Why has the KSPCB failed to arrest air pollution in Bengaluru?

"Ours is a monitoring station, which can only assess and suggest," say KSPCB officials. What are these suggestions and is the city even close to implementing those?

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities

Ruchika fumed behind the mask that her mother tied around her nose everyday. She had to pass through Peenya, the “dirtiest and “most polluted” locality in Bengaluru to reach her workplace. Her mother, a health expert, had told her “This is the point where pollution in 2015 was 1300 ug/m3.” That figure in itself made no sense to Ruchika, till her mother added that the junction was 26 times more dangerous than the World Health Organisation’s recommendation and 13 times worse than the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)’s  standards!

So who is responsible for the air in Bengaluru feeling like a load of grit travelling through my nose and lungs, Ruchika demanded. Research shows that the city’s rate of pollution growth was the fastest in the world in the last decade.

So are there too many immigrants? Or are the rich buying too many cars? Or are there too many buses catering to the ever-growing population? Or, has the pollution crisis been caused by the inefficacy of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), and partly the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike (BBMP), which did not implement its rules and suggestions?

The complex issues that have mushroomed in the millennial, overpopulated city of Bengaluru, makes every person responsible as well as a victim of the pollution. The  city’s Air Quality Index (AQI)  has been poor to moderate. The most culpable air pollutants are particulate matter (PM), especially PM10 and PM2.5. These are tiny, suspended irritants that penetrate the human body, leading to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. At the highly traffic-choked Silk Board junction point, the  PM10 averages 81 and the PM 2.5 averages 54, while the AQI at this area in May 2018 was 131, considered to be ‘moderate’.

Role of KSPCB

So why has the KSPCB not been able to arrest the deterioration in air quality? Officials in the state body were defensive. “Ours is a monitoring station, which can only assess and suggest, but not control pollution,” they explain. “You need to ask the implementing, not monitoring body. The air control systems and assessment bodies can only indicate the state of affairs.”

According to Mahesh Kashyap, a consultant with the Indian Institute of Science (IISC), KSPCB’s state-of-the-art monitoring equipment is superior to low-cost and unreliable sensors. Hence, they give good data that can be used by scientific and medical communities. However, according to the guidelines mentioned in this report, one monitoring station is needed to fulfill the requirements of 5 lakh people and the current population of 1.2 crore in the city warrants 24, while KSPCB Chief Lakshman shares that their centre manages 21 monitoring stations at present.

KSPCB does not present real time updates on AQI, but only gives monthly data. Real-time data is provided by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which has five monitoring stations in the city. Aqicn.org publishes real time global air quality maps, which makes it possible to know the exact AQI at a particular place on any given date and time.

Still, a number of commuters are puzzled and wonder why they have never seen monitoring stations in their areas. “Monitoring station? What is that?” asked an IT professional  day at Silk Board.

Another citizen, commonswoman, tweeted (in July):

In defence, officials indicated that their monitoring reports which are released every quarter should be examined carefully to get a picture. The KSPCB submits them regularly, they explain.

Currently, a new three-tier system has been worked out, comprising monitoring and coordination. The board includes multiple stakeholders such as the BBMP, KSRTC, NGOs and even lorry and bus owners’ associations. All these bodies meet every quarter and submit reports that are then passed on to the government, including the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). A 14-point action plan has been formed by the state government for implementation, they add.

Is monitoring enough?

While the monitoring reports are regularly submitted, can they really be used to formulate a larger vision for the city? Greenpeace India in September disclosed that no Action Plans to reduce air pollution had been released by Bengaluru, Davangere, Gulbarga and Hubli-Dharwad.  All four are “non-attainment” cities, or those whose annual average levels of PM10 have shot beyond permissible limits. “With every passing day, we are putting our health –and that of our future generations at risk,” said Sunil Dahiya, senior campaigner.

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) proposal was released by the Central Ministry for Environment in April, inviting comments. It called for concrete, city-level action plans for “prevention, control and abatement” of air pollution and upgrades of the national air quality monitoring network. The NCAP components included increasing the number of monitoring stations, data dissemination, public participation in planning and implementation, setting up air information centres for data analysis, resource apportionment studies, national inventory and  rural monitoring stations, besides guidelines to check indoor air pollution.

The targets and timelines are to be borne at a cost of Rs 237 crore by the centre, but the cost of implementation rests with the state.

The BBMP connection

Meanwhile, till the action plans are implemented, it would help to look at what action is being taken on the ground. Is the BBMP implementing the KSPCB’s guidelines and rules?

“We regularly ask the BBMP to clean up the city, stop burning waste, regulate construction and  road widening activities,  and train the 56,000 pourakarmikas in the city, who do not seem to be adequately equipped or skilled enough to dispose of the garbage. But they don’t implement what we suggest and these often remain in the grey area of ‘work-in-progress’,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

The official also alluded to the usual Bengalurean woe – the influx of immigrant populations, who “bring in bad practices” and say that this should be controlled and curbed.

Controlling vehicular pollution

KSPCB officials spoken to also admitted, however, that it is a difficult task for the BBMP, because for the past 15 years, there has been unprecedented and intemperate growth of the cities due to the IT boom. They point out that the expansion of the public transport system has failed to keep pace with the urgent requirements of a safe environment, they added. Planning has not kept pace with development.

“With the population of the city being 84.43 lakh according to Census 2011, the number of vehicles is bound to keep rising and add to emissions-related pollution all the time,” said one official. “I would advise the BBMP to just stop registration of private vehicles.”

Last year, a report released by the transport department noted that the number of registrations in the city have climbed to 70.28 lakh, ie 48.69 lakh two-wheelers and 13.58 lakh four-wheelers in just one decade. Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificates, which are supposed to be issued to vehicles, are not issued meticulously enough.

“But let me tell you – it’s a nation-wide problem. The certificates are not issued throughout the country,” he said, helpfully.

The KSPCB official added that if there is a reduction in the registration of vehicles with accompanying improvement in the public transport system, a lot of problems can be solved.

He also mentioned that the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Committee (BMTC) should be held responsible for high pollution rates, due to the diminishing fleet of buses pegged at high fares and poor last mile connectivity. Given the shooting Metro parking fees, an under-utilised and ill-connected suburban rail system, and poor fuel quality, vehicles are wreaking havoc on the air we breathe. By 2020, at least, the country should improve fuel quality and monitoring.

Commuters, who are the main complainers, are also violators. “Look at the traffic on the roads,” said the KSPCB official. “When they stop at a signal, they might have to wait for a few minutes. But how many of them turn off their engines?”

What could be the solution?

To tackle the problems, some measures have been taken that merit mention. These include constitution of a task force to advocate promotion of LPG-fuelled vehicles, asphalting roads, removing construction debris, monitoring public awareness campaigns and reaching out to citizens. Action plans have been drawn up based on management of health, air quality, community intervention and awareness creation.

Still, there is no single body that has the power or the responsibility to enforce these pollution control measures with final and punitive authority. The task is too vast and requires the coordination of too many stakeholders. In the absence of complete power or full responsibility accorded to a body, all efforts seem to be half-hearted and half-coordinated, and hence not effective enough.

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities, and explores the root causes for air pollution and solutions for improving air quality in Bengaluru and Chennai. This series has supported with a grant from Climate Trends.

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