quality interventions like identifying pollution hotspots, forecasting pollution events, and tracing pollutant sources. 

A Clarity Node installed in the Bengaluru Municipal Corporation to help reduce fine particulate matter.
Clarity Node-S installed and deployed in the Bengaluru Municipal Corporation

This project has allowed me to work closely with some of the community members in Bengaluru, who now see the possibility of designing a future with clean air and urban sustainability at its core. The community now has a better understanding of air sensing technologies, IoT devices, and data analytics, which has inspired them to think hard about actionable solutions to improve air quality. 

Working with Clarity to implement better air quality monitoring infrastructure has truly spurred a revolution in the way Bangalore thinks and acts on air pollution issues. Empowered by the data from the network, local champions and community groups are working to advocate for better air quality and pressure the government to prioritize air pollution as one of the major threats to urban quality of life and overall public health. 

* This article has been updated to reflect the most current number of monitors deployed in the Bengaluru network.

About the author - Ritwajit Das, Chief Strategist South Asia Global Call for Climate Action 

Ritwajit is working on climate change and sustainable urban development issues across the globe with a strong focus on advocacy management, communication management, strategy, program development, project management, monitoring, and multidimensional research. He has worked on a range of climate-related projects in 23 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. 

Winner of Youth Professional Award 2020 by IHS Alumni International for Excellency & Leadership in Urban Management and Development at the 10th Session of the World Urban Forum by UN Habitat at Abu Dhabi, UAE. In 2019 he received Dr. ABJ Abdul Kalam Sadhvana Award for Climate Change, Sustainable Development Goals, and Urban Sustainability by International Business Council.