“The dense smoke hangs low, in the chill of the morning, over an ocean of roofs, and, as the city wakes, there goes up to the smoke a deep, full-throated boom of life and motion and humanity. For this reason does he who sees Calcutta for the first time hang joyously out of the ticca gharri and sniff the smoke, and turn his face toward the tumult, saying: ‘This is, at last, some portion of my heritage returned to me. This is a city. There is life here, and there should be all manner of pleasant things for the having, across the river and under the smoke.’”
Home to Rudyard Kipling’s “dreadful night”, the British Empire’s seat of power in India, and Mother Teresa’s enduring legacy, Calcutta, when it was still called that, is also credited for a lesser-known distinction: it was home to India’s first air quality law.
Passed in 1905, 17 years after Rudyard Kipling penned those evocative words, it was called the Bengal Smoking Nuisance Act, and inspired several pieces of legislation in the decades that followed.
Then, officials used dust charts and Ringelmann’s chart to study the plume from smoke stacks and deduce the levels of pollution, but by the 1970s, it became clear to policymakers and researchers that air pollution and its impacts needed scientific research.
Enter the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), Central Public Health Engineering Research Institute (CPHERI), and National Productivity Council (NPC), which, in 1970, were assigned the task of creating and producing air pollution monitoring equipment.
While studies were done as early as the 1950’s by various key researchers in India, it was in the 1970s that seminars and events to discuss the ills of air pollution began in earnest, and researchers produced a veritable trove of studies on air quality, including BARC’s P K Zutshi, who authored “Perspective on Current Air Pollution Problems” to stir an interest and understanding of the nature, effects and problems of air pollution and to help develop a course of action to combat the dire consequences of air pollution in the country.
Now, that heritage— and more— has been captured, digitized and made easily accessible by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) –National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), the new name for the Central Public Health Engineering Research Institute.
NEERI last week launched the Indian Air quality studies Interactive Repository, or IndAIR, the country’s first web repository archiving approximately 700 scanned materials from pre-internet era (1950-1999), as well as 1,215 research articles, 170 reports and case studies, 100 cases and over 2,000 statutes, providing the history of air pollution research and legislation in the country.
It is one of the first of its kind, according to Senior Programme and Science Officer of the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, Valentin Foltescu, who described the repository as “very unique in the world”, with “few countries” possessing such a library of air pollution studies.
“While the website would enable us to get insights into reasons for air pollution and efforts that were made to deal with such issues in the past, it is expected that will also be a useful platform for the scientific community to share its current work and to exchange ideas,” said India’s Central Pollution Control Board Chairman, Sh S P S Parihar, at the launch.
Its timing is impeccable: air pollution is now among the top causes of non-communicable death and disease, and scientists have uncovered just how pervasive its damage is to the human body from the womb to the grave, through what are now more than 70,000 scientific papers on the impacts of air pollution on health.
Around the world 9 in 10 people breathe dirty air, which reaps an early-death toll of 7 million people, but science-based, tried-and-tested solutions exist, as do close links between air quality improvement and the mitigation of climate change, giving more and more governments, from subnational to national, the tools and impetus to act.
As Delhi battles chronic unhealthy air quality and seasonal emergency-level air pollution, and Indian cities occupy a good proportion of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world, authorities and the scientific community at the launch event welcomed the repository.
“To their credit, scientists at NEERI have been able to highlight the challenges that confront cities, towns and rural spaces in India currently. Whether it is managing wastewater, treating solid waste and coming up with a solution to the problem of air pollution, their studies have not only helped a great deal in showcasing the issues that exist, but also in throwing light on what can be done to solve them,” Parihar said.
India’s National Clean Air Program (NCAP), launched in January this year to prevent, control and reduce air pollution, emphasizes city actions, requiring the development of city-specific action plans for all 122 cities that exceed national air quality standards, and has a “focus on coordinated city, state, and regional actions, evidence-based policy making, public outreach, and accountability”.
It represents the first time the government has placed into legislation a time-bound target for particulate pollution, but, as the repository shows, the NCAP is part of a longstanding tradition.
“Although air pollution control activities in India date back to 1900, a major thrust was given after 1981, wherein the Air Pollution Control Act was enacted by the Parliament. CPCB enacted the ambient air quality standard that year and the current National Clean Air Programme is an offshoot of the principles of the Air Act,” said Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Nidhi Khare.
Producing the IndAIR repository did not come easy: it took 22 people and 11 months to give it shape. The work included procuring archived material from various institutions across the country, researching studies available beyond the internet domain, developing the website and interviewing experts across India.
“Though air pollution is one of the most widely deliberated issues, little is known about it in India as far as the statistics or the history is concerned. The general belief has been that not much is being done to tackle the problem. We began IndAIR with the intent to document important milestones in the country and make them available to the public,” said NEERI Director, Dr Rakesh Kumar.
“Our hope is that it will not only help the academicians understand the issue better, but will also enable policymakers to frame legislations that encourage development,” he said.
That framework draws on a 114 year-strong history of efforts to understand and safeguard India’s air quality, and, as the country moves into implementing the NCAP and tackling its complex challenge of air pollution, continues that legacy.
Banner photo from the Wikimedia Commons.