January smog in New Delhi. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
For most of the world, the transition from summer to autumn is in the air. The leaves become a collage of reds, yellows and oranges, while the air becomes cool and crisp, a refreshing change from the summer’s humidity and heat. Yet for the residents of New Delhi, the autumnal relief from the brutal summer months is short lived.
In this city, the most polluted in the world, the cool air also carries a thick cloud of smog along with it and the leafy fall hues are not found on the trees, but rather on the colorful air filter masks donned by Delhites. Each October, New Delhi becomes blanketed in a thick smog which blots out the sky until around March, when patches of blue begin to reappear overhead as the smog retreats.
A number of solutions have been proposed to combat Delhi’s runaway pollution problem, ranging from incentivizing solar to asking people to just not go to work or school. The latest solution is an app called ‘Hawa Badlo,’ or ‘Change the Air,’ which aims to tackle Delhi’s pollution on an even more individualized level by encouraging citizens to report sightings of pollution so that authorities can take action.
Home to some 10 million people, Delhi is a city where ‘Smoke’ is considered to be a type of weather, pollution monitoring agencies literally run out of numbers to quantify the pollution levels, and the smog is so thick that it can be seen from the space station. Despite its terrible health implications, a significant portion of its population is directly exposed to the toxic air almost 24 hours a day if they are unable to afford a roof over their head.
The Indian government has recently stepped up its efforts to address its pollution problem, with varying levels of success. Last year, the government gave its ‘Odd-Even’ scheme a test run, which only allowed vehicles with a license plate ending in an odd or an even number to drive on the road depending on the day of the week. The program was a resounding success in terms of lowering the pollution levels on the days it was implemented, but whether or not the program is sustainable enough to be implemented for more than a few days at a time remains to be seen.
Crossing the street in New Delhi. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
The Change the Air app was created by India’s Environmental Pollution Authority, and comes in two different versions. One version allows Delhites to take pictures of the locations where there is active pollution, such as dust from construction or the burning of leaves and trash in public parks. The other version of the app allows Indian authorities to investigate the complaints and take action against polluters.
The problem is whether Delhites will take the time to report active pollution and authorities will actually shut down these polluters. Delhi’s smog is the product of a massive industrial sector to the city’s north and east, a largely coal-fueled energy regime, an absurd number of vehicles on the roads at all times, and the city’s impoverished population burning wood and trash for cooking fires and warmth in the city. This ramped up pollution in the winter is further compounded by an increase in moisture in the air, which traps the pollution and creates a permanent haze.
Presumably, Delhites won’t be using the app to take pictures of cars as examples of pollutants and shutting down Delhi’s industrial sector is a non-option. As such, it seems like this app will mostly be used to target the poor, who are the most likely to be burning trash and wood as a way to survive Delhi’s cold winter nights.
While discouraging the irresponsible burning of trash is a step in a right direction, if it leads to the prosecution of a segment of society without any other options then it must be considered a failure. If, however, it is used as an educational tool to promote environmental consciousness among those who are too often left out of the conversation, then the app could indeed be an important tool in the struggle to detoxify Delhi’s air.