How low-cost technology is helping Indians find respite from Delhi smog

Privately owned pollution sensors can help citizens to adapt their daily routines depending on the air quality outside.
An aerial view of the Connaught Place area of New Delhi, India on December 8, 2015. Harish Tyagi/EPA
An aerial view of the Connaught Place area of New Delhi, India on December 8, 2015. Harish Tyagi/EPA

NEW DELHI // For many months now, Nikhil Pahwa has found it difficult to breathe.

His house is located in Civil Lines, a Delhi neighbourhood which lies near the Grand Trunk road, the arterial motorway that cuts across north India. As a result, Civil Lines is one of the most polluted areas in perhaps the most polluted city in the world.

With the onset of winter, Delhi’s pollution has once again come under fierce criticism, prompting the city’s government to announce a host of measures.

From January 1, private cars with license plates ending in odd or even numbers will be permitted on the roads only on odd-numbered or even numbered dates respectively. A major coal power plant is being shut down, roads will be vacuum-cleaned to remove dust, and lorries will be allowed into the city only after 11pm, two hours later than currently permitted.

Concentrations of pollutants have been rocketing upwards in New Delhi, with the air quality index on Thursday hovering between 288 and 561 – in a bracket classified by the US environmental agency as “hazardous”.

After the festival of Diwali in mid-November, Mr Pahwa, 35, was unable to find out the precise level of pollution in his area.

Around the time of the festival, smoke levels are typically high as a result of celebratory fireworks being set off. But of the six sensors available for Delhi on the World Air Quality Index website, which draws upon government data, the sensor that covers Civil Lines malfunctioned and stopped showing a readout.

However, Mr Pahwa – who runs MediaNama, a website that analyses the internet and mobile industries in India – knew that the air quality had deteriorated.

“I felt like I was choking,” he said. “My ability to do anything at all, even sit in front of the computer, or even step out and go for a walk, had been significantly limited.”

Air purifiers in his study and his bedroom helped, but that meant Mr Pahwa had to stay indoors for days on end. Finally, unable to take the pollution any longer, he left last week to Bangalore to stay temporarily with family.

Despite the government’s new measures, Mr Pahwa believes citizens need to exert more pressure on the authorities to take drastic measures to cut pollution.

One way of exerting pressure is for the public to use privately owned, low-cost sensors that can plug the vast holes in the government’s monitoring system, and provide citizens with the data to back up their demands for better air quality controls.

This month, the Mumbai-based IndiaSpend – a journalism initiative that collects data on a wide range of issues in order to better hold the Indian government to account – launched its own air quality monitoring system called Breathe. Its low-cost pollution sensors track particulate matter and relay information to a real-time database.

“We wanted to get an understanding of what’s happening at different times of the day,” said Ronak Sutaria, architect of the Breathe project, adding that tracking variations throughout the day, as well as the seasons, could help people to adapt their daily routines depending on pollution levels.

Before he left Delhi, Mr Pahwa – who has always been vocal on Twitter about his views on pollution – installed one of IndiaSpend’s sensors in his house.

Once the sensor was installed, Mr Pahwa was able to see, in real time, the levels of particulate matter in the air of Civil Lines, tracking them through the course of the day.

The personal monitoring system enabled him to plan his family’s life to avoid the worst spells of bad air.

For instance, Mr Pahwa’s father used to go for a walk every morning.

But after using the IndiaSpend sensor, Mr Pahwa found that the pollution was actually at its worst in the morning. His father now takes his walk much later in the day.

The government’s own monitoring devices are highly accurate, and help to set the standards by which lower-cost sensors – such as IndiaSpend’s – measure air pollution levels, Mr Sutaria said. But each individual device covers too little an area, and they are expensive, often costing more than US$10,000 (Dh36,000) apiece.

IndiaSpend’s devices, which are more precise than many low-cost sensors and come enabled with mobile data services, cost roughly 15,000 rupees (Dh825), while cheaper sensors, which track one or two key pollutants, can cost as little as $10.

Another non-profit, the Chennai-based Sensors without Borders, brings together grass roots initiatives against pollution, combining hard data sourced from air pollution sensors with popular activism. Sriram Reddy, the founder of Sensors without Borders, cites one ongoing project in Chennai’s industrial suburb of Ennore, where residents are at loggerheads with civic authorities over the pollution from coal-fired power plants.

“Historically, their problem has been that the residents talk to the powers-that-be, and the powers-that-be say that everything is fine, that it just looks bad but it isn’t really that bad,” Mr Reddy said. “Hard data has been missing in that debate, and now we can provide that.”

Published: December 10, 2015 04:00 AM


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