Rapid urbanization in the last few decades has made Guwahati, the prime city of Assam, a polluted city, but can it feature on top of a list comprising the regions containing highly polluted air across the Asian region? The issue came for discussions as an air quality monitoring body (Switzerland-based IQAir) recently revealed that the virtual capital of northeast India emerged as the second highest polluted city in the continent. Many jumped into the revelation of the World Air Quality Report 2023 and started making voluminous reports in various media outlets terming the prehistoric city as an unhealthy place for human habitation.

Now the question arises. Should not one need academic education and wisdom to report a scientific survey based on technical findings? The media outlets in Guwahati are often observed as being jubilant to get an opportunity to defame the State governments in Dispur and the Union government in New Delhi. Doing so, they even defame their own place and the people. While reporting on the IQAir index, the editor-journalists simply ignored any local scientific agency (on pollution) to pronounce their verdict.

The 6th annual report, released on 19 March 2024 by the Swiss technology company, recorded the most polluted countries, territories, and regions across the globe in 2023. It claimed that IQAir’s air quality scientists analyzed relevant data from more than 30,000 air quality monitoring stations across 7,812 locations in 134 countries, territories, and regions before preparing the report. Seven countries namely Australia, Estonia, Finland, Grenada, Iceland, Mauritius and New Zealand reportedly maintained World Health Organization annual PM2.5 guidelines (annual average of 5 µg/m3 or less), where Bangladesh (79.9 µg/m3), Pakistan (73.7 µg/m3), India (54.4 µg/m3), Tajikistan (49.0 µg/m3), Burkina Faso (46.6 µg/m3) emerged as most polluted countries.

It may be mentioned that PM2.5 is a key indicator of air quality, where PM stands for particulate matter that may be solid or liquid and 2.5 refers to the diameter of the matter which is 2.5 micrometers or smaller (around 3% of the diameter of a human hair). On the other hand, the unit µg/m3 stands for micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air. The IQAir list put Begusarai of Bihar at the top of 10 most polluted cities during 2023 with an average PM2.5 level of 118.9 micrograms per cubic meter. Guwahati followed it with an average PM2.5 level of 105.4 µg/m3.

For hours, the news rolled from newspapers, and news channels to alternate media outlets and finally spread to common people to create a panicky situation, primarily among the Guwahatians. Later, the Pollution Control Board Assam (PCBA) came out with a strong argument denouncing the IQAir findings. Terming the media reports as misleading, the PCBA clarified that Guwahati was yet to arrive at that position cited by the Swish air quality monitoring agency. Otherwise, the poor quality air would have a far-reaching manifestation in normal life and activities of Guwahatians, which is yet to be observed, it asserted.

The average PM 2.5 concentration in Guwahati city for 2022 was 52.61 µg/m3 and the  IQAir reported the parameter for  2023 as double for the city, which is also higher than New Delhi (92.7 µg/m3). The reports caused panic among the 1.5 million permanent dwellers of Guwahati. But PCBA clarified that there was no need to worry over the air pollution level in the city as it’s absolutely under control (52.8 µg/m3 in 2023). The Assam government under the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) has been implementing various action plans to improve the ambient air quality in Guwahati as well as in Nagaon,  Nalbari, Sivasagar, and Silchar.

PCBA, an autonomous statutory organization constituted under the provision of section 4 of the Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act 1974) monitors the ambient air quality in Guwahati round the clock for 365 days through sophisticated continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations (CAAQMS) at four locations (Bamunimaidam, Cotton University-Panbazar, Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport- Azara and IITG-north Guwahati. Data from these stations are being continuously monitored and the quality data generated from these CAAQMS are recorded by the Central Pollution Control Board (under the Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry).

For the records, IQAir is a private environmental technology company of Switzerland which was founded in 1963 and, amazingly the air quality technology company also manufactures air purifiers. It specializes in protection against airborne pollutants, developing air quality monitoring and air cleaning products, and also operates AirVisual, a real-time air quality information platform. As of February 2020, it had around 500 employees worldwide, 150 of them in China, and its most important markets were Asia and North America. As of 2015, IQAir was a family-owned company and it did not publish concrete information about its revenue or profits.

Responding to queries from this writer, Natasha Ganes of IQAir, stated that the organization collects data from government-operated regulatory monitors, including those monitored by the PCBA, as well as low-cost sensor stations. Any city ranked in the 2023 World Air Quality report, particularly those near the top of the list, is always vetted closely by the air quality science team. In Guwahati, only government data was available and was therefore the only data source used in determining the city’s annual average PM2.5 concentration, asserted Natasha, adding that IQAir is a politically neutral organization that tries to empower individuals, organizations, and governments to improve air quality.

“IQAir collects real-time air quality data every hour throughout the year and when generating the global air quality report, we use all publicly available air quality data. The more monitors we have in an area, the better the air quality information will be. This is another key reason why it is important to expand the air quality monitoring network. Expanding the network to specifically monitor the most populated areas would provide data-driven evidence of the hyper-local air quality conditions that citizens experience there,” stated Natasha.

Speaking to this writer, PCBA chairman  Arup Kr Misra clarified that the IQAir report was misleading (which was highlighted by various print and electronic media outlets in India) and the residents of Guwahati may carry out normal activities without any fear, ignoring the unscientific and absurd air quality revelation. He also added that the PCBA has already urged the governments in Dispur and New Delhi and also the federal pollution control board to enquire into the matter and take the necessary and appropriate actions.