Exposed: Why We’re Breathing Toxic Air But AQI Is ‘Satisfactory’

Bahar Dutt reflects on the absurdity of the AQI at thermal plants showing ‘satisfactory’ quality amid smog.

7 min read
Exposed: Why We’re Breathing Toxic Air But AQI Is ‘Satisfactory’

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Even as the government readies a national clean air programme to tackle the air apocalypse that grips over 100 cities and towns across the country every winter, questions are now being raised about the quality of data that is put out in public places by different state agencies.


How Was Dadri Plant’s Air Quality ‘Satisfactory’?

Take a close look at this photograph of the Dadri power plant that is run by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). One of the prime sources of energy for the capital is the Dadri power plant. The power plant is located in Gautam Budh Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, which is about 25 kilometres from Ghaziabad and 48 kilometres from New Delhi.

Dadri Thermal Power plant in Uttar Pradesh clicked on 9th December 2018. Shows PM2.5 levels very low . 
Photo Credit: Ritwick Dutta 
Dadri Thermal Power plant in Uttar Pradesh clicked on 9th December 2018. Shows PM2.5 levels very low .
Photo Credit: Ritwick Dutta 

It has a coal-based thermal power plant, a gas-fired plant and a solar plant, that can collectively produce about 2640-megawatt power. On 9 December 2018, the power plant display board that is supposed to show air quality in the region stated that the PM2.5 was 36 µg/m3. This, at a time in the year when the air quality index hovers between 300 and 400, with PM2.5 concentrations well above 150-200 µg/m3.

As per the law, every thermal power plant is mandated to display the air quality information at their premises so that when the levels are dangerously high the public can take adequate precautions.

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Imagine then that when the levels at Dadri were precariously high, the data displayed at the NTPC site were misleadingly low – in the category of 51-100 that is considered ‘satisfactory’. When the entire Indo-Gangetic plain was engulfed in precariously high levels of air pollution, how was the plant in Dadri showing levels that were ‘satisfactory’? And a more pertinent question – is India’s largest power-generating company misleading the people on air quality information?


Air Pollution Data Clouded in Smog of Misinformation

Across India there are 731 manual air quality stations in 312 cities and towns, and a network of 137 continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations (CAAQMS) that provide data in real time from 74 cities across India. Scientists working on air pollution have pointed out from time to time about the need to have more air pollution monitors to collect more data, as these monitors are not enough.

But what should be done in the case where existing stations are not giving out reliable information? Is there a problem with the maintenance of the equipment or is there a deliberate suppression of data?

A senior scientist on condition of anonymity stated that when the pollutions levels are at their peak in winter, it is impossible for the PM2.5 to be as low as the display board was showing at Dadri. And the false readings at Dadri are no exception to the rule. 

Sunil Dahiya a campaigner for Greenpeace India has recorded several instances where the public display boards have information that has no correlation with existing air quality. Photos taken by him of the CAAQMS at Civil Lines in Nagpur showed PM2.5 levels of 14.43 µg/m3 constantly for about a week through September to October during his visits there.

“Are the monitors not working or is the data not updated regularly,” asks Dahiya who took the photos. 

“The casualness of authorities in monitoring, reporting, updating and sharing data with public has been the second biggest reason why we are facing a national emergency today,the first being lack of political will to act on air pollution.”


The Way Forward

As a way forward, Dahiya suggests, “Enhanced accountability, transparency and involvement of public and civil society in air quality monitoring, data sharing and decision making; alongside making stringent laws for punishment for manipulating or ignorance of pollution data by project proponents/pollution control boards and other accountable authorities has to be one of the most critical components of our action plan to achieve breathable air across the country”.

Yogesh Ranganath from Azim Premji Foundation has similar observations about a factory in Bengaluru that was spewing out bad air even when their monitors were showing notoriously low numbers.

This was the case with Graphite India where residents near the factory have been fighting for it to be closed or regulated as it is spewing black fine particles into surrounding residential areas.

Explains Ranganath, “The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board has a manual station in the factory premises, but it never used to show high readings. While it was obvious to anyone in the vicinity that the black fine particles would come from the factory. The residents used low cost monitors and intense campaign to stop work at the factory. Finally the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the residents, as the factory was found to be using pet coke”.

Worse still, he continues, “I have seen the KSPCB staff calling the vendor to tell them the site is down when it was pointed out to them. There are no public records of maintenance logs or calibration checks. The tender documents stipulate these things to be done but as with most Government contracts the enforcement & oversight is very weak.”


Live Feed of Raw Data is Unhelpful

Ranganath is of the view, “Some of the issues causing bad data can be attributed to lack of independent verification of the equipment. Currently the way monitors are operated (almost all of them are contracted to Pvt. Agencies) the agency installing them is also doing the calibration & maintenance. There is no third party verification, which causes a problem (in the UK for instance the regulation mandates separation of these agencies).”

Pallavi Pant a scientist working on air quality states that in fact just looking at numbers in isolation doesn’t make sense.

“Factors such as weather in the micro environment- relative humidity levels, wind direction, temperature – can all affect the pollutant concentrations. So, depending on where a particular monitor is placed, pollutant concentrations can be different,” she states.

The other problem points Pant could also be with the frequency of updates on public display boards.

“A live feed of raw data isn’t particularly helpful unless you’ve had a chance to look through the data and identify any issues with it”.


Problem of Fake Data

And there are other consequences as well. Often fake data on air quality is generated to get permissions for thermal power plants to operate. The Khurja super thermal power project is a proposed 1320 megawatt, coal-fired supercritical power plant that is being planned at Khurja, Uttar Pradesh by THDC (Tehri Hydro Dam Corporation Ltd) and is projected to cost Rs 12,676 crores. The Environment Impact Assessment report that was prepared to get permission for the project to operate, stated extremely low levels of PM2.5 and PM10 in the region.

However, these numbers were then challenged in the National Green Tribunal because the numbers recorded by UPPCB ( Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board) for the same time period for Khurja town were at-least two times the values mentioned in the EIA report.

The National Green Tribunal that has been hearing the matter raised questions about the quality of data that was presented before the Court on the 13th of December 2018.

In its order, the NGT observed, “One of the points for consideration during the hearing is the correctness of the Ambient Air Quality data furnished by the Project Proponent and relied upon by the Environment Impact Assessment Authority. A perusal of chart at page 185 shows PM2.5 value to be between 32 to 40 µg/m3 from October to December 2012 and 32 to 45 µg/m3 from March to May 2016. It is, however, not clear as to what is the source of the said data and how the same was verified by EAC.”


A Right to Reliable Information

That’s why the NGT is questioning the authenticity of the data ordered for the Ministry of Environment and Forest to verify the information being shared with the court.

Not everyone can afford his or her own air quality monitors. The information that is out on public display boards is meant as an advisory for the common person on the street.

If the information itself is not reliable then how can people take the right decisions regarding their health. Even as scientists advocate the need for more machines to monitor air pollution perhaps it is time to investigate the kind of data being put out for public consumption.

(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environment journalist based in New Delhi. (The air quality according to the government monitors was 355 in the NCR at the time of writing this piece. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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