Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Systems Approach To Clean Air

It's best to start now on long-term solutions.

Shyam Ponappa   |   January 7, 2016

One might say that the conveniences of modern living are in the category of "never seen" (jamais vu) for broad reaches of our society. The conveniences of steady electricity, reliable communications services and so on are strangely unfamiliar. This epitomises our lack of infrastructure - let alone the inadequacy of second and third-order services, namely basic health and education, and financial services like banking and insurance, respectively. Even with regard to communications, the remarkable success story of the past decade, it turns out that we are poorly served not only by way of broadband but also voice services. It is in these disabling circumstances, our attention distracted by seemingly unconnected crises, that we must force ourselves to focus on our longer-term needs and objectives, and to the extent we can, especially of those who lead and administer this society. After losing so much time, at least now, we must act with resolve for the attributes that we know are essential for people to be productive and to live in reasonable comfort: stable law and order, electricity, communications, convenient transportation, water supply and sewerage, and higher-order services like health and education at a basic level.

It's obvious that business-as-usual is not going to bring order and convenience or clean air to our lives. Something's obviously wrong with our models. And they need to be reconfigured to deliver functional competence. Also, it's reasonably clear that many seemingly disparate matters are interconnected and have a combined effect that we have not acted on in our previous experience. The crisis in air quality in the capital and in much of the country is one example of this.

A complicating aspect in dealing with air pollution or any such issue is that a number of factors affect each other. Solutions, therefore, require coordinated action at many levels across broad geographies, because the response has to be systemic. Institutionally, this is difficult in India because of the absence of a broadly collaborative approach to systems. It is especially acute in the absence of clear leadership on convergence and coordination. However, this is an obstacle that we and our government agencies will have to work out if we are to get results.

Dealing With Air Pollution – A Systems Approach

The present crisis with atmospheric pollution cannot be resolved with one-off actions in Delhi, because a number of distinct elements need to be addressed. One is widespread burning of agricultural residue and other waste in other states. Other major causes of fine particulates include these activities in Delhi: burning of wood and coal, use of diesel generators, and construction and road dust. While vehicular traffic also contributes to air pollution, two-wheelers with two-stroke engines can be as bad as or worse than cars with efficient Bharat Stage-IV engines and fuel.

So, the first critical requirement is for the lawyers representing Delhi and those representing automobile manufacturers to adduce and present comprehensive evidence to help the judges reach a proper understanding of the situation and enable them to arrive at informed conclusions. If expert witnesses who have knowledge of these domains with excellent presentation skills haven't been mobilised, this is the immediate need. Otherwise, the analysis could be biased because of inadequate knowledge and/or data, and could lead to erroneous conclusions and outcomes. And, if decisions are based on just a handful of collection centres, another critical requirement is data from a sufficiently broad network of sources.

The next requirement is more difficult: Formulating workable solutions for each major factor, which must then be implemented. For instance, burning agricultural stubble is a widespread practice, despite regulatory measures by central, state and local governments. A number of studies report that this is a major contributor to atmospheric pollution, in particular to volatile organic compounds.1 In the vicinity of Delhi, the practice is widespread not only in Punjab and Haryana, but also in Uttar Pradesh. Many small, medium and large farms do this to quickly clear the land and prepare it for the next crop, despite the negative effects on nutrients, soil structure, and smoke and other emissions.

This practice has low direct costs, as society bears the major indirect costs. Therefore, a strategy to reduce pollution by stopping the burning of crop residue must enable a quick turnaround to prepare the land for planting, as well as be affordable. Perhaps domain experts have solutions. These need to be collated and popularised by government agencies and the media as part of an integrated incentives-and-penalties approach. Effective extension work to achieve this in the field may be difficult, but there may be no easier alternative.

Another instance is the widespread use of diesel generators because of the unreliable power supply. This leads to the bigger question of how to set up reliable long-term power supply, whereas the reality in Delhi is the adversarial stance between the present government and power suppliers. This situation is untenable in the long run, and some form of coordinated solution has to necessarily be worked out for stable power. Otherwise, imagine the hardship if there's a sudden ban on the use of diesel generators.

Solutions in the same vein need to be devised and implemented for each major source of pollutants, such as construction dust, road dust, and brick kilns - not least being the phased resolution of low-emissions fuel and engines over a period. The monumental task of righting the communications systems to reduce pollution also remains, in that the more effective our communications services, the more feasible it will be to use telecommuting for a wide variety of purposes.

                                                                          shyam (no-space) ponappa at gmail dot com

1: "Spatio-temporal characterization of agriculture residue burning…", Kiran Chand Thumaty et al, ISRO, 2015:

"Emission of Air Pollutants from Crop Residue Burning in India", Niveta Jain et al, IARI, 2014: 

"Massive emissions of carcinogenic benzenoids from paddy residue burning in North India", Chinmoy Sarkar et al, IISc, 2012: 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Avoiding Governing By Disruption

A well-considered approach to infrastructure and congestion is likely to be more beneficial than flailing at problems.

 Shyam Ponappa   |   December 31, 2015

There are better ways to improve our seemingly primordial problems of infrastructurethan having populists play at reforms as though they were board games. Issues like pollution and traffic in Delhineed urgent attention, but they have been brewing for so long that there's no use in merely flailing at them. Impetuous executive or judicial orders like the odd-even numbers scheme for cars or prohibiting diesel car registration result in massive disruption and loss with few benefits, going by many recent assessments. Also, consider that some long-term initiatives such as the Delhi Metro are successful, although there have been monumental failures too, such as the Bus Rapid Transit System. But actions affecting infrastructure have such huge unintended consequences that people should be spared experiments with insufficient preparation. That's at the city level, although Delhi's scale is like a country in population and complexity. Then, there are the higher order complexities of the national-scale transportation, energy, or communications, just by way of essential services.

The starting point needs to be in our very approach to resolving problems: getting the facts and the fundamentals right, rather than erecting layer upon layer of "band-aids" that collapse in cascading piles. Also, making reasonable efforts at a thorough, informed approach in devising goal-driven systems and procedures. There's no escaping complexity and possible mistakes because of our sheer size, vast numbers, and myriad legacies. However, a well-considered, rules-based approach with less room for discretion is more likely to work, provided incentives and penalties promote their acceptance through reduced manipulation and corruption.

There's little doubt in the merits of reducing diesel vehicles for private use, and of introducing cleaner fuels with more stringent emissions controls, while enhancing public transport. Equally, these need reasonable time frames, with plans and coordination between fuel suppliers, manufacturers, and lawmakers. These are the issues where our social, political, legal, and administrative energies need to be focussed. The requirement is to develop the protocols to supply the right quality of fuel and vehicles, in phases - with the introduction of more stringent emissions controls (BS IV to begin with, corresponding to Euro IV, transitioning to more stringent EPA norms when feasible) over a reasonable time period.

This implies coordination of a high order to balance mitigation with growth, because of the way the economy affects living conditions. The automotive sector is a major engine of growth and the economy is stumbling, regardless of the hype. Unthinking or ill-considered actions - as in introducing car number restrictions without the requisite support of public transport, ridesharing and systematic, phased preparation - will create so much chaos through tailbacks and traffic jams that the detriments through productivity losses and pollution are likely to far outweigh the benefits from the reduced number of vehicles.

Enforcing Rules-Based Procedures

There's also the need to specify detailed solution protocols or algorithms - steps that are simple and pragmatic - for replicable results. The requirement is not only to design workable procedures, but also to follow the protocols, the steps that lead to the requisite solutions, with no wiggle room. Many of us in India behave as though adherence to discipline is antithetical to democratic freedoms, and that jugaad, short-cuts and exceptions are effective ways out.

For instance, consider the problem of people driving the wrong way against traffic to back away from highway entrances, or to avoid going some distance to make a U-turn. It helps to remind ourselves how other democratic societies deal with such issues. For instance, parking lots or controlled-access lanes in many parts of the world have metal spikes or blades operated by electricity or springs as part of their design, to prevent people from driving in the wrong direction.
Shyam Ponappa: Avoiding governing by disruption

While the tyre-shredding threat seems draconian, such systems are widely deployed and accepted where needed across the "free world". We rarely see such devices here, but imagine their salutary effect on habits like driving down the wrong side if there were recessed "tyre-shredders" along the way, or at least a stiff fine triggered by a surveillance camera.

In a similar vein, Delhi is reviving the notion of vacuuming streets with vehicular cleaners, as street sweeping is a significant contributor to suspended particulates.1 Press reports suggest, however, that a major reason previous attempts failed except in the limited confines of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation("Lutyens Delhi") was because parked vehicles made roads inaccessible. There were other problems too, such as broken and uneven surfaces, but parked vehicles preventing street cleaning would be unimaginable in cities in most parts of the world. The vehicles would have been towed if they were parked on the street to be cleaned, and the cleaning would have been done.

In other words, the laws and procedures need to be followed, or enforced. Our problems stem from few of our existing laws being enforced. Yet, our political leaders are gung ho about devising new procedures or tub-thumping about catchwords and concepts, showing little interest in the humdrum details and practicalities of execution. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if the media and the press focused coverage across the board on actual performance versus bombastic promises or personal slanging matches?

A Comprehensive Long-Term Strategy

What is surprising is that there hasn't been more emphasis on boosting solar energy to replace polluting diesel generators.1 Another missing initiative is the systematic cultivation of indoor plants to mitigate the effects of atmospheric pollution, although Delhi apparently has the iconic green building that uses common plants to operate a clean air circulation system2. A comprehensive strategy needs to cover many areas in an integrated way: improve public transport, reduce diesel vehicles and high-emissions two- and four-wheelers, enhance car-pooling, improve clean power supply, reduce waste incineration, develop solar generators/inverters, among others.

shyam (no-space) ponappa at gmail dot com

1: Dust constitutes 45% of PM10, waste burning 17%, diesel generators 9%, and transport 14%. If no diesel generators run, the likely reduction in PM2.5 would be 16%: - Sarath Guttikunda




    I read alot of opposition about Modi's 100 smart city plan. Well Delhi and mumbai r the reason why Modi's plan is important. Delhi NCR has more population than Canada. U have to understand Delhi and Mumbai r too big and too expensive. It will take billions of dollar to make any effective change in these cities. Instead u can pick a couple dozen cities in Bihar, Jharkahnd, UP, Bengal(100000 population) and provide infrastructure so that they can support population of 2 million. Encourage people of delhi and mumbai to migrate there. 47 million people, just by residing in such a small area r creating pollution that will be difficult to address(on top of that indians have an in-built problem of creating a mess). U can see people through scrap but no-one picking it. The ones who pick it r ridiculed including your own PM(what is more shameful than that ?).
    December 31, 2015, ThursdayReply

  • JS

    Very well reasoned article. Unfortunately, our politicians and bureaucrats only have the time and patience for quick-fix approaches that gets them media attention. As a country, we just do not have the discipline for focused problem solving that involves analysis, small experiments, rectify mistakes, detailed planning, focused implementation, and enforcement. Education does not matter: we have an IIIT-ian at the helm of Delhi and he is seeking publicity for what is possibly an ill-thought idea. This, too, will fail just as the BRT did.
    December 31, 2015, ThursdayReply