Tackling air quality crisis: a chance for Bengaluru to lead the way

Vehicular pollution is the top contributor to air pollution in the congested city of Bengaluru. Attempts to curb air pollution need to be stepped up now, to avoid a future crisis.

Air pollution has been a cause of worry globally. Economic growth of cities has influenced the spatial patterns of emission sources, directly impacting public health. Bengaluru’s rapid development and changing landscape followed by lack of planning has led to several urban concerns, with air pollution being a crucial one.

Contributors to air pollution are unique to each city. Vehicular pollution is among those concerns that contributes maximum to air pollution in Bengaluru. Data indicates that 60-70% of the emissions is said to originate from vehicles. This makes the city the only one in India to be most impacted by vehicular pollution.

Bengaluru is also impacted by the inadequate urban governance causing issues such as treatment of waste and usage of diesel generators for electricity. Adding to these specific concerns, the discourse and existing reforms around Bengaluru’s air has been limited.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, 14 areas in Bengaluru including Central Silk Board Junction, ITPL Whitefield Road and Domlur Circle, which are key commercial areas in the city, have harmful particulate matter levels exceeding the national standards by a significant margin. A study conducted by Urban Emissions also shows that Bengaluru’s pollution levels at three times the WHO’s safety limit.

Let’s not be a Delhi!

Before spelling specific measures required to tackle the declining quality of air in Bengaluru, it would be worthy to look at the lessons learnt by Delhi in its attempt to combat air pollution. In the capital, one could notice that responses to declining air quality came as a knee-jerk reaction yielding measures that were too little too late. Measures such as banning of construction and usage of diesel generators and deployment of green marshals to enforce regulations had little impact on the overall air quality.

These instances indicate that solving air pollution must be a continuous effort supported by robust institutions, latest technology, citizen participation and progressive regulations. The current situation in Bengaluru is an opportunity to address air pollution at an early stage and set the regulatory benchmark for other states to follow.

Why are regulatory institutions weak?

The Air Pollution Act of 1981 allows for State Governments to regulate air pollution with the considerations of local factors. Unlike other environmental laws in India, which concentrate powers with the Central Governments, the provisions pertaining to air pollution provide sufficient scope for local authorities to develop innovative regulations.  However due to poor capacity of state level regulatory institutions, local governments have failed to realise the true intent of the law.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) suffers from a deficit of manpower, infrastructure and competence. There are 60% vacancies from its sanctioned strength forcing each technical officer to monitor the emission norms of up to 200 factories. This certainly impacts the quality of checks.

In addition, the manner of implementation of statutes and regulations is  different across state PCBs, indicating a lack of certainty in governance. Reports have shown that lack of comprehensive guidelines on implementation strategy causes the pollution control boards to enforce the rules as they see fit.

Further, crucial information on air quality is collated using archaic methods, which restricts the ability to understand the problem fully. To address some of these concerns, there is a need for strong political intent to view PCBs as an important institution in urban development and involve it in key decision-making processes.

The process of strengthening the institution must be followed by efficient decision making process. A subject such as air pollution is impacted by the working of several authorities in diverse fields (Urban, Transport, Agriculture and Heavy Industries). For efficient governance, there is a need for all relevant authorities to holistically work and prevent decision-making in silos. This nature of governance will also allow effective introduction of new technologies and the improve citizen participation.

Policy and regulatory challenges in Bengaluru

Emissions from vehicular pollution is said to be a key contributor to air pollution in Bengaluru. This is evidenced by the fact that Bengaluru is the most congested city in India. Some of the key solutions mooted to address these challenges include a robust parking policy and revision of motor vehicle taxes. Currently in Bengaluru, lack of stringent regulations on street parking and inability to fully charge for utilising public space contribute to the increase in personal transport purchase.

The Karnataka Motor Vehicle Taxation Act 1957, which taxes motor vehicles during the time of registration, currently follows an archaic procedure of taxation. The Act makes the size of vehicle a critical component of the tax calculation process. This structure requires urgent revision, with a need to develop a linkage between motor vehicle tax and emission levels.

Another characteristic feature of air pollution in Bengaluru is the presence of suspended road dust. This is due to the large scale construction activities in the city. In Karnataka, this concern has been specifically addressed in the latest Municipality Building Bye Laws of 2017 which are applicable to urban local bodies in Karnataka. However, BBMP continues to follow its 2003 building bye laws which does not identify road dust as a concern. In absence of any specific provision, one of the primary contributors of air pollution goes unregulated in the city.

Addressing Bengaluru’s critical air pollution problems

Improving Bengaluru’s air must become a priority- the situation in Delhi must provide authorities sufficient impetus to undertake early course correction. The first step towards cleaning air pollution in Bengaluru is to create an enabling environment for course correction and strengthen the decision making institutions. This structure will pave way for preparation of the much needed city wide action plan to combat air pollution.

Citizen Matters and Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru have collaborated to write a series of articles and organise panel discussions on urban governance. This article is the third installment of the series, Bengaluru Solutions.

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