Changing Lifestyles in Air Polluted Cities


I wanted to refill petrol in my car so I drove to my usual petrol pump located at Turner road in Bandra. The lane to the petrol pump was choked and it was after more than 15 minutes of ‘car crawl’ that I finally managed to reach the pump. When I asked Abdul, my usual pump mechanic, he pointed me to a billboard that red – “Buy 40 liters of petrol and get 2
Portable Oxygen Cylinders Free”. Apparently this “hot deal” was the reason for the rush. “Oxygen cylinders for what?”, I asked and the guy ahead of me in the queue said “to save you from air pollution” in a matter-of-fact tone. I didn’t quite like the idea of marketing emissions (i.e. petrol) with oxygen!

I was visualizing the city of Mumbai looking like a planet with no atmosphere and people carrying oxygen cylinders like astronauts. I was simply horrified at the thought.

“Are we exaggerating this issue of air pollution in Indian cities?” I called on my Professor friend in anguish. “Given the contaminated food we eat and the polluted water we drink, air pollution that we breathe in should not be a big deal. We know how to survive or otherwise. We better worry about the high incidence of lifestyle disorders like diabetes. We should offer sugar-free candies at the petrol pumps instead of oxygen cylinders. These candies should be sponsored with the CSR budgets of Parley or Cadbury”

My Professor friend was busy taking a close look at one of the N-95 masks that was produced by a Chinese company for marketing in Mumbai. This company was planning to manufacture some 1 million masks a month for Mumbai, to start with. The mask carried a certification “Proven Effective in Beijing”. The Professor turned to me and said, “Look at these masks – they filter almost all the PM2.5 matter in the air and cost only Rs. 5! Next time you go the shopping mall, you will be asked – do you want to buy a carry bag or a mask?”

“Wearing masks will help in many ways – he said. It will reduce the incidence of H1N1 and the future H2N2 series. And since it will be difficult to know who is behind the mask – masks will reduce the incidents of eve teasing by ogling men at bus stops – That could be an immense social benefit – something not easily understood and appreciated”

“But what about disposal of the 1 million used masks” I ventured to argue with the Professor. We will need to dedicate a special landfill site for getting rid of used masks. Besides the city will look like a place infested by dacoits like in the movie ‘Sholay’. The Professor was in no mood to listen.

“We have to think out of the box for reducing air pollution first” he said. The 100 smart cities program of the Prime Minister is hoping to achieve, for instance, optimization of traffic signals based on real-time measurement of air pollution. When the air quality index at a traffic junction goes high, you will be asked to change your route and will be
guided accordingly to reach your destination”

I was wondering how hard it will then be to drive from my office in Nariman point to home on Carter road, if such an intelligent air pollution sensitive system was put in place. I would perhaps be ‘circling’ the whole town for over two hours to help reduce air pollution at a traffic signal but emitting an extra ton of air pollutants in the process. Not such a smart an idea I thought.

Professor had more ideas to share. “I have recommended to the Secretary, Transport to introduce a rule whereby vehicles ending with odd number plates will be allowed on the road for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and those with even number plates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sundays will be for cars with number plates ending in zero. This will greatly reduce the road traffic and hence the air emissions. Public transport will be encouraged”

“People will use fake number plates, Professor and have duplicate plate numbers” I said with a smirk.

Professor ignored my pessimistic view.

“Display boards will be set up at all major traffic junctions in the city to make people aware of the average air quality they breathe. Mobile apps will be developed so that you can browse the air quality trends and also get some forecasts. If the forecast shows that high levels of air pollution are expected, then the public may decide to stay indoors.” I wasn’t much in the favor of this option as people would stay home watching TV shows giving an excuse of outdoor air pollution.

The Professor then moved the focus to emission monitoring and control. “Directions will be given  to industries to monitor emissions from stack online. The emission data will be pooled through the server of the Pollution Control Board. Initially we will measure the Particulate Matter (PM) and provide a star rating. Industry with PM emissions well below the prescribed standard for instance will get a 5-star rating” Impressive Professor – I said.

“Hold on – the big game is much more than just emission monitoring and rating”. Professor said this with a mysterious smile.

The star ratings will be displayed real time at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE). This will greatly influence the psyche of the stock traders. More stocks will be bought of companies with 5-star ratings and companies with one star rating will simply be dumped – independent of their financial performance.

(I started visualizing that air pollution sensitive and committed stock trader of BSE …)


“I am conducting a series of training programs for stock traders in Gujarati (PMO likes that) to explain air pollution, its seriousness, stock traders’ responsibility and the environmental and economic implications. You should give a couple of lectures in my course, my friend”

I was even more impressed even though my Gujarati was no good …

“The Indian insurance industry has already initiated discussions on re-fixing premiums based on an Air Quality Index (AQI). Lower is the AQI (implying higher level of air pollution), higher will be the premium,” Professor explained. That’s another economic implication.

But why don’t you think more radically, Professor? All this discussion is happening  because we are perhaps monitoring and reporting air quality from wrong locations in  the cities. Many of the stations that are operated are next to streets under direct influence of traffic emissions and not reflecting the ambient levels where the prescribed standards are strictly applicable. City of Pune for instance was declared as highly polluted because the reporting was done from a kerbside monitoring station and ambient air quality standards were compared! The air quality levels ‘improved’, the moment the station was shifted.

“Oh – for a change you are talking sense,” The Professor said taking a deep puff from his cigar. He looked outside the window at a grey sky. “Let me come up with a national site audit program right away for re-siting of monitoring stations to be done on an immediate basis. Relocating stations at correct and representative places will indeed lead to lower level of air pollution and the problem will be solved bang at the source!!”

I left Professor’s office with the N-95 mask that the Chinese company had left behind on his desk.

Cover image sourced from


The Union Minister of Environment & Forests in India has announced a national Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI will reflect eight major pollutants that impact respiratory health. AQI will be reported first in cities with populations exceeding one million and in the next five years AQI will be gradually mandated to the rest of the country. Details on the proposed AQI could be found in

Do visit This website is supported by a team located in Beijing. Much of the data on this website is driven by the real time data monitored at the US consulates.

You may like to visit to see real time AQ reporting in some of the Indian cities. US Embassies report AQI as per US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in Delhi displays AQ using IMD’s own AQI that is different from that of the U.S. EPA as well as from the proposed national AQI.  The State Pollution Control Boards provide data in raw format (concentrations) and currently do not follow any AQI. I guess in the period of next six months, the reporting will happen through the proposed national AQI. The US Consulates should then ideally report results in Indian AQI to avoid confusion.  So should be done by the IMD in Delhi.

Speaking about consulates, in India a number of countries have now issued guidelines for their diplomats on how they can protect themselves from air pollution. Countries like US, Germany and Japan have reduced the tenure of their diplomats in Delhi from three years to two years. Further, concerned over high pollution level in the capital, European Union has directed its diplomats here to soon install air purifiers in their offices and residences.

Greenpeace provides a very telling infographics on effects of PM2.5 and how to use N95 masks. See A joint study by universities of Chicago, Yale and Harvard found that half of India’s population may be losing up to three years’ lifespan because of poor air quality.

Beijing has put in place a time-bound action plan with health advisory and a four-level alarm system which includes closing of schools, factories and cutting down the number of cars on the roads depending on pollution levels. Indian metros such as Delhi or Mumbai have no such plan. See



  1. great reading. We are working on air pollution control plan for Delhi (with PM2.5 focus); it will take next 4-5 months before I come up with something. I wish we can spend a full day together discussing this issue. If we can get to partial success, it will be an achievement.

    1. Dear Mukesh

      I am glad to know that you are involved in the development of air pollution control plan for Delhi. Will be happy to discuss. Suggest that you follow a participatory process and use tools like SIMAir to generate discussions. It should be a workshop based approach

      (Those who havent used SImAir – should visit Dont miss the page of Air Quality Index calculator)

      I may be in Lucknow on April 8 and 9 and will see you up at IITK if you are around


  2. After reading this, which concerns me the most is that the Jargon for air pollution mitigation strategies has been always dealt with end end-pipe solutions like masks,oxygen cylinders and many more of such “ideas”, putting extra burden on the pocket of marginalized section of the society who are indirect polluters in the production system and are most vulnerable and exposed to the risk of air-pollution, who are constantly being forced to pay for the “direct-polluters”…
    Instead remedies for air-pollution should come from “smart-manufacturing” of equipments, renewable resources and various taxing and funding mechanisms so that the menace can be tackled at the source rather than at the end..

    1. Dear Ram

      I couldnt disagree with you! In order to address “source reduction” on a comprehensive and prioritized basis, we need to use tools like source apportionment.

      Those who havent yet accessed such work in India, I would recommend visiting and download reports that were prepared for 6 cities.

      We need more “simplified” approaches however. Tools like SIMAir are useful to generate discussions and focus on preventive as well as control strategies. In Pune, I did this over 6 workshops involving 200 stakeholders to come up with an action plan – Clean Air Pune .

      If you are interested, I will be happy to share the report and resources with you – may be we could work together for city of Ahemedabad


  3. The current events in the press may be slightly gone overboard. However, it serves as a backup call. We have largely manual air quality monitoring stations in India, which are also too inadequate to provide you with any reliable picture of air quality in our cities. We need to think out of box, may be mobile monitoring vans which cover the entire city to have more data collection points to provide holistic picture may be one of the solutions. The privately owned monitoring stations should also be integrated in the government network.

    1. Dear Dr Singhal

      Thank you for your observations

      We will need to make use of four approaches as stated below

      a. fixed low frequency manually operated stations (104 observations)

      b. fixed high frequency automated air pollution monitor

      c. mobile van that traverses in and around city to capture changes in meteorology and diverse land use – complements data from a and b

      d. long term effects monitoring – passive monitoring (dust jars, corrosion plates, bio-monitoring etc) that has community involvement

      All this when monitored with QA/QC, data processed intelligently with meta-data will help assess, manage and communicate city air quality


  4. Nice write-up with satire thrown in and taking digs at the political class☺️! I would suggest more info on cleaner technologies as opposed to end of pipe (as pointed out by another reader).

  5. can you get anymore tongue in cheek and still have so much to say?? i hope those who matter are tapping into your knowledge and capabilities to really address that which needs addressing

  6. Dear Anil


    I have been contacted by agencies that matter in the past. I am not enthusiastic anymore as advise to these agencies often results in “another report” with no action. There is an issue of capacity as well.

    I am attempting to build a network of people like you who could work together and take on a concerted action. The Section 25 company I started (Ekonnect Knowledge Foundation – see is taking baby steps in this direction. But I need more support..

    My posts on the blog is to do some “move and shake”


  7. I liked the blog and was wondering about a different approach, as mentioned by many other readers. One type of different approach would be to have major outreach and education programs to sensitise as many people as possible. How about having air pollution related graphic warnings outside car and two wheeler showrooms where people go to buy the vehicles ? Or interesting facts on effects of air pollution popping up on websites such as Flipkart and Amazon ?

    Thanks for sharing resources such as SIMAir. will surely take a look

  8. great read sir. Will it help to improve quality of air in city like Mumbai if we keep a diffference of about 1,5 Hrs in opening/closing times of central and state govt offices. Similar idea can be applied for timings of shops and commercial establishments. This can reduce traffic congestions and thus can reduce localised high emissions due to unwanted idling of vehicles at junctions. Further, change in working hours can also ease rush in local trains, which may in turn encourage more people to opt for local trains. I dont know, how logical my idea sounds. But I will keep on sharing my ideas with you from time to time. Thank you sir for wonderful blog.

    1. Dear Prasoon

      You have a point. Indeed stagerring of the office timings should make a difference. I havent come across such an effort taken on the city scale and evaluation done on traffic/emission reduction and improvement in quality.

      Many urban transportation infra projects carry out detailed traffic modelling. . Perhaps these studies could simulate traffic flows for stagered office timings and come up with plans

      Regards. .
      . .

  9. While discussing with one of my friends on why there is so much increase in number of vehicles, i got an interesting insight. Just 15 years back, a 1000 sq ft flat in Navi Mumbai was costing Rs. 12 lakhs. That time Maruti Alto was costing Rs. 3.0 lakhs. So even if one could give priority to purchasing flat, car was not priority. Today same flat costs Rs.100 lakhs and Alto costs Rs. 4 lakhs. So purchasing one more car is no big deal. For a family one flat is affordable and adequate where as same family will opt for 4 cars (not even 1 car and 2 two wheelers + 1 cycle). Question is are we willing to devise ways of discouraging new car purchase? Simple condition like availability of covered parking lot as pre-requisite for car purchase. Unless we change life style and our aspirations for wealthy possessions, no Action Plan can work.

    1. Agree Vijay. You made very pertinent observation regarding cars. “Easy car loans” have also made a difference.

      A directive for phasing out of old vehicles has been another issue for debate towards controlling vehicular emissions. Some say however and correctly so that these vehicles will move to locations where such directives are not applicable and continue spewing high emissions. We dont have End of Life Vehicle facilities.

      Quite some years ago, I had proposed to a Mall in Jaipur, a Inspection & Maintenance (I&M) facility at the Parking Lot. If you left your car there and went for shopping, the IL&M Centre will tune your car in the while (save your fuel and reduce emissions) as a Service. The Mall management would say “Come and shop at our Mall and leave the Mall with a Clean ad more efficient Vehicle”. I had proposed a business model to the Mall Owners then. Can we do this in Mumbai?


  10. Goodmorning Prasad,

    As you know Athens was among the 5 cities globally with major air pollution problems 30 years ago. Major source were the close by industry and of course the automobiles. All of the measures that India thinking have already applied for Athens but the situation really improved 15 years ago when the automobile technology has changed in cars with catalytic converters and the government provide incentives for car replacement and introduced new public transport means with natural gas and catalytic converters. There is a great know how in Athens for the problem (mitigation, monitoring) and now we move into forecasting with a module of COSMO numerical prediction model. We could try to create a bilateral state cooperation for this matter.


      1. I dont have any particular video or docs in Athens experience because the problem (hipothetically) has been resolved years ago. There is a monitoring system giving continuous measurements, according with plate numbers cars cars circulate in Athens day after day etc. You never solve the problem, you improve the conditions. We can arrange a video skype conference with people that you might know to answer to questions.

  11. Prasad,

    Great writeup. Interesting read for everyone. Did you graduate in engineering or humanities – I wonder!! The only PM I personally know is Prasad Modak. Of course, you n I both know MP – our batchmate Manohar Parrikar.

    Keep writing n doing good work. You make all IIT-B 78 proud!!!
    -Chetan Shah

    1. My dear Chetan. I was like most of us terrible in humanities! But I guess part of my teaching career, got me few communication skills. Thank you so much for your kind words.

Leave a Reply