by Sumeet Saksena
The driver of the auto rickshaw sure was puzzled when I instructed him to drive for half an hour along a busy road and then turn back to return to where we started. If he had any apprehensions about the strange devices that graduate student Chitra Murali of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, and I were carrying, he politely kept them to himself. (After all, in this day and age any small device kept closely to one’s body in public can raise a lot of fear). Perhaps he didn’t care as long as he got his fare. Or was his brain, after years of driving in a highly polluted environment, cloudy, as mine was beginning to get? I used to pride myself on being able to tolerate very high levels of air pollution. Hadn’t I spent over a dozen years measuring pollution in some of worst situations? But on this recent trip of mine to Mumbai my lungs didn’t appear to be as indifferent to high exposures as they once used to be. Seems like the clean air of Honolulu has finally flushed out the dirt from my lungs. Must be the age factor too!
But otherwise it was a pleasure to be back at IIT. The purpose of my trip was to initiate a study of commuters’ personal exposure to air pollution. Though in many of Asia’s major cities air pollution has reduced marginally, levels continue to be way above limits prescribed by the World Health Organization. More importantly, levels of pollution at the road level and inside vehicles are much higher than those measured traditionally and routinely on roof-tops of multi-floor buildings by bulky devices. The data on road level and personal exposure are scarce. EWC has been conducting exploratory surveys in Hanoi, Vietnam; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Bangalore, India to fill this data gap. These studies have been focusing on measuring the most important pollutant in the Asian context – particulate matter. However, particulate matter is a very complex pollutant to measure. And that’s what gives me the research thrills and sometimes the chills! Along with IIT and other partners in Asia I am hoping to develop sound measurement protocols for particulate matter. These protocols will in turn help in estimating the true impact of regulatory interventions and transport sector development projects. On this visit we focused on scientifically calibrating pollution measurement instruments. I was also keen to make measurements in the ubiquitous road animal of South Asia – the autorickshaw (its South East Asian cousin is the tuk-tuk of the Philippines or the Bajaj of Indonesia). This is a mode of transport that has not yet been studied by exposure scientists.
In Mumbai, like in most other parts of Asia, you can’t help but notice the frantic pace of road improvement projects and other construction activities. Hopefully, it’s all for the good. But in the short-term all I witness is chaos and congestion that the construction activities are causing. The construction and road improvement projects raise unbelievable amounts of dust. Road closures and diversions lead to further congestion and slowing of the traffic. Previous research has shown that idling motor engines and slow speeds lead to increased emissions. And, I hypothesize, to higher personal exposures. Until urban development reaches some level of maturity and stability (if ever!) the next few years are going to present a very transient and complex situation from an air pollution exposure point of view. Walking and cycling may be the ‘green’ thing to do. But not from an individual’s perspective in places like Mumbai. And not in the immediate future.
I can only hope that the kind of research we do will one day help reduce the exposures of commuters and of occupational groups such as auto-rickshaw drivers. For now our driver was perhaps happy he got his money after a strange trip and that the devices didn’t explode.
Sumeet Saksena is a Research Fellow in the area of Environmental Change, Vulnerability, and Governance at the East-West Center.
For more on Saksena’s work on this subject, check out EWC working papers on “Daily Exposure to Air Pollution in Indoor, Outdoor, and In-vehicle Micro-environments: A Pilot Study in Delhi” (2003) and “Commuters’ Exposure to Particulate Matter and Carbon Monoxide in Hanoi, Vietnam: A Pilot Study” (2007).