Global efforts to stem climate-changing carbon pollution could potentially save 13 million lives in India, according to a landmark study in Nature Climate Change. Because India’s cities suffer the highest health burden of air pollution on the planet – even more than China – air pollution that comes largely from the same sources as heat-trapping carbon pollution is doubly important. The potential health benefits of taking action to tackle the problem of urban air pollution are a singular opportunity, and the Indian government recently announced expansion of its National Clean Air Program to work with state governments to achieve cleaner air in 100 cities that exceed national air quality standards.
At the local level, cities are working to protect citizens through targeted exposure reduction efforts. The city of Ahmedabad is among the first cities in India where city leaders, state government, and civil society are voluntarily working together to address this challenge. In 2017, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) launched its ambitious Air Information and Response (AIR) Plan, a groundbreaking health-based effort to disseminate local air quality and health risk information. The centerpiece of the plan is the SAFAR air quality index (AQI) that summarizes information from 10 continuous pollution monitoring stations, data that can help people avoid harmful exposures and inform policy discussions to achieve cleaner air. The data that the SAFAR monitors collect provides invaluable information for the public and is broadcast widely: online, through email alerts and mobile phone applications, a toll-free automated phone system, and prominent electronic display boards around the city.
Soon after joining NRDC as Climate Change & Health Science Fellow last December, I had the chance to visit Ahmedabad to meet with my colleague Sayantan Sarkar of NRDC’s India team as well as local partners, community stakeholders, and students to gauge the progress of the AIR Plan and help map out the work ahead.
On Day 1 of our visit, the first stop with was to Zebar School for Children, which is an enthusiastic partner in the Ahmedabad AIR Plan’s school flag program. The program draws attention to the importance of air quality for health, using color-coded flags to announce each day’s AQI forecast and associated actions to reduce personal exposure. The program (now in 90 schools reaching approximately 140,000 students) speaks to the larger promise of environmental education in India to improve societal awareness to problems that threaten the well-being of vulnerable populations—including children, the elderly, those with existing illness, and people who spend time in highly polluted areas where they live, work, or play.
In a lively question and answer session with a 5th grade class, we were impressed with the students’ understanding of air pollution and its impact on health. Clearly, these students are getting the message that the school flag program is designed to deliver. In fact, several of them asked us what else could be done, beyond the flags, to help get the message out. We are currently working with the city to develop enhanced Information, Education and Outreach (IEC) materials.
Later in the day, we visited with graduate students at CEPT University, a leading institution in environmental planning and technology studies where students are conducting research to help solve thorny environmental challenges. Our discussion with students there focused on the key components of the Ahmedabad AIR Plan, as well as a more in-depth look at policy strategies that global cities deploy to monitor and manage air quality. The students asked questions about the ways in which human-centered urban design can help to address the linked problems of traffic congestion, air quality, extreme heat, and (especially) climate change, which threaten India’s vulnerable groups perhaps more than any other country.
On Day 2, we attended a meeting of Ahmedabad’s expert working group on air quality hosted by the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. Building on the progress of the Ahmedabad AIR Plan and Ahmedabad’s leadership on heat wave preparedness, this group (comprised of local leaders in government, academia, and NGOs) has been meeting since 2017 to discuss efforts to achieve air pollution source reductions in the city.
To tackle the complex challenge of air pollution, the interdisciplinary expertise of the expert working group is paramount. Its inclusion of diverse voices (from public health, law, urban planning, disaster planning, clean energy, local and state government, and communications) helps to inform concrete measures that the city can take through strengthened interagency coordination and enhanced navigation of the policy landscape. On a blog next month, I’ll expand on how the SAFAR monitoring system works and how this data helps to inform expert working group efforts on air quality improvement.
The problem of air pollution in India can seem vexing at times, but our visits with students and stakeholders in Ahmedabad assure me that the country is up to the challenge. Now, more than ever, it is clear that we need an "all hands on deck" approach, equipped with interdisciplinary expertise and enthusiasm in order to succeed. Effective working relationships are key, as they form the foundation for long-term success and the spread of good ideas beyond a single city.