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Massive Earth Foundation Study Reveals How COVID-19 Unravelled The Causes Behind Indian Air Pollution

The study indicates that lockdown demonstrated Indian cities can have a base air quality index (AQI) comparable to Europe & US

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Massive Earth Foundation, India's leading non-profit entity focussing on solving pollution and climate change issues through actionable research today unveiled its latest study correlating the problems of clean air and the ongoing lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the study, GDP growth in emerging and growing economies have seen the corresponding decline in the quality of air. In the last 5 years, 14 out of 20 most polluted cities were in India. While 14 top Indian cities remain highly polluted, Delhi, the country's capital, became an unwitting symbol of being one of the most polluted cities locally as well globally. 

MEF's study reveals that massive crop burning that happens in neighboring states during winter months and corresponding smog in Delhi has become the focal point of research for experts, governments and industry bodies. Huge campaigns and initiatives along with appropriate carrot and stick policy were launched in neighboring states to solve the issue of paddy stubble burning so as to solve the problem of Delhi’s air pollution. But the problem still persisted and in fact snowballed.

The study observed that the change in the air quality for the better over the last few months though completely unintentional has happened due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to MEF, while COVID-19 continues its catastrophic impact on human lives, the ensuing lockdown to combat the virus had induced a unique A/B testing mode for air pollution study. 

Shailesh Vikram Singh, founder Massive Mobility & Massive Earth Foundation, "For the first time ever since modern IoT sensors were deployed for air monitoring, there is AQI data with minimal economic activity. This created an optimal scenario for conducting A/B testing, a popular tool in the startup world to do scenario testing. This testing also settled the conflicts within statisticians regarding causes of air pollution whether it is paddy, coal, Diwali crackers or broken transportation. COVID19 lockdown demonstrated that cities in India also have base AQIs that are comparable to European or North American cities but once economic activity & vehicular traffic even marginally restarted, AQI levels started increasing." 

It is important to note that March, April & May are ideal months to study base AQI instead of AQI being highlighted in the months of October to January. The reason being in March to May, Air humidity & Air temperature levels are not in any extremes as there is no impact of monsoon. The impact of pollen & some dust storms is offset by some pre-monsoon showers. Further, the amount of crop fires is limited & there are no Diwali firecrackers. 

On the other hand, AQI gets highlighted in October to January period. According to MEF, in India air pollution is directly linked to Delhi & not any other major city. During this period air pollution is severe (AQI more than 500) for a couple of weeks first due to the combination of Diwali & Paddy stubble burning. And then again AQI reaches close to 500 mark in January due to smog caused by a combination of air pollution, low air temperature & humidity. 

Singh further added, "What is important to understand is that pollution that is studied in March to May eliminates other environmental pollution & establishes a base level for air pollution across India. This base level pollution continues throughout the year as vehicles emit gases, industries & power plants burn fuels. The data analysis has shown that the baseline of air pollution in India has shifted to 200 level from desired 60, not because of thermal coal plants, paddy stubble burning or because of Diwali crackers bursting but it is due to broken public transport infrastructure."

According to MEF study, India which has 400% fewer buses available in comparison to even countries like Thailand, due to which citizens had to invest in their own private transportation assets. While this led to unprecedented sales of two-wheelers and cars making it one of the biggest markets for such vehicles in the world, it also led to congestion and very high consumption and burning of fossil fuel. 

This further dented India's AQI levels and led to a shift in the baseline AQI from 60 (highly desirable) to 200 (very unhealthy). Hence the focus of policymakers should be on electrification of the transportation system in the country. According to MEF, this can also be a Rs 5 lakh crore revenue opportunity and can leapfrog India to the top league of electric mobility. This will not only save precious forex but will also create a healthy and wealthy India. 

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