On November 7, Moradabad recorded the highest levels on the pollution scale. But few were looking, finds Ankita Dwivedi Johri
At Barbwalan in Moradabad, the Ramganga is a ribbon of black, its banks dotted with chimneys spouting smoke. Sitting on the banks of the river, Taufiq, 45, and wife Naz Bibi, 42, sift through a large pile of niyara, a fine black powder that’s a byproduct of burnt industrial waste from Moradabad’s metal industry. Their fingers, hard and calloused, deftly separate aluminium wires, iron chips — “and if lucky, gold coils” — from the mound of black. They are soon joined by three of their five children — between the ages of five and 15.
The family is among hundreds of households who have made the banks of the Ramganga, a tributary of the Ganga, their home, clearing and processing industrial and electronic waste.
Last week, as Delhi’s polluted air made international headlines, less than 200 km away, the lone automatic air monitoring station in this city in western Uttar Pradesh recorded an AQI of 500 — the highest on the scale. Moradabad also has two manual stations where air samples are checked every four hours.
All of UP has nine automatic AQI stations. Delhi-NCR, with roughly one-tenth the population, has 48. Taufiq and Naz remember November 7 was an overcast day, and like any other working day. No schools were shut, nor any other emergency measures taken. But the spotlight returned to the city’s illegal waste processing industry, and the administration swung into action and shut some bhattis down.
Moradabad emerged as the hub of UP’s brass industry, with big export firms setting shop, in the 1950s. Alongside came up a subsidiary cottage industry of waste processing units along the Ramganga. In congested neighbourhoods such as Barbwalan, Nawabpura, Karula, Daswaghat and Rehmat Nagar, a vast majority took to burning, washing, sifting and drying metal waste.
Says Shahid Hussain, 45, a palledar, “The waste from the brass and copper factories comes to us as malwa, in powder form. We take out whatever can be salvaged — aluminium, copper, brass, gold etc — and send the rest to the bhattis. There it is burnt to form niyara. The waste powder then comes back, is washed in the river, spread out on the banks to dry and used to make statues and lamps.”
Breaking into a smile, he adds, “Modiji jo diya jalate hain woh yahin se aata hai (The lamps that Prime Minister Narendra Modi lights come from here).” Somewhere towards the end of the last decade, Moradabad also became the dumping ground for the country’s electronic waste. According to a 2015 study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Moradabad gets about nine tonnes of e-waste everyday. The report also quoted then district magistrate Deepak Agarwal as saying, “50 per cent of all printed circuit boards used in India end up in Moradabad.”
In February this year, hearing a petition by former Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) scientist Mahendra Pandey, who alleged illegal processing of e-waste on the banks of Ramganga, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed officials of the Environment Ministry, the CPCB and the state PCB to file a report. This report acknowledged that “25,586 cubic metres of processed e-waste was found on the banks of the Ramganga.” At 10,011 cubic metres, the neighbourhood of Barbwalan had the highest concentration.
The administration claims to have since cracked down on the e-waste industry, and claims that the bhattis that are still working are no longer burning e-waste. “What you see now are smaller, home-based units, and we are trying to close them. Their number is almost negligible. The burning (of industry waste) may be happening in a few places along the Ramganga, but it is not e-waste,” Moradabad SP Ashish Srivastava says.
District Magistrate Rakesh Kumar Singh contends that the problem in Moradabad is not of air pollution, but of water pollution, caused by the waste discarded on the Ramganga banks. “People need to understand that e-waste or even industrial waste is not burnt in Moradabad. That happens in villages such as Bhojpur, which are at least 20 km from here. In Moradabad, they only extract metal parts from the malwa, so it does not contribute to air pollution,” he says. Singh also contends that except for November 7, “Moradabad’s AQI has been much better compared to cities such as Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad, Lucknow and Varanasi.”
R K Singh, the Moradabad regional officer of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), adds, “When the AQI station in Lajpat Nagar in the city touched 500, we found that a roadways maintenance facility near the locality was burning cloth that is used to clean buses. These materials had a lot of oil on them and that’s what led to the toxic fumes. Also, the pavements in the city are not well made, the roads are narrow, and there is a lot of dust.”
CPCB member-secretary A Sudhakar notes that “not just in Moradabad, pollution is a problem in the winter season across the Indo-Gangetic plains. The top soil in these parts is loose and easily gets into the atmosphere.” Anwar Hussain, 51, one of the “senior-most” palledars in Barbwalan, while insisting that all the e-waste burning has “completely stopped,” says, “E-rickshaw bahut badh gaye hain sheher mein. Usi se pradushan ho raha hai shayad (There are many e-rickshaws on the streets now, maybe that is causing pollution).”
Less than 2 km from Barbwalan is Lajpat Nagar, the neighbourhood with the AQI station. Of the neighbourhood where he was born and grew up, Mohammad Asif, 24, the owner of Javed Chemicals, says, “Lajpat Nagar posh ilaka hai, yahan pollution nahin hota (Lajpat Nagar is a posh locality, there is no pollution here).”
Tell him about the AQI levels and he says, “Yes, the city was enveloped in thick fog last week… We just thought that winter has come early this year. Garam kapde nikal liye, ab sab theek hai (We have taken out the winter clothes, it is all fine now).”
Experts agree that there are no easy solutions. “Most of the waste processing plants in Moradabad are small, home-based ones, it is very difficult to install pollution control units there. But since large communities are associated with it, the government can set up a cooperative,” says Vivek Chattopadhyay, programme manager, air pollution control unit, Centre for Science and Environment.
UPPCB officer Singh also underlines the need to rehabilitate people associated with unorganised waste processing. “We have held workshops to help them learn better handling of waste. We have also written to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to help find ways to treat waste in a better manner,” he says.
Off the charts
Howrah, West Bengal
AQI on Nov 7: 451, Severe
Primary pollutant: Industries
AQI stations: 6; 19 in Kolkata
AQI on Nov 7: 439, Severe
Primary pollutant: Industries and vehicles.
AQI stations: 1 automatic, 3 manual
AQI on Nov 7: 365, Very Poor
Prominent pollutant: Construction
AQI stations: 3
Mandi Gobindgarh, Punjab
AQI on Nov 7: 328, Very poor
Primary pollutant: Heavy steel and iron furnace industry
AQI stations: 1
AQI on Nov 7: 312, Very poor
Primary pollutant: Vehicles, construction
AQI stations: 1