It is difficult to find a precise definition of a “Smart City”. One definition available on Wikipedia goes thus: “A smart city uses digital technologies to enhance performance and wellbeing, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens and should be able to respond faster to urban and global challenges than one with a simple 'transactional' relationship with its citizens. Key 'smart' sectors include transport, energy, health care, water, and waste”.

In other words, information makes the city and its citizens smart.

One sub-theme that threads through the above smart sectors is “air quality”, which is one of the most debated topics due to its role in deteriorating health conditions in urban India (and globally). Recent headlines in a series of articles published by The Indian Express, starting with a cover story titled “Leave Delhi”, is only one of the many, which voiced the implications of severe chronic air pollution levels observed in the city.

Leaving Delhi is probably not the smartest decision, because pollution is not bound to Delhi and there are many cities in India, which fall into the category of severely polluted. But we need smarter solutions to target the air pollution problems in Delhi and every other city in India. This can start by empowering the citizens with the right information on the air pollution levels, severity of the pollution, and the sources of this air pollution, and making them environmentally smart.

Informing the public

In 2014, Prime Minister Modi launched the 100 smart cities programme. The key features were listed as “to be able to provide good infrastructure; attract investments; introduce transparent processes …. to make citizens feel safe and happy.”

This could be the perfect platform, combined with the Swachh Bharat Mission, to overhaul the national ambient monitoring programme to report information on air pollution (today, tomorrow, and day after), in a reliable, accurate, and transparent manner, to the public and the policy makers alike.

In October 2014, India moved a step closer to international practices on colour coding urban air quality – where green is good, yellow is moderate, orange is poor, and red is worse. In technical terms, this is called the “Air Quality Index” (AQI) – a common denominator among a list of pollutants, with varying degrees of standards and varying levels of impact on human health.

The move to AQI is beyond doubt a landmark effort, realising the importance of making information public, in a form understandable to scientists and commoners alike. In March 2015, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had released the preliminary findings from the AQI study, its methodology and efforts to deal with air pollution, quoting "Fresh air is a birth right".

On 6 April 2015, Indian Prime Minister Modi formally launched the system that is now functional for 10 cities, where the continuous monitoring stations are already operational and is likely to expand to 60 cities in the next two years.

International support

During the January 2015 Republic Day celebrations in Delhi, too, the meetings between the Indian Prime Minister Modi and the US President Obama, had one explicit mention of air quality: “Launching Air Quality Cooperation: Implementing EPA’s AIR Now -  International program and megacities partnerships, focused on disseminating information to help the urban dwellers to reduce their exposure to harmful levels of air pollution, and enable urban policy planners to implement corrective strategies for improving Ambient Air Quality in the cities keeping in view health and climate change co-benefits of these strategies.”

This is in line with the on-going efforts in India, which launched its own AQI system.

AirNOW is a data-sharing and centralised one-stop source for real-time and forecasted (for the next 3-4 days) air quality data. The benefits include quality control, national reporting consistency, access to automated mapping methods, and data distribution to the public and other data systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) coordinates the AirNOW system to empower the public with air quality information collected using a large network of continuous monitoring stations and modelling programmes.

The cost of being environmentally smart

Information in hand makes us smart. And environmental information in hand makes us environmentally smart.

In an earlier post on India Together, it had been argued that the current monitoring and information dissemination system in India is weak and needs a complete overhaul, in order to reach the level of transparency and accuracy required for implementing a programme such as AirNOW (or its equivalent) in India. A major reason was that the monitoring stations in India are manually operated (573 stations), collecting information every two days and data is available only after at least one week of collection.

Only a handful of cities operate continuous monitoring stations (40 stations), capable of supporting a system like AirNOW (or similar) and there are not enough in any city to be able to present a representative index. Just for comparison, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) operates six continuous monitoring stations in Delhi, as opposed to 35 stations operated by the Beijing authorities.


Some of the existing stations under the National Air Quality Monitoring programme. Pic courtesy: Central Pollution Control Board

Let us for the time being assume, for the sake of feasibility, that 50 cities are part of the smart cities programme – those with at least one million population (as reported in the 2011 Census). Here are some rough calculations for introducing and operating a system (similar to AirNOW) for 10 years. Note that the costs are anecdotal, based on the discussions with suppliers and subject to change over time.

These calculations are to provide an idea of the likely investment required to be environmentally smart, especially in terms of urban air quality.

  • Average cost of a continuous monitoring station (measuring all the criteria pollutants and meteorological parameters) is approximately 1 crore rupees, plus 10 percent by way of annual maintenance fee
  • A representative sample size per city is 30 stations; which puts the required number of stations at 1500 in the 50 cities (we can argue that a big city like Delhi can use +10 stations and a small city like Indore can use -10 stations)
  • This translates to a required investment of Rs 3,000 crore (including 10 percent annual maintenance fees for 10 years)
  • Cost of infrastructure, personnel and training could be an additional 100 percent (this is on the high side, given that the CPCB already operates 573 manual stations across these cities with necessary infrastructure and personnel already in place)
  • Even if we assume a 50 percent hike in the prices and fees, this puts the tab at Rs 7,500 crore for ten years

For 50 cities to be environmentally smart and report air pollution and its severity in real time, for ten years, this is not a big sum. The cost of the Delhi metro system is approximately 75,000 crores, which is currently supporting less than five percent of the travel demand in the city. There are similar metro systems, either planned or already under construction, in Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai and others.

According to the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell, in January 2015 alone, the total consumption of petroleum products in India was 13.9 million metric tonnes. Thus, an additional cess of 50 paise per kg of petroleum products sold, will translate to Rs 695 crore a month (or approximately 8,340 crores rupees per year) – enough to cover the estimated costs to operate a reliable and transparent air quality information management system in 50 cities for ten years.

What follows information?

An informed problem is a problem half solved. The other half of the solution requires implementation of effective response systems. The costs mentioned above are necessary for the flow of improved information on air pollution and not sufficient for the cities to be smarter or cleaner. There are multiple sources of air pollution and there is little that one can do as an individual that would make an impact on reducing it. A series of coordinated responses need to be put in place by multiple ministries, under one auspices of “clean air for everyone.”

For example,

a) There are at least 400 million people without access to electricity and frequent power outages result in use of diesel generator sets. While the emphasis on renewables is increasing, with the proposed 100 GW of solar power, India is still dependent on coal for electricity, which can be processed cleanly for electricity generation, if and only if a series of stringent environmental regulations like mandating flue gas desulfurization units at all the coal-fired thermal power plants, introduction of low-NOx burners, improving efficiency of the dust collectors, and enforcement are introduced. The technology and policy implications of doing so are well researched, and applied in Europe, USA, China and Australia, and this requires only a informed effort to introduce the same in India.

b) Fuel emission standards in India lag behind the global emission standards. It is essential to implement and enforce Bharat-5 (equivalent of Euro-5) or higher standards nationwide by the end of 2015, in order to maintain a balance between the energy demand and the growing emissions from the transport sector. Any delay in implementation or staggered implementation (as is the case currently), will result in a delayed response for improving air quality in Indian cities.

While the staggered introduction of the fuel standards is beneficial for the cities in the short run (only 17 cities benefitting from Bharat-4 fuel), the overall benefits are lost in transition. For example, the diesel based heavy duty vehicles contribute significantly to particulate emissions and often run on lower grade fuel pumped outside of the city limits, which not only increases the emissions, but also can lead to failure of catalytic converters.  It is therefore imperative that a “one nation, one fuel standard” norm is mandated.

c) As cities grow, there is an awareness to promote safe and clean public transport systems. In bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Bangalore, there is an established formal public transportation system and they have also benefitted from Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) programmes to improve and increase the fleet. Since 2009, more than 14,000 new buses were delivered under this programme.

 However, most of these cities need to at least triple or quadruple the current fleets, in order for the four-wheeler and two-wheeler passengers to shift to public transport systems. Main issues have been first-mile and last-mile safety at the bus stops, reliability of the public transportation system, maintenance of the buses, and comfort of traveling in these buses.

d) In most Indian cities, a large share of trips are made by walking and cycling. This is because of low vehicle ownership (compared to the cities of the United States and the European Union) as well as traditional mixed-use design of the cities, which leads to shorter access to work, school and other activities.

In big cities with higher population density, in the absence of dedicated walking and cycling infrastructure, motorised vehicles also pose serious risk of injury, because of which, people owning two-wheelers and cars are encouraged to use their vehicles, even for walkable distances. In the context of growing cities, the measures to improve air quality should discuss ways to integrate walking and cycling.

e) Construction activities emit particles during various activities including block cutting, excavation, demolition, mixing, road building, drilling, loading and unloading of debris etc. In addition, movement of vehicles (especially trucks) in and around construction sites increases the amount of particles by crushing and pulverizing the particles on the road surface.

Several studies have highlighted the importance of construction as a PM (particulate matter) source - for six Indian cities, construction accounted for up to 10 percent of the annual particulate emissions. There is a window of opportunity for the establishment of best practices in the construction industry, as there are no nation-wide norms and regulations

f) Dust is a major concern for many cities in India and comprises particles emitted due to wear and tear of tyres and brakes and increases even further in case the roads are not paved. Traditionally, all the streets, sidewalks and public areas are swept manually and depending on the resources, poor or marginal areas receive reduced or inadequate service or no service at all.

However, often in manual street sweeping, most of the dust swept is left on the side of the roads, which gets re-entrained when vehicle movement resumes during the day. A better alternative is heavy-duty or light-duty trucks with vacuum cleaners to suck up dust from the roads and/or water sprinklers, so that the resuspension of any leftover dust is suppressed.

The operational costs of mechanised sweeping could be similar to manual sweeping - given that the latter is a labour intensive exercise. Since the road dust accounts for up to 30-40 percent of the PM10 pollution in most Indian cities, an immediate intervention for this source is vital for controlling the particulate pollution.

g) There is no reliable national-level data on the technical or financial aspects of solid waste management, and figures are therefore approximations. The country’s annual generation of municipal solid waste is in the range of 35 to 45 million tons, likely to quadruple by 2030 at which time, the waste generation will be over 150 million tons a year.

Garbage being burnt at a lakeside in Bangalore. Pic: Usha Rajagopalan via Citizen Matters

The scale is perhaps more comprehensible at the city level - the national capital region of Delhi generates 10,000 tons/day and Mumbai 7000 tons/day. The waste collection efficiency in the cities is 50-90 percent, depending on the commercial and residential activities in various parts of the city. The waste not collected is eventually burnt. Currently, only a few cities operate landfills and manage waste collections. The open waste burning problems are particularly worse in the medium and small scale cities, with very limited or no waste collection and no landfill facilities.

h) The issue of indoor air pollution is also critical because of the high magnitude of population getting exposed to such pollution every day. According to the global burden of disease assessments, household air pollution has been a persistent health hazard in India and has retained its position as the 2nd highest risk factor, resulting in one million premature deaths annually.

According to the 2011 Census, non-LPG fuels were used in 35 percent of urban and 89 percent of rural households in India, compared to 52 percent and 94 percent respectively in 2001, with little improvement for the rural households. Keeping in view the magnitude of resultant health risks, programmes are required that will ensure more LPG connections – the cleanest of the fuels available for cooking and heating. Alternatives such as electric (induction) stoves are cleaner (with pollution generated somewhere else), but their usage is dependent on power supply in the rural communities.

Today, India has the unique opportunity to be environmentally smart, at the urban and the regional scale, and this boils down to two challenges: (a) securing greater public awareness of the problems and commitment to action at civic, commercial and political levels and (b) ensuring that action to tackle air pollution is seen in the context of wider social and economic development.