The Perils of a Technobahn Approach to Solving Air Pollution

This technobahn is a failure (picture credit: Indian Express)

What is technobahn? Bahn essentially refers to a physical track or a train in German and its sister languages. Technobahn would in literal sense mean a techno track.

It is important to define this phrase because it is perhaps the best way to describe the haphazard manner in which air pollution is tackled in India at all levels. 

Now, it would be easy for any reader to see this introduction and dismiss the rest of the piece, calling it a kind of hit job on those who want to solve the issue. At the outset, let me clarify that this is not about science and technology per se; rather, this is about a mindset that has come to dominate the way we deal with air pollution on a daily basis.

Technobahn is a concept that I have come across in recent times, and essentially refers to the single track approach of thinking that technology can solve every problem that plagues mankind today.

While technology does offer us great solutions, the over obsession with it is perhaps making things worse in many areas. This obsession with a technology fix for everything essentially ends up creating problems in various directions and in unprecedented ways.

  1. It allows policy makers to absolve themselves of their responsibilities. All of a sudden, a silver bullet is discovered that will apparently solve the problem, provided it is deployed at scale.
  2. It created fly by night snake oil salesmen, who are seeking money and wanting to make a fortune, swearing by the effectiveness of the solution, and the need for the ‘scale’ deployment.
  3. People who need to be responsible for their actions also get an opportunity to stall the discussion and action steps, and the only thing one hears is the need to kick the can down the road.
  4. Entire advocacy chains are triggered by the process, as they keep harping on the availability of technology to solve the problem; oftentimes though, the advocates, the civil society groups want to blissfully ignore a 360 view of the problem.

In the midst of this are people who want to solve the solution but get pulled in by this converging contrarian interest group’s visibility seeking drive. The purpose of virtue signalling that was sought to be established gets more than emphasized on. 

All that is gained in the end is what one can call greenwashing at best. Greenwashing is not just limited to corporate functioning, rest assured; it has everything to do with the need to establish credentials and being seen as a proactive, progressive entity. Behind this veneer though, there is often very little to demonstrate. 

Now, having read through a page of a defining process, you would wonder - what does it have to do with the air pollution issue that plagues us today? The answer is a bare put unpalatable truth - the technobahn obsession has pervaded the air pollution debate in nefarious ways, causing utter chaos in the discourse. It has driven people to rush towards the wrong ideas and solutions, and perpetuates a situation where grandstanding and virtue signalling have replaced concrete steps almost in entirety.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Technology and science are definitely a part of the solution to the air pollution challenge. Cleaner fuels, less emitting engines, better construction techniques have certainly contributed to enrich our understanding of the air pollution challenge faced in Delhi NCR. However, it almost always seems that barring high level research that is pursued for academic interests, most of the space is today obsessed with generating answers that in any other policy environment merit a degree of cynicism and derision like no other. Having been in the technobahn system in various ways, this observation comes from close quarters. 

Let me highlight a few examples to drive the point home.

  1. The obsession with building smog towers and installing filtration units all over Delhi/NCR is as bizarre as it can get. There is no evidence to suggest that they make any difference whatsoever. But the hordes of politicians smiling for photo-ops around these pieces of sham are a great photo-op moment - after all, we are seen to be doing something about air pollution that can be sold as a quick fix silver bullet.

  2. People want to sell devices that help remove air pollution from gensets and double up cooling units as air humidifiers and coolers as filtration units. This is a classic case of technobahn mentality, because asking for its implementation actually distracts us from the benefits of a long term benefit yielding solution that needs more attention - uninterrupted power supply for all. 

  3. Anti-smog guns are being deployed everywhere. They essentially spray mists over a small patch of land to prevent at best dust resuspension and nothing more. They are being deployed rather fancifully these days at key intersections. What if there was no dust in the first place at these intersections - would this gun have any utility? Or what if the sand/building materials at the site should be kept covered at all times - would the gun find relevance?

  4. Electric cars, electric scooters, electric bikes, electric this, electric that - the great solution to solving air pollution seems to have appeared on the horizon? What if I told you that instead of incentivizing ownership of personal electric vehicles we focused on rapidly expanding public transport systems that run on electricity and are much more efficient? What if I told you that light rail/tram like systems were more efficient than EV buses and would cost cities a fraction?  Would a cycle be more useful in mitigating air pollution compared to anything electric? 

  5. Car usage restrictions like odd-even policy are brought out and seen as some magical answer to the air pollution crisis. They may or may not have an impact, but do we think about doing the same for two wheelers?

Now here is the thing. It is not that there is no cost benefit analysis to highlight benefits arising from certain simpler, easier and obvious solutions? However, the problem often gets caught up in the technobahn approach because the visibility associated with it becomes easier to elicit attention, attract investments and help achieve a social guilt riddance in some ways for those who can then afford to look the other way. My car is electric; so what if it is being charged by power from a power plant belching pollution uncontrolled somewhere else? My generator controls Particulate matter; so what if I still pump Nitrogen oxides that can form secondary particulates in the atmosphere? 

Now, technobahn is certainly not the absence of knowledge, be very assured. In fact, the process of generating knowledge unto itself is dangerously getting into that slope. The manner in which the implementation of city action plans keeps getting delayed ‘in the absence of information’ is a perfect example that lets everyone ban a one off event like firecracker bursting or blame a seasonal phenomenon like stubble burning and get away with the bigger culprits. This has spawned an entire industry of sensor monitoring and the aggressive pursuit of getting one and all to use it to ‘get data’ that is actionable. Studies can come and go; but when we are fairly cognizant of what causes pollution, this hair splitting is essentially of little use for anyone at all.

The continued obsession with technobahn solutions for the air pollution problem has to be called out at some stage. This circle of absolute paralysis serves no useful purpose, as people will continue to suffer from air pollution and some profiteer from their misery. All of this ends up giving a cover to several policy makers for evading action that is meaningful. Inaction is unforgivable, but frivolous action is inexcusable. 


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