If you thought leaving Delhi was one option to escape its toxic air, you might need to think again about where you’re going. For, different versions of the Delhi story appear to be playing out in the other metros, too, and in even some of the smaller cities.
On the WHO’s 2014 database of air pollution across cities, it’s not just Delhi that is more polluted than Beijing, the world’s second-most polluted national capital. A number of Indian cities are in between, according to Central Pollution Control Board measurements of that dangerous invisible dust called RSPM.
Mumbai, despite the sea breeze, is on that WHO list; Kolkata is shrouded in a dust cloud caused by a construct boom; Chennai is dealing with a spurt in RSPM due to brick kilns and road dust. As for Bangalore, researchers are connecting the dots between a rise in RSPM levels and deaths due to lung cancer.
The big hope now is that Delhi can show the way once again: from the historic switchover of all transport vehicles to CNG by 2002, which was followed by 60 other Indian cities, to the latest directives by the National Green Tribunal to ban all diesel vehicles over 10 years old from the capital’s roads and put a lid on construction waste.
“Delhi is a mirror for the rest of the country,” said M C Mehta, a lawyer whose petition in Supreme Court on pollution led to a series of orders and the introduction of CNG. “If you can’t clean your capital, what face will you show to the world? There should be at least one city that you build as a model that other cities can replicate.”
Mumbai: Vehicles villains
In Mumbai, officials said the sheer number of vehicles has negated the advantage of the winds from the sea. In 2013, the city had 21.87 lakh vehicles on the road, 50% more than in 2006, according to the state transport department. “The increase in vehicles is defeating the efforts of bringing in more stringent emission norms,” said Dilip Boralkar, former member secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board and the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority. “The only solution is a proper transportation policy and effective traffic management, backed with well-planned infrastructure,” added Boralkar, who was a member of the expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court for monitoring air quality at Taj Mahal.
Kolkata: Building a disaster
Kolkata too benefits from coastal winds but experts say that advantage is being frittered away. The rising danger is dust from construction, according to a study by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) with help from the Asian Development Bank. Construction began on 17,300 dwelling units in the year starting April 2014, an increase of 122% over the previous year, stated a Cushman & Wakefield report. “Air pollution has shot up even over greener patches such as Rajarhat because of the long list of real estate projects and the Metro projects coming up,” said an official with WBPCB. A PCB official also cited cracked roads, open garbage and silt from sewers. “There is hardly any auto emission test centre in rural areas; thus vehicles are belching carbon with impunity,” he said.
Chennai: Dust from outskirts
In Chennai, government records note that mean annual RSPM levels increased from 32 µg/cu.m. to 94 µg/cu.m. in 2011, an increase of 194%. A study sponsored by the Environment Ministry and carried out by IIT Madras blamed “vehicles along major roads… paved road dust from minor roads… construction activities and small scale diesel generator sets used as a back-up for power supply”.
Apart from an increase in RSPM levels due to vehicles, Chennai faces the fallout of a large number of brick kilns on its periphery. “Kilns on the northwest border of Chennai are fuelled by burnt tyres and organic waste. The tyres are usually not burnt fully and this leads to particulate matter which gets blown into the city,” said Rajesh Rangarajan, a technical consultant to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. “Another major cause is dust from roads. Though the state is planning to create 15 new monitoring stations in the next three years, new sources of pollution are being ignored, including emission from the Metro rail construction,” he added.
Bangalore: Defying perception
Bangalore, the country’s software hub, may have acquired an image of being a relatively clean city with a temperate climate, but here too the air is turning toxic. A 2014 study by IIM Ahmedabad, published in Atmospheric Environment, found that an increase by 10 µg/cu.m. in RSPM levels in the city was associated with a 0.22% increase in mortality. It underscored “the need for rapid and aggressive policy measures” to curb air pollution. A 2014 National Cancer Registry report that compiled data from 23 state registries by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) found that Bangalore tops the list of Indian cities in cases of lung cancer. An official of the Karnataka Pollution Control Board said that a “major source of pollution is the transport sector that amount to 42 per cent in Bangalore. Various industries contribute another 14 per cent and diesel generator sets about 7 per cent.” Construction contributes 14 per cent.
Delhi: Accept and learn
While experts agree that Delhi has frittered the gains of its first-generation reforms due to lack of planning and implementation, they agree the first step is to acknowledge the problem. Among the immediate measures suggested: ensure accurate and uniform pollution measurement methods, engage all stakeholders including the industry, and take the next emission leap to Euro VI.
While the launch of India’s first national Air Quality Index in 10 cities is being heralded as a first step in raising awareness, former CPCB chairman B Sengupta said there is a need to ensure that data recorded by pollution control boards across the country is uniform and accurate. “At present, there is no certification for air quality monitoring stations. Anyone can buy the equipment and anyone can make it. As a result, the accuracy of such information is suspect,” he said.
Dr Leena Srivastava, acting director-general, TERI, stressed the need for “defining responsibilities”. “Delhi needs to engage with all stakeholders, including industries — commercial, transport and residential — to define responsibilities, incentives and regulations, and follow it up with rigorous monitoring and enforcement.”
The CPCB’s current member secretary A B Akolkar suggested, “What we have to do now is bring in Euro VI norms. We are working towards effective implementation.”
The government is struggling to implement Bharat Stage IV, or Euro IV, norms with the first step to cover all northern cities by April 1 having stalled due to opposition from commercial vehicle owners.
According to Rangarajan, the Chennai-based expert, “Delhi can definitely show the way for other Indian cities. Delhi is very polluted and needs to act now. If it does, and does so well, then that can be replicated elsewhere.”