Stop and smell the ????

Starting our series on environment with a small comparison between the 4th largest city in the US and in India

Houston, USA

Chennai, India





1,558 km²

174 km²

Elevation above MSL

13 m

6 m

I have lived in both these cities and been in tune with their respective environmental issues for a while now. The quality of life in Houston is said to be bad, reason – the air is one of the most polluted air in the whole of US. Houston has a big belt of chemical companies and oil companies, along its ship channel. The big factories share their pollutants free of cost to all Houston residents and I breathe some of the nastiest air in the US says everyone. And every time I hear about the air pollution levels in Houston and their control measures discussed, my mind inevitably goes back to air I used to live on, 3 years back. The air mixed with black exhaust gas, dust, fine particles and whatever lies rotting on the road-side. I have heard people complain of air pollution, seen people tie a piece of cloth around their noses and advertisements for emission checks at petrol bunks but never bothered beyond that. It was a way of life, the so called mystery and charm of Incredible India and as a responsible citizen of India; I have done my share of whining and complaining about the quality of air, the exhaust gas, and the compulsory emission checks. But never have I thought of taking a look at what the Government says regarding the air pollution issues, so I decided to take a peak into the different laws regulating air pollution in India and compare it with the US laws.

Well I half-hoped (rather expected) that India will not have any air pollution rules and regulations and I was mentally reviewing a India needs to improve, the government has to think about the environment post. But I did find some interesting facts, here they are.

a. India does have The Air (prevention and control of pollution) act, passed in 1981 about 11 years after the USA passed the Clean Air Act of 1970. The first three chapters speak about very important issues like the constitution of the air pollution control board. And the final board looks like this, upto five people representing the State government (well so it varies every 5 years doesn’t it?), upto five people from local authorities functioning in the State (???), upto three non-officials representing interest of agriculture, fishery or industry, upto two people from corporations owned by State and 1 full-time member-secretary having qualifications to be called a air quality engineer!!! So it is a bunch of politicians and their followers who constitute the air control board with just one engineer who also works as a secretary framing the rules? Yes ofcourse the law does talk about members being of sound mind and not convicted of any offense!

b. This board’s major function is to advise on any matter concerting improvement of quality of air and prevention, control or abatement of air pollution and to plan and execute programs for control of pollution. Sounds like letting a layman perform an open-heart surgery!!

c. There is next a chapter stating the boundaries of the State Government and the State pollution Control Board, something substantial in nature and then a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.

I am no law expert, I am just another person who can read a few lines and interpret the meaning of words. And I find the act really doesn’t speak much about pollution control. It talks more about being politically correct and finding loop-holes to get a job for the jobless nephew of your twice-removed aunt’s husband’s niece. The Act has not been amended since 1987 and we still are stuck with the same rules and policies and you think the air we breathe is not getting fresher?



Industrial Areas

Residential, Rural

Sensitive Areas

Carbon Monoxide

5.0 mg/m3

2.0 mg/m3

1.0 mg/m3

10 mg/m3

Sulphur Dioxide

80 µg/m3

60 µg/m3

15 µg/m3

80 µg/m3

Nitrogen Oxides

80 µg/m3

60 µg/m3


100 µg/m3


1.0 µg/m3

0.75 µg/m3

0.5 µg/m3

6 µg/m3

Particulate Matter size less than 10 microns

120 µg/m3

60 µg/m3

50 µg/m3

Revoked in US

(pollutants in India’s list don’t figure in US list and vice-versa)

I found that there exists a National Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Program (NAAQMP) which was started in 1984 and the program monitors the air quality in India. The program seemed quite similar to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) established by the US under the Clean Air Act of 1970. A quick comparison of the two

A quick look indicates that India has stricter air quality standards than US does. I was surprised and I would never have believed if someone told me that. I realized I always expect the worst from India.

Taking my comparison of Houston and Chennai to the next level, I found Chennai has 4 air quality monitoring stations and Houston has 40+. The ambient air quality data for monitoring stations in Chennai are available till the year 2003. There is no data for the current years and I wonder why? For the year 2003, all reports seem to indicate that all pollutants studied (Sulphur dioxide and Nitrogen Oxides and Suspended particles) are well below the NAAQMP standards. Only 2 stations of the 4 in Chennai have data available.

Another search and the new information show 5 monitoring stations in Chennai and have data available for January, February and March of 2005. This report indicates very high levels of respirable particulate matter of size less than 10 microns (a maximum of 108 µg/m3). It makes me wonder what is really happening. Why is the system not transparent? Why can’t I access these data and know the current scenario. Why can’t I as an educated, interested Indian citizen not contribute or comment on one of the major problems the country faces today?

I am yet to discover acts/laws/policies that discuss control measures for different pollutants. This might hold the key to a lot of answers I am looking for. Do we really enforce the strict and state-of-art pollution control techniques? I am also looking for laws/policies for specific industries, like the thermal power plants, the chemical refineries which are known to be big time air polluters.

We live in a world that is taking baby steps towards developing an environmental friendly sustainable attitude. India as an important global player and as one of the fastest growing economy in the world needs to be heard and taken seriously. The quality of life of an average Indian is not just the money he brings back home, but having an environment that makes him more productive and happy. Is it time we thought about these aspects of air pollution and find ways to enrich our lives?

I’ll keep looking and keep posting my learnings.


manju said...

Very informative article !!!
must of put good effort in getting those data !!!

I feel strict implementation of the rules is the only soltion to control pollution.

Seocndly industries should me made aware of their social responsibilities