Lakes on fire and blue dogs: Scary faces of pollution in our cities

TALKING POINTS 2017: POLLUTION AND THE CITY

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Pic: Citizen Matters Bengaluru

Once again it’s that time of the year when we are most prone to looking back and ahead at the same time. Taking stock of the year’s discourse on urbanisation in India, it is evident that some issues have consistently dominated the narrative and been on top of the minds of urban citizens in 2017.

These are also issues that we need to sustain focus upon as we move into the new year, since they will continue to play an important role in determining the dynamics and direction of development in the country, and in particular in its cities.

As we bid adieu to 2017, Citizen Matters brings you a series rounding up the year’s developments in respect of a few such key issues that have hogged urban attention throughout the year. In the first of these, we look at pollution in our cities.

Urban pollution grabbed a notable share of news headlines this year, especially towards the end. From the start of the year, a number of global studies pointed out that millions were dying in India due to air, water and other types of pollution. While governmental response to pollution has been slow, there was some action from the courts. Delhi’s air pollution emergency since October received global attention, and has led to more awareness and response from both citizens and government.

The biggest air pollutant in Indian cities is particulate matter (PM), specifically PM10 and PM2.5, which are extremely fine solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. They can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cancer and asthma. Indian cities also lag severely in managing solid waste and sewage, accounting for a large number of diseases and deaths.

Here is a quick look at the pollution-related discourse and developments in urban India this year.

January

The Greenpeace report ‘Airpocalypse’ finds that air pollution in India grew by 13% between 2010 and 2015, while it decreased in countries like China. The report says that the most polluted cities are in north India, causing a public health crisis.

February

The ‘State of Global Air 2017’ report published by the US-based Health Effects Institute, finds that over one million people die in India annually due to air pollution. The journal The Lancet publishes another study with similar findings. Former Environment Minister Anil Dave (who died a few months later) dismisses these studies saying that a proud country only trusts its own data, while acknowledging that Indian authorities had never conducted such studies at all.

Bengaluru’s Bellandur lake is in the news again for catching fire. High pollution levels had caused the lake to catch fire many times. This time, the fire is said to have lasted 12 hours.

March

Supreme court bans registration and sale of BS III vehicles from April 1; only BS IV vehicles could be sold thereafter. The court order leads to a rush for buying BS III vehicles that dealers were selling off at heavily discounted prices.

Uttarakhand High Court gives Ganga and Yamuna rivers the same legal status as human beings, implying that polluting these rivers is the legal equivalent of harming a person.

April

Power Minister Piyush Goyal announces that government would handhold the electric vehicle industry, so that India would have only electric cars – and no petrol/diesel cars – by 2030. He says that NITI Ayog and the Ministry of Heavy Industries are working on a policy to promote electric vehicles.

May

Ahmedabad becomes the first Indian city to have an early warning system for air pollution, to reduce diseases and deaths from pollution. The Air Information and Response (AIR) plan notifies the public and multiple government agencies when there is a forecast of excessive pollution, and trains medical professionals to respond to air pollution emergencies.

Environment Ministry takes a U-turn in its position on the studies linking air pollution with health impacts. A draft note of the ministry acknowledges the increase in deaths due to air pollution, citing global studies.

Urban Development Ministry publishes Swachh Survekshan 2017 that ranks cities on their solid waste and sewage management. Cities in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh come on top, but the survey is widely criticised for its flawed methodology.

July

CPCB released a list of the most polluted cities in India – Ghaziabad topped the list and Delhi came fourth. Seven of the top 10 polluted cities were in UP.

August

Niti Ayog prepares a ‘Three year action agenda to be implemented till 2019-20’, that was released by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The agenda recommends imposing higher taxes on petrol in more polluted cities, improving public transport, switching to cleaner technologies etc.

Dogs in Mumbai turn blue after wading into the highly polluted Kasadi river.

October

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health finds that India topped in the number of pollution-related deaths in 2015, at 2.5 million. This was over a quarter of all the pollution-related deaths globally in 2015. India also specifically topped the list of deaths caused by air pollution and water pollution.

Supreme Court bans the sale of firecrackers during Diwali in Delhi to reduce the risk of air pollution. The ban led to online debates, as some perceived it as an attack on Hinduism. Due to loopholes in the order, crackers were still burst, and in some parts of Delhi, PM10 and PM2.5 levels went up to 24 times and 15 times the permissible limit respectively. However, the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) was far better (326) compared to 2016 (426). (AQI is a composite measure of the city’s air quality at a time.) Air quality dipped to hazardous levels in many other cities across the country post-Diwali.

Environment Ministry sets more stringent standards for Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), so that the treated effluent that is let out do not cause pollution.

November

Delhi plummets into an air pollution emergency as winter sets in and pollution increases due to crop residue burning in neighbouring states. Trains are cancelled, schools and companies closed, and fog causes road accidents. The issue gets national and global attention. Measures like banning trucks from entering Delhi, restricting polluting industries etc are taken.

Petroleum Ministry decides to roll out BS VI fuel in Delhi from next April, two years ahead of the 2020 timeline for the entire country.

December

A India-Sri Lanka test cricket match in Delhi gets interrupted thrice as Sri Lankan players choke under air pollution. During the match, PM10 and PM2.5 levels were nearly four times the safe limit.

Many north Indian cities continue to have worse air quality than Delhi, but lack systems to properly monitor and combat the pollution. Pollution-related questions are raised in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, such as on deaths due to air pollution, on pollution due to crop residue burning etc.

As India enters 2018, there’s a lot at stake and unless the above conversations are translated into concrete action on the ground, both by governments and citizens, the future looks hazy indeed.


About Navya P K 24 Articles
Navya P K is a former senior staff journalist at Citizen Matters, and a freelance journalist based in Kerala.