Health First: Ahmedabad’s Groundbreaking AIR Plan

With reports of India’s air pollution as among the world’s deadliest and, causing over 1.2 million premature deaths, one Indian city is taking action. Motivated by protecting public health, the western city of Ahmedabad is launching a new program with 8 new monitoring stations for an air quality index and a comprehensive health-based plan to protect citizens from deadly air pollution. New Delhi is taking notice with Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan releasing the program in a major launch event in Ahmedabad today.

While air quality is slightly better in May than it was earlier this year, this past year has seen skyrocketing pollution levels. When I was in Ahmedabad and Delhi in December for our initial workshops, levels were dangerously high. For example, the PM2.5 levels at New Delhi’s Anand Vihar station reached 427 micrograms per cubic meter and 535 micrograms per cubic meter at Ahmedabad’s Maninagar station in December. Air pollution levels remained equally high during our public consultation on the plan in February. These levels are well above the World Health Organization’s 24-hour guidance of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

Air pollution is a major global public health risk in cities across the world. It is one of the highest-ranking environmental health challenges in the world, especially in developing countries like India. Ahmedabad is one of India’s largest and fastest growing cities with a population of nearly 7 million. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, Ahmedabad has some of the highest air pollution levels in India. The World Health Organization has also found that Ahmedabad ranks among the most polluted cities in the world.

The new Ahmedabad AIR Plan is a health-based program designed to protect and increase awareness among residents on air pollution. The AIR Plan links the air quality index (AQI) with the community. Ahmedabad is the fourth city in India to have a government-based AQI system, in addition to Delhi, Bombay and Pune. With the AQI as the center point, the Ahmedabad AIR Plan focuses on health risk communication and creates immediate and longer-term actions to increase preparedness, information-sharing, and response coordination to reduce the health impacts of air pollution on vulnerable populations.

The Ahmedabad AIR Plan is the first of its kind in India, and developed by the AMC with national and international experts and learning from best practices on AQI health risk communication from Beijing, Los Angeles, Mexico City and New Delhi.

5 Key Elements

For the initial year, the Ahmedabad AIR Plan for 2017 will focus on five key elements:

  1. Pilot Health-Based AQI Warning and Interagency Coordination – robust interagency coordination to pilot the color-coded AIR alert system that links to 10 new air quality stations in Ahmedabad to the people.
  2. Public Awareness and Communication Outreach – an expansive program to educate, inform and communicate air pollution levels and protection strategies to local communities through a range of tools, including 11 new LED light board displays, hoardings and billboards, social media, SMS messages, media-engagement, and local-language information, education and communication (IEC) materials.
  3. Focused Activities on Children’s Health – launch school flag programs that coordinates with schools to display colored flags corresponding to AQI levels for each day.
  4. Capacity Building Among Medical Professionals – engage with private and public medical professionals to build health awareness and protection strategies on air pollution.
  5. Initiate Research on Future Exposure Reduction and Mitigation Pathways – identify the future mitigation and exposure control and reduction measures with key partners.

Organization and Implementation of the Ahmedabad AIR Plan

As the lead agency, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) Health Department has the overarching responsibility for the coordination of the AQI and AIR Plan related to health activities. This includes monitoring the daily AQI and alerts and disseminating public health messages to local departments and community service providers. The AMC Health Department will also work with the AMC press office to increase media coverage, including local language and social media, around protection from harmful air pollution levels.

The AIR Plan serves to focus attention on those individuals who are most at risk from air pollution, including children, pregnant women, outdoor workers and the elderly. The Plan also focuses on individuals and organizations, such as urban health centres, and link workers, who frequently work with at-risk populations and can provide early diagnosis of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Individuals, community groups, and the media are also essential in fighting the effects of air pollution. Individuals can take specific preventative steps to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from harmful air pollution, including learning about early signs of respiratory illness and limiting outdoor activities, using masks and air filters, as well as raising awareness on pollution levels.

The media is vital in spreading the word about air pollution and the AQI. The media plays an essential awareness-building role by sharing news about health threats, and increases public protection by running ads and providing local resources information.

Key Stakeholders of the Ahmedabad AIR Plan

The Ahmedabad AIR Plan is part of a broader collaboration between AMC and public health and policy experts at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar (IIPH-G), Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The Ahmedabad AQI is supported by technical expertise from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune (IITM)’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) program. AQI systems operate in three Indian leading cities, Delhi, Pune and Mumbai, and several cities internationally.

The Gujarat State Pollution Control Board (GPCB) and the Gujarat State Climate Change Department are also critical to the creation of the plan, as are key local researchers and civil society groups. The combined efforts of government agencies, health professionals, and community leaders can serve to effectively inform the public about rising air pollution health risks in India, and how to take steps to protect community and individual health.

In support of the Ahmedabad AIR Plan, in 2016 and early 2017, the AMC along with IIPH-G, NRDC and IITM engaged in a series of stakeholder discussions on air pollution in India and Ahmedabad.  The discussions focused on translating increased monitoring through the SAFAR’s AQI and air quality monitoring network and growing public awareness, into usable health advisories and impactful policy changes that target some of the key sources of air pollution.

The central aim of this project is about saving lives and creating healthier communities, more secure from the dangers of air pollution, and a strong economy. Through the AQI and the AIR Plan, countless lives can be saved from air pollution, while also opening collaborative pathways to pollution reduction and expanding clean energy. The AIR Plan is the initial step in longer term goals of achieving clean air and prosperity.

City hoarding/billboard in Gujarati asking "Do you know the air quality in your city?"
Credit: Nehmat Kaur