If you were in Kolkata and decided to spend Christmas at Park Street (like everyone else in the city), then alcohol was not the only poison that was in your system.
The pollution level in the area was probably higher than your spirits, with particulate matter (PM) 2.5 hitting 400 at midnight. By Indian standards, that is six times the safe limit of this particular pollutant.
PM 2.5 (less than 2.5 microns in size) and PM 10 (less that 10 microns) are the chief pollutants across India. The former is thinner than a strand of hair and prolonged exposure to it can harm the lungs, heart, and brain.
To put this in context, the average PM 2.5 level in Delhi on the same day at the same time was 206.
But the reason Kolkata’s pollution situation is truly alarming is because in Delhi, at levels of 400, parents would be asking for schools to be shut down and political parties would be slinging mud at each other. There’d be campaigns, TV debates, and almost everyone on the streets would be wearing a mask.
In Mamata Banerjee’s Kolkata, however, most people still refer to the morning haze as “fog.”
While the city’s pollution statistics are dismal, what makes the situation altogether alarming is the lack of any emergency policies by the state on the issue. A study has found that respiratory diseases have been increasing during winters for the last 20 years. Yet, citizens continue to be unaware of the toxicity they’re inhaling. There are no masks in Kolkata, no campaigns, and pollution has never been on the electoral agenda.
Even at Similar Levels, Kolkata Pollution Affects Health More Than Delhi's
According to environmentalist and emission expert Somendra Mohan Ghosh, the effects of pollution on health are more fatal in Kolkata than Delhi. Factors like less open space, road space and green cover means residents in the city have very few spots where they can actually breathe clean air, making them more vulnerable.
“Greenery and open spaces matter because particulate matter settles on plants and disperses faster in open areas. There’s also less road space in Kolkata which means there’s more traffic congestion and cars are not using their fuel optimally. Partial combustion of fuel is the worst source of PM 2.5 and PM 10,” said Ghosh.
Research done by the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute in the city shows that residents are highly prone to cancer, high blood pressure and pulmonary diseases.
With statistics such as these, one would assume that pollution would be a raging debate in the city. But is it? No.
No Data From the Pollution Board In 2 Months
Presently, the only data available in the public domain for daily pollution levels is the one monitored by the American Embassy. The embassy calculates the Air Quality Index (AQI) based on data from just one monitor which is located in the embassy building. Moreover, the machine only calculates PM 2.5 levels and does not take into account other pollutants like PM 10, ozone, nitrous gases, etc.
The three automatic monitoring stations of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WPCB) have stopped showing real time data since November due to technical errors. Sources say that precious time (in what is the city’s most polluted season) was lost in floating a new tender and that these monitors may not be functional before early next year.
This means that there is no real-time government pollution data available to the public. The pollution board has 11 manual monitors but the data from those are erroneous, not extensive, and have been rejected by both the Central Pollution Control Board and environmentalists.
Unlike Delhi where pollution levels are made publicly available so that those most vulnerable can take adequate precaution, there is no such awareness in Kolkata nor is there any administrative will to create it. In fact, the peak PM 2.5 levels in the city were higher than that of Delhi all of last week, but neither the state government nor the municipality has said a word on the same.
Environmentalists and lawyers say no emergency pollution measures were ordered, nor has there been any action taken to improve air quality in the city, even after the World Heath Oorganization (WHO) named it the fourth most polluted metropolitan in the county in 2015.
2016 Study Shows Over 150% Rise In Diesel Vehicles, Yet No Checks Were Made
According to a 2016 study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on ambient air quality in Kolkata, diesel vehicles, considered to be a major source of pollution, is said to growing exponentially since 2010. Vehicle registrations increased by 8 percent in 2011, 11 percent in 2012, and a massive 158 percent in 2013.
A study carried out by researchers of University of Kolkata in 2013 shows that in contrast to the national trend, new diesel cars are 65 percent of new car sales in Kolkata. In fact, 99 percent of all commercially-driven vehicles in the city run on diesel.
Inspite of all these numbers, which have now been in the public domain for over a year, no measures have been taken to curb diesel pollution in the city, as PM 2.5 levels go upwards of 300 (‘very poor’ levels according to the Central Pollution Control Board) year after year.
There aren’t any pollution control mechanisms in Kolkata but air quality management mechanisms. There are no measures to monitor emissions from vehicles entering the city or even plying within the city. There are a few PUC (Pollution Under Control Certificate) check points, but their measuring mechanism is not accurate. Most people also go around the entire process by paying a few extra bucks.Dipanjan Majumdar, senior environment scientist with NEERI
Only about 10 percent of the buses used for public transport are under the state government, while the others are run by private operators. Therefore, a shift to CNG, like in Delhi, is also difficult. But the government has also not made an effort to increase buses under it.
Other sources of pollution like dust and garbage burning also go unchecked. In fact, there has also been no government research on the proportion of different polluting sources in the city. “The study on that is not even half way through,” said Majumder.
What Are They Trying to Hide?
Sunita Narain of the CSE hit out at the WPCB at an event on Wednesday, 27 December, criticising them for not putting real-time pollution data from the city in the public domain. “Are they trying to hide pollution when it is at its peak?” she asked.
The panel also discussed how it was shameful that such a thing would happen in a city where 90 percent of the citizens either walk, cycle or uses public transport.
Given the situation, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee should be embarrassed. She had unabashedly taken a dig at Prime Minister Modi when an international cricket match in Delhi had to be cancelled because of the smog.
“What happened to the Swachh Bharat campaign? Sri Lankan cricketers are playing with masks on the field in the capital. From political pollution to weather pollution, Delhi represents it all,” she had said.
Well, Ms. Banerjee, we would have you know that pollution levels in Delhi are showing a downward trend, whereas in Kolkata it is increasing by 10 percent every year. If you are unwilling to learn from Modiji, why not call your friend Kejriwal and take a few pollution-fighting tips?
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