Nothing encapsulates all that’s wrong with Delhi’s air than Kaushambi, the 600-acre swathe of concrete on the edge of the National Capital Region.
A garbage landfill, two inter state bus depots, a state highway, a national highway and two industrial estates: 30 years after work began on this integrated township on the edge of Delhi, Kaushambi is today a cauldron of toxic air housing at least 25,000 residents (see box on page 2).
This translates into an estimated 20,000 trips by passenger buses, autos and taxis, and at least 1,000 small scale, poorly monitored industrial units. Plus the 20,000-odd trucks that pass by on NH 24 and the SH 57 every night, leaving behind a trail of poisonous fumes.
In the middle of all this are people like C L Aggarwal who did something last Tuesday that he’d been wanting to for a while — step out for his morning walk without his mask. And his former neighbour, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose persistent, trademark cough was traced by doctors in Bangalore to the foul air he breathed for the last 15 years. Kejriwal now lives in his official residence in the capital.
On April 10, three days after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a series of measures to be implemented in Delhi to clean the capital’s air, readings recorded by the UP Pollution Control Board in the heart of Kaushambi showed the level of particulate matter (less than 10 microns in size), at 342 µg/m3 — the WHO limit for dust of that size (a strand of human hair is 40-50 microns) is a daily mean of 40 µg/m3.
On the same day, amid a spell of rain that week, the PM 10 reading at Mandir Marg in central Delhi was 132 µg/m3.
In Kaushambi, the fallout on the health of residents who have been breathing this toxic mix for years has been disastrous.
“You can never tell on which morning you will wake up to dust and fumes. My doctor has advised me to carry a mask always, but it is embarrassing. But I always carry my handkerchief, it’s like a lifeline when the air turns bad,” said the 81-year-old Aggarwal, a retired banker who stays in Kaushambi’s Kailash Tower.
Two years ago, a general health camp conducted here threw up a “surprising finding”, said Dr Naresh Dang, a consultant in general medicine and a resident of Shivalik Apartments.
“The results showed that more than 50 per cent of residents suffered from respiratory problems and poor lung function,” said Dr Dang, who organised that camp for the Kaushambi Apartments Residents Welfare Association (KARWA), the umbrella body of 22 RWAs in the township.
The association is now awaiting the results of lung function tests conducted on 70 residents during a second health camp that was held this week. “Based on the results, we are planning to file a plea at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to improve the air quality of our area,” said V K Mittal, KARWA president.
‘Can hardly breathe’
The residents have, meanwhile, joined hands to get Ghaziabad district authorities to install two 24-hour mobile air quality monitoring stations in the township — the first such initiative by the administration.
“After years of breathing this air, the damage done to our health is visible. Many of us are left wheezing after climbing a flight of stairs. Early morning walks, a routine for the colony with a large group of senior citizens, are abandoned in winters,” said Aggarwal.
“In every park, you see five-six of us wearing masks. There is no stepping out without it,” he added.
One of the lab technicians who conducted the recent camp said that preliminary information on the spirometry tests conducted on the 70 residents showed lung function ranging from moderate to poor in 41.
“At least 10 people could not even blow into the spirometer, their lung capacity was so bad. Most of them had problems like asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD). They said their condition gets aggravated in the evenings, especially during winters, when they can hardly breathe,” said the technician from a private laboratory, who did not wish to be named.
‘Best to run away’
Said B C Rastogi, 80, a resident of Dhaulagiri Apartments and former chairman, Central Board of Excise and Customs: “When we first came here, the colony was clean and airy. Now, I have to go to a doctor every two months, who advises me that my allergies are because of the dust and pollution. He tells me I should go to my son’s house in Bangalore for a few days.”
Rastogi, who is also president of the senior citizens organisation of Kaushambi, added: “Now you see smoke billowing from the Sahibabad industrial area, and the cough hardly lets you sleep. Our association has tried approaching the industry owners, but it’s of no use.”
N Rajamani, former president of KARWA, said he is “forced to travel to Kerala and Pune” in the winters, adding “it’s best to run away from here for a few months to save our lives”.
KARWA chief Mittal has installed an air purifier in his home. “My grandson gets a cough every time he comes here. He had grown up here and never had this problem before. When doctors told us it had to do with the dust, we realised that even my wife and I had the same problem. We installed an air purifier two years ago but how many people can afford it?” he asked.
Little action, legal option
On April 9, KARWA sent a legal notice to the state authorities, including the UP chief secretary and chairperson of the state pollution control board, the district magistrate and municipal commissioners, demanding urgent action.
According to Dr Sapna Srivastava, scientist in charge at the Ghaziabad Pollution Control Board’s mobile monitoring project in Kaushambi, “The RWA approached us saying they were facing health problems due to the poor air quality.
Since we do not have any existing permanent air quality stations in Kaushambi, we set up two 24-hour monitoring stations as an experiment.”
When contacted, a senior official of the Ghaziabad Development Authority said that they have responded to the residents’ concerns.
“The problem that residents in the area are facing is very real. The GDA is primarily a developmental authority, but we wrote to the Ghaziabad Municipal Corporation to take action in the matter. We have promised to help those in the area in whatever way we can,” said Santosh Yadav, Vice Chairman, GDA.
But Mittal, speaking for the residents, is not convinced. “The authorities have done nothing for us, so our only hope is the NGT. We do not have any other door to knock on for clean air to breathe. We are desperate. CM Kejriwal’s cough has became famous, but you will find that almost every person here has the same, irritating cough.”