As the stubble-burning season approaches the National Capital region again, air pollution is assuming importance on the government's agenda. After the first was inaugurated last month by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, yet another smog tower dots the capital’s skyline. The BJP has set up another tower in Delhi's Anand Vihar area with the previous one being inaugurated in central Delhi’s Connaught Place.
India is home to 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world. The 25-metre (82-foot) tower will supposedly dish out 1,000 cubic metres of air per second through filters that are said to halve the number of harmful particulates in a one sq-km radius (0.4 square miles).
However, the towers, which have cost the taxpayer over 40 crore rupees have no scientifc evidence of efficiency. More importantly, no impact assessment study was done before setting up the towers. Reports also mention that no reputable scientists have come out in support of smog towers as an efficient way to curb pollution and that no other country in the world has managed to clean outdoor air with the help of giant purifiers. In fact, environmentalists, scientists and clean air advocates have publicly and consistently opposed such measures.
As a result, the move to install these towers is being flagged as wasteful and detached, one which will shift focus away from practices that would actually lead to pollution control.
Speaking to Newsclick, Sunil Dahiya an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), refuted claims of the machine's efficiency. “Installing smog towers in open air spaces is pure wastage of public money, as it is highly energy and capital intensive to install and operate these smog towers to be able to provide some relief at a city-level, because as soon as they clean the air in the vicinity, new polluted air-particles from the upwind will come in and the air quality will again be poor. The real solution for pollution lies in reducing and removing pollution at source, either by shifting away from polluting practices and fuels or capturing pollution at the point of release," he said.
India has more than 480 million people – about 40% of its population – living in areas where pollution levels regularly exceed those found anywhere else in the world. Residents of northern India are on track to lose more than nine years of life expectancy, the University of Chicago's Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report stated. It also added that in 2019, India's average particulate matter concentration was 70.3 microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3), the highest in the world. The number is seven times what the World Health Organisation's has set in its guidelines, the report said.
The smog-tower experiment has not yielded any gains internationally either. In 2018, China built a much-larger 60-metre smog tower in the polluted city of Xian, but the experiment is yet to catch on.
Speaking to Newsclick, Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director of Research and Advocacy at Centre for Science and Environment, said: “We have not seen any data or evidence from any air quality authority to prove that smog towers can improve ambient air quality in dynamic outdoor conditions of a city. Small applications in other parts of the world are recreational in nature and not part of any regulatory mandate for air pollution mitigation."
"It is not clear why we are adopting such expensive and energy intensive gizmos and diverting attention and resources from, real hard action to control direct emissions from pollution sources. The reported cost of smog towers in Delhi is more than the funds allocated for air pollution control individually to most cities under the national clean air programme. If this is not evaluated and addressed right away more cities will rush towards this cosmetic gesture at a huge cost with no real dent on the pollution curve," she added.
The Parliament also passed the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill last month amid protests. The Act dissolves the NCR's Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA), which was established in 1998. An ordinance establishing a similar Commission was promulgated in October 2020. In the event of a conflict, the commission's orders or instructions will take precedence over the orders of the individual state governments, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), state PCBs, and state-level statutory bodies. The law is also facing flak with experts criticising its centralised control and arbitrary powers.
Speaking to Newsclick, Bhavreen Kandhari, an activist from 'Warrior Moms', a group of mothers from all over India fighting for clean air, said: “Even if vacuuming the air was an option, Delhi would need over 2.5 million smog towers for any effective change in AQI levels. Obviously this is not the solution. The solution is reducing emissions at source, penalising polluters, protecting ‘natural smog towers’ like trees or strict laws to implement thermal power plants (TPP) norms or implement the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Maybe the elected representatives need to wake up to all of the above instead of wasting our public money on such a farce.”