The first monitoring and early warning system in India was launched on 12 May in Ahmedabad, with the hope that it will reduce the health impacts and deaths from air pollution, a growing problem in a country with nine of the world's 20 most polluted cities in 2016.
Eight new air quality monitoring sites across Ahmedabad will produce a daily air quality index (AQI) that will be accessible to citizens through 11 LED screens, as part of what is called the Air Information and Response (AIR) plan.
An early warning system will notify people of excessive pollution days as part of the response plan, while medical professionals will be trained to respond to air-pollution emergencies in the city of over 5.5 million people.
Ahmedabad was among the five most polluted cities in India in terms of PM 2.5, according to the WHO's 2014 Ambient Air Pollution database.
PM 2.5 is particulate matter finer than 2.5 micro-metres, or about 30 times finer than a human hair. Inhaled deep into the lungs, they can cause heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases, and are known to pose the greatest risk to human health.
People living in more polluted areas die prematurely after long-term exposure to air pollution, and inconsistent monitoring makes it difficult to assess the threat posed by ambient air pollution.
The AIR plan is a collaborative effort between the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Natural Resources Defense Council, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and the Indian Meteorological Department's System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) network.
The monitoring and warning system will be tried for the first time in India, but follows the successful example of Beijing, that started the programme for issuing colour coded pollution alerts in 2013.
The AMC has set aside a budget of Rs 30 lakh for 2017, Chirag Shah, nodal officer of the AIR plan and the Deputy Health Officer of the West Zone at the AMC, told IndiaSpend.
"All the recurring costs, such as the maintenance of screens and stations, issuing advisories and initiating programmes to increase public awareness will also be borne by us," said Shah.
SAFAR has invested about Rs 20 crore to install 10 AQI monitors -- two in the adjoining city of Gandhinagar.
The AMC had drafted a comprehensive Air Action Plan to combat pollution from construction activities, vehicular emissions, and industries in 2016, its second such plan since 2002, but it is yet to be implemented.
"If people don't go to the highly polluted areas and follow the health advisory to minimise exposure, then symptoms will be reduced and there will also be a cost saving for citizens," Dileep Mavalankar, Director of IIPH told IndiaSpend.
"So, it depends on how effectively we are able to communicate to patients and the people who are vulnerable to avoid exposure."
As part of the AIR plan, the AMC will issue a health alert when the AQI forecast for the next 24 hours is "very poor" (301-400). When the AQI forecast rises to "severe" levels (401-500), a health warning will be issued.
Under the health alert, the nodal officer of the AIR programme will "inform urban health centres as well as private medical practitioners including pulmonologists, paediatricians to alert them to expect and be prepared for more cases of respiratory health effects".
If the AQI exceeds 401 (severe), the nodal officer will inform urban health centres, the local ambulance service, transport, traffic police, the government radio station, schools, colleges, and the estate department—which handles permissions for real estate—in order to control road dust and construction work.
"Major contributors to air pollution are population, industries and vehicles. Rate of urbanisation and industrialisation leading to growth of vehicles make cities like Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot the hot spots for air pollution," according to a report by the Gujarat ENVIS centre.
Ambient levels of PM 2.5 from transport sources alone are expected to double by 2030 if no action is taken, according to a 2015 report by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Between 2000-01 and 2010-11, Ahmedabad's vehicles more than doubled from 1.2 million to over 2.6 million. As of 2014-15, there were 3.4 million vehicles in the city. Ahmedabad also had more than 2,000 industrial air-polluting units as of May 2012, the report stated.
In Ahmedabad pollution comes from a variety of sources, including power plants and brick kilns. The city has two thermal power plants and more than 300 brick kilns.
The Air Action Plan, if implemented, will reduce pollution from these sources through various measures such as improving fuel quality, phasing out commercial vehicles over 15 years old, traffic management, installing pollution control measures in industries and reducing pollution from thermal power plants.
In 2015, 153 of 168 days (93 percent) monitored for air quality in Ahmedabad remained "good", according to the national air quality index (AQI). However, in 2016, the annual PM 2.5 average in Ahmedabad was 183.35 µg/m³ (microgram/cubic metre), over 4.5 times the national ambient air quality standard of 40 µg/m³ prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
In 2017, the monitor installed by the CPCB in Maninagar to provide real-time air-quality data has been working intermittently.
IndiaSpend analysed air quality data from its monitoring systems, collectively called #Breathe, for two devices located in Ahmedabad for the duration March 14 to May 14, 2017, when CPCB data were unavailable. Of the 62 days that IndiaSpend analysed, only six days (9.6 per cent) fell within the WHO guideline of 25 µg/m³. However, only three of 62 days were over the national standard of 60 µg/m³, meaning that 95 per cent of the monitored days fell within the permissible Indian standard for PM 2.5. The most severe air-pollution levels occur during the winter months of November, December, and January.