September 22, 2011
Text: Ganapati Mudur
Bhola Ram Gurjar is always fascinated to observe the object of his research from a plane. An environmental engineer by trade, he grew up on a farm where millet was cultivated and sheep were raised. The farm was in a village with no electricity, near Ranthambore forest, a tiger reserve in Western India. Today, Gurjar’s interest lies in megacities – cities with ten million inhabitants or more. Whenever he approaches Delhi, Tokyo or New York by air, time and again, he is amazed by the sprawling extent of these conurbations, the tightly packed buildings, traffic arteries, industrial areas and patches of green.
“Modern cities are among mankind’s greatest achievements,” says Gurjar. But for all the advantages that cities offer, they also have serious disadvantages. The air in some of these vast hubs of human activity is extremely polluted. “Cities are great habitats,” Gurjar continues, “but they can be better still if we get a grip on problems like this.” As an environmental engineer and associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, he would like to do his part.
At first glance, Roorkee doesn’t really seem the ideal place to study air pollution and its consequences for megacities. Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, the town has less than 150,000 inhabitants – tiny, by Indian standards. Nor is there much industry here to pollute the environment. Bhola Ram Gurjar’s desktop, however, is brimming over with air quality data – data that provides tangible evidence of the air pollution in Beijing, New Delhi, Los Angeles and 15 other megacities.
To improve the quality of the air in megacities, Gurjar has teamed up with Jos Lelieveld, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz. Together they developed Ri-MAP (Risk of Mortality-Morbidity due to Air Pollution), a mathematical model that estimates how many additional lives a given degree of air pollution will claim, relative to a clean atmosphere. The computer program can help the authorities in megacities around the world to clean up their polluted air. It enables them to take targeted action based on reliable data, rather than mere supposition, to reduce the levels of particularly harmful contaminants.
Gurjar arrived at the analysis of air quality and its effects on health by a somewhat circuitous route. Almost 30 years ago, he received a government grant that enabled him to enroll at a school of engineering in Jodhpur. He still remembers studying by the light of a kerosene lamp in his village of Daulatpura in Rajasthan. His decision to specialize in civil engineering was prompted largely by chance. “I was so delighted by the idea of studying engineering that it didn’t seem to matter which branch I chose. The boy sitting next to me filling out his form chose civil engineering, so I did too,” Gurjar recalls.
His first job after receiving his engineering degree was on a construction site in Western India, building a runway. However, he found the task of cooperating with construction firms andthe bureaucracy involved in public sector building projects so frustrating that he returned almost immediately to the academic world. He first completed a master’s degree at his college, then a Ph.D. at the IIT in New Delhi.
It was while studying at the IIT in the 1990s that he began to specialize in the evaluation of environmental risks. He was interested in air pollutants even back then, not least because memories were still fresh in India of what at the time was the worst industrial disaster in history: in December 1984, a leaking storage tank in Bhopal had allowed toxic methyl isocyanate gas to escape, killing at least 2,500 people.