Why India’s numbers on air quality can’t be trusted

A survey this May by the World Health Organisation ranked Delhi as the world’s most polluted city, under assault from its growing vehicle population, rising emissions from coal based thermal power plants and the surrounding areas. The outcome: according to the Central Pollution Control Board CPCB, which oversees pollution control in India, 43.5 per cent of children in the Capital have reduced lung function and breathing problems.

It could be, it probably is, worse as the WHO findings are largely based on official numbers. And India’s air-quality numbers, in how they are measured, are a pretence in the name of protecting citizens.

An illustration of this is India’s experience in measuring PM 2.5: airborne particles less than 2.5 microns in size. Small enough to penetrate deep into our lungs and bloodstreams, they have been connected to lung cancer and heart attacks. Studies show there is no safe level of PM 2.5, though CPCB terms as “safe” readings up to 60 ig/m3. On October 12, a Sunday, between 3 pm and 4 pm, ITO in New Delhi had a PM 2.5 reading of 206.

In 2009, the ministry of environment and CPCB directed state governments to track PM 2.5. What happened next is one reason why India’s air-quality data cannot be trusted.

Race To The Bottom

In 2009, hardly any companies manufactured PM 2.5 instruments in India. Called ‘high-volume samplers’, these suck in a fixed quantity of air and eliminate all but the 2.5 particles. “Till 2009, we used to sell about 10-30 instruments a year, mostly to research organisations,” says Rakesh Agarwal, managing director of Envirotech, one of the first companies in this space in India.

That changed with the PM 2.5 directive. As a market for 2.5 samplers emerged, new companies, mostly started by ex-employees of companies like Envirotech, came up.

Price warfare began. In 2009, Agarwal says, the price of a good instrument was Rs 1.5 lakh, the best ones cost Rs. 2-2.5 lakh. By 2010 itself, “the price fell to Rs 60,000,” says a former CPCB official who now runs his own environmental consultancy and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some of the newer companies do not even have a production facility,” adds Rajkumar Singh, AGM (marketing, environment) at Spectro Lab Equipments, an Okhla-based company which makes samplers. “They go to lathe makers, give them the specs and ask them to make these machines.”

Although the government mandates companies to adhere to specifications defined by the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA), India doesn’t have standards of its own, it doesn’t check if these samplers measure what they claim to. Manufacturers self-certify.

Managers at two such companies told ET that they match quality but work on lower margins. Counters Agarwal, the raw material cost alone of such an instrument is 40-50 per cent of its price. Another 10-15 per cent would be labour cost, with the rest going to administrative expenses and margins.

He cites a check the CPCB undertook about twoand-a-half years ago, when it compared some India-made PM 2.5 samplers with international ones. “There was a 100 per cent difference in readings,” says Agarwal. Some were leaking air from the sides, others were letting in lesser air than stipulated. “If I expect the air input to be 20 litres per minute, but get just 16 litres, my PM 2.5 count will be lower.”

via Why India’s numbers on air quality can’t be trusted – Economic Times.

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