Death by Breath: Construction destruction

Area the size of 1,34,000 football fields built upon, rule book thrown to the wind.

Written by Pritha Chatterjee , Aniruddha Ghosal | New Delhi | Updated: April 6, 2015 10:28 am
death by breath, air pollution, air pollution indian express, delhi construction, delhi urbanisation, gurgaon construction, noida construction, delhi news A cloud of dust billows from a construction site in Noida Extension on Sunday. (Source: Exprss Photo by Ravi Kanojia)

4 pm, Golf Course Road, Gurgaon: Had it not been April, the poor visibility would had been mistaken for winter fog. But this thick cover is a dust cloud, billowing from construction sites on either side of the road, less than 25 km from the national capital. At these sites, there are no cover scaffoldings, no hosing of roads to reduce dust dispersal. Policemen on duty are wearing masks, the pedestrians clutching handkerchiefs to face. All wear a fine layer of dust.

Multiply this scenario 1,34,000 times.

That’s the area, just under 1 lakh hectares — 1,34,000 football fields — that’s been constructed upon in the last decade in the National Capital Region, with Uttar Pradesh (Noida, Greater Noida) and Haryana (Gurgaon) showing the largest increase. In tune with the rise of the killer dust (RSPM, respirable suspended particulate matter) in the city’s air as first reported in this series, from 161 µg/m3 in 2007to 316 in 2014.

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With the city swelling in numbers, and in size, construction has been rampant to meet three essential demands — of housing in the NCR, infrastructure development in Delhi, and the Metro in newer areas.

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Spread over three phases, the Metro network will reach 330 km by December 2016. Metro officials say since the very beginning, they have taken care to prevent dust accumulation at construction sites.

DMRC managing director Mangu Singh said: “We set up environmental sustainability units at every construction site to ensure environmental practices were followed. We also set up RSPM measuring units. Everywhere, we have tried to ensure levels don’t cross what they were in the past.” Construction sites, he said, were covered with mesh or tarpaulin, excavated soil was kept wet, and plantation activity was undertaken.

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Construction also requires brick kilns, cutting green cover, and both add to air pollution even before construction starts. Brick kilns were ordered out of Delhi in 1996. But a number of them have come up on its borders in the last decade because of the construction boom. A study published in 2013 in the journal Atmospheric Environment said the kilns, “polluting and energy-inefficient”, account for 11%-15% of particulate matter emissions in Delhi.

On green cover, the Delhi government points to the State of Forest Report 2013 which indicates an increase of 3.61 sq km, from 176.2 sq km in 2011 to 179.81 sq km in 2012. But in October 2014, the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) told the National Green Tribunal that the governments of Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and UP have been responsible for “shrinkage” of natural conservation zones, including the protected Aravali ridge forest, due to “non-implementation of policies of the regional plan”.

The Indian Express visited 15 construction sites — 7 in Gurgaon, 8 in Noida Extension — and found that specific rules laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to regulate construction dust in the air are routinely violated. Many site project managers said they were not even aware that such rules exist.

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According to guidelines, measures need to be taken to ensure that toxins — emissions from construction machinery and vehicles, diesel generators, construction dust — are not released in the air. For any construction activity beyond 2 lakh square feet, whether private or government, clearances have to be taken from the state government, which include as many as 70 environmental safety parameters designated by MoEF.

These include measures like placing a tarpaulin sheet over a construction site to prevent dust scattering and keeping construction material like sand wet. In 2010, the ministry published the Environment Impact Assessment Guidance Manual for Building, Construction, Townships and Area Development Project (see page 9).

But on the ground, these rules remain in the manual.

In Noida Extension, for example, where majority buildings are still under construction, there is a permanent haze, almost obscuring the emerging skyline.

ALSO READ: From demolition, dust city won’t manage and debris it can’t

The 2-km stretch from NH-24 to Char Murti chowk has 17 construction sites on either side of the road. Dust settles on cars within minutes of parking. Boards announcing “luxurious living”, “high life”, “green living” with gyms and malls inside apartment complexes tower over workers who cough, spit out dust as they crowd around chhole-kulche trolleys for a quick lunch.

“I have worked in Gurgaon, Delhi and Noida. Construction here has been the fastest, and the dust the thickest. I cough for hours in the morning, and find it very difficult to sleep,” Sohan Lal, a worker from Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, said.

At the eight sites in Noida Extension, not one had a tarpaulin or mesh covering to avoid dust scattering. At all sites barring one, site officers said mixing materials with water was only done “as per needs of construction work”, not for environment concerns.

Workers handled cement with bare hands, and did not have face masks or protective head gear. At all eight sites, diesel generators were powering construction machinery. Site managers said they had not had any inspection for environment measures.

“Washing the excavated area periodically is not practical, especially in summers when water supply is low. The construction industry is always accused of wasting water and then you want us to keep spraying water to regulate dust. It is not a practical approach,” a site manager said. Much of the construction material there was being transported in small tempos and tractor trolleys with no covering.

On Golf Course Road in Gurgaon, it is the same picture. Construction material and debris lay in the open. Asked why were these not stored in a warehouse — that’s the ministry guideline — one of the site managers said: “And who will pay for the labour or material to make a warehouse which we will have to demolish later. Whoever has come up with these rules knows nothing about the industry.”

National Human Rights Commission chairperson Justice K G Balakrishnan said: “Since poor labourers working at construction sites are the most affected when measures to curb air pollution are not followed, developers simply don’t care about the issue. Respiratory diseases like silicosis are on the rise because of the lackadaisical manner of companies and the agencies that are supposed to keep watch. The NHRC has been closely monitoring the situation, even awarding compensation in cases where labourers have suffered from ailments while working on construction projects.”

The scale of construction is so staggering that the ramifications are scary.

As per a NCRPB study, the largest increase in constructed area from 1999 to 2012 was in Uttar Pradesh NCR, where 40,757 hectares of land was built upon. This was followed by Haryana where construction took place on 38,032 hectares. Delhi and Rajasthan followed with an increase in 13374.08 hectares and 6018.83 hectares respectively.

Rahul Modi, president Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI)-NCR, said: “The amount of housing construction NCR has seen in the last 10 years has been more than what the area saw in the preceding 50 years. Add to this a small percentage of retail and office spaces which is growing at the rate of 30-40 per cent, and you can estimate the scale of construction in NCR.”

According to a report by real estate research firm Knight Frank, despite a slump in NCR, 40,575 dwelling units were sold in 2014 compared to 71,421 in 2013. Another 73,143 new dwelling units were launched in 2014 compared to 95,768 in 2013.

Anuj Puri, chairman and country head of Jones Lang LaSalle(JLL) India, said: “The residential sector has contributed to 80 per cent of the construction boom in NCR. The industry has grown from 175 billion dollars in 2009 to the tune of 235 billion dollars in 2014.”

In contrast, the boom in Delhi has largely been focused on infrastructure — bridges, flyovers and roads. Roads were extended from 26,698 km in 1988 to 31,969 km in 2014. Elevated roads such as the one over Barapullah Nallah, Salim Garh Road, AIIMS, Dhaula Kuan and Madhuban Chowk were built. Delhi had nine flyovers in 1999, 66 more by 2013.

Former chief minister Sheila Dikshit, during whose term most construction took place, said that infrastructure development was meant to decongest traffic and, therefore, ultimately reduce air pollution. “We built elevated roads to reduce traffic congestion and we had planned to build double deck flyovers,” she said.

Ajay Maken, who was Union Urban Development Minister during the boom, put the onus of regulation on respective state governments. “The scale of construction in the last decade in Delhi and adjoining areas was immense. But the problem was that each state had its own set of regulations,” he said.

Even these were hardly followed. Anita Tikoo Matange, ecological planning expert and visiting faculty in the environment planning department of the School of Planning and Architecture, said: “Sustainable construction practices are very cost-effective and should be implemented better. Simple practices like using a tarpaulin sheet, keeping the sand wet are very easy to implement and don’t cost much. There is no reason why there should not be better implementation and better regulation of these practices.”

Balwinder Kumar, vice-chairman of the DDA, conceded that the agency had only just begun such sustainable practices in construction. “Now we are taking a number of measures to reduce emissions. Until now, leaves and other green cover was burnt. Now, we are utilising it to make compost. We have also begun using green construction material.”

Hamza Khan adds from Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) chairman Javed Abidi agrees “construction is one of the major causes of pollution in UP districts under the NCR”.

“Builders dilly dally on NOC (no-objection certificate), but then such builders are also present in other places such as Lucknow. We deal strictly with them and ensure they adhere to environment norms,” he said.

UPPCB member secretary J S Yadav said “before proceeding with construction, builders have to get approval from the environmental appraisal committee which has the same norms as in other parts of the country”.