Raj Kumar Jena lives in a slum close to Noapara metro station in Baranagar, Kolkata. Standing on a viaduct below the station, he watches trains chug into the city’s northern fringes. Under the concrete viaduct flows the Bagjola drainage canal, carrying blackish water full of household waste and emitting a putrid smell.
But more than the polluted canal, Jena says, it is the unbearable stench from the nearby garbage disposal ground that has made life hell for him and hundreds of other residents in the area. Situated about a kilometre from the metro station, the Baranagar dumping ground receives almost 500 tonnes of solid waste per day from the four municipalities of Dum Dum, North and South Dum Dum and Baranagar.
“Sometimes, it becomes difficult to walk around without covering our noses with handkerchiefs because of the stench that seems to be everywhere,” he complains. “Even the clothes we wear smell foul at times. We often face breathlessness, but are slowly becoming habituated to it.”
Animesh Banerjee*, 38, a government schoolteacher who lives in Pramod Nagar near the dumping ground claims cancer has been rapidly spreading in his neighbourhood and three people have died of the disease in the past year. “We have noticed that cancer is spreading fast in the area and some deaths have already happened,” he says.
It is no secret that severe air pollution is damaging the health of people living in Kolkata and its outskirts. Studies conducted by government as well as private organisations have found harmful pollutants wreaking havoc on the city’s air parameters.
Data from the West Bengal Pollution Control Board shows the city’s Air Quality Index is worsening, with PM 2.5 and PM 10 constituting a large chunk of harmful pollutants in the air. PM 2.5 – particulate matter up to 2.5 microns in diameter – is especially dangerous as the smaller particles penetrate into lungs and cause cardiovascular diseases leading to heart attacks, asthma and bronchitis. It can even impair brain development in children. PM 10 typically causes nasal and upper respiratory tract problems.
The Pollution Control Board has only two ambient air quality monitoring stations in Kolkata – one at Victoria Memorial and the other at the Rabindra Bharati University – but sustained readings from them show acute exposure of residents to hazardous air.
A key factor behind Kolkata’s abysmal air quality is its flawed waste management system. The Waste Management Rules, 2016 divide waste in six categories and lay down stringent rules for disposing each but they are hardly followed. Tonnes of waste without segregation continue to be dumped in landfills such as the one in Baranagar. The dumps continually catch fire and the billowing smoke injects more toxic contaminants to the already polluted air.
Ironically, despite the evident threat to environment and human health from such dumps, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation is searching for fresh grounds now that the Dhapa dump – where the city has been throwing its mixed waste since the 1980s – has been filled beyond capacity. Attempts at reduction and segregation at source are minimal.
As a pilot project, the municipality has begun distributing coloured bins in eight wards for segregation of waste. But in the absence of awareness among the city’s residents, such sporadic attempts are reduced to photo ops and have little impact on the overall waste scenario in landfills.
Also responsible for the deteriorating air in the city are vehicular emissions, burning of solid waste at dumping sites, indiscriminate construction, discharge of toxic waste from industrial units.
Vehicular emissions contribute nearly 60% of air pollution in mega cities, according to Somendra Mohan Ghosh, an auto emissions consultant. In Kolkata, he says, about 99% of commercial vehicles run on diesel.
In 1995, Ghosh petitioned the Calcutta High Court, seeking governmental action to tackle rising air pollution. The court constituted a 10-member committee including officials from the police, Pollution Control Board and environment department. The committee submitted its report in 2000, confirming rising pollution levels in the city.
There are around 6 lakh vehicles in South Kolkata, 13.7 lakh in Central Kolkata and 7 lakh in North Kolkata. On July 18, 2008, the Calcutta High Court banned commercial vehicles older than 15 years from the Kolkata Metropolitan Area, but activists allege the ban is being widely flouted due to the administration’s laxity.
“Checking is lax as the motor vehicles department lacks the required infrastructure for monitoring vehicles,” says Ghosh. “Even the Kolkata airport is not pollution free. Vehicles carrying cargo are run on diesel and petrol rather than on electric power as mandated by the central government. Many junk vehicles at the airport operating with diesel and petrol engines should be checked for clean transport management.”
Apart from landfills and vehicular emissions, many believe the construction boom, particularly over the past decade, has contributed greatly to the city’s air pollution.
A study by the non-profit Legal Initiative For Forest and Environment found the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority approved all construction projects in 2017. The authority held 21 meetings that year at which 97 projects across Bengal came up for scoping or appraisal. It granted environmental clearances to 40 projects, 15 of them in the building and construction sector.
“We found projects were rarely scrutinised on environmental grounds, especially with regard to air pollution,” says Kankana Das, an analyst at the non-profit. “Even where the question of environment arose, project proponents were directed to submit additional information and projects got deferred, but not rejected. Traffic snarls and road density factors were not kept in mind while clearing these projects.”
The environment authority rejects the charges. “After receiving the Project proposal, a detailed Project Appraisal is made by the State Expert Appraisal Committee in each case, with inputs from the subject matter specialists,” says the authority’s chairman, Ujjwal Bhattacharya. “A detailed list of stipulated conditions is prepared by the SEAC, which is then sent to the SEIAA. It is only after receiving the sanctioned plans, along with compliance or commitment to comply with the stipulated conditions during operation of the project, that the environmental clearance is issued.”
The Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016, framed by the central environment ministry, provide comprehensive guidelines on segregation, storage, collection, reuse, recycling, transportation, disposal of construction and demolition waste generated. But the rules are rarely followed in Kolkata.
The most telling impact of air pollution has been on the health of citizens. Doctors at the National Allergy Asthma Bronchitis Institute have found in ongoing research that incidence of obstructive airway diseases and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease has doubled to 40% in the past five years. They claim that 4 out of every 10 persons in the city are suffering from obstructive airways diseases.
“The bronchoscopy test shows that airway passages of patients are highly congested and full of mucopurulent secretions,” explains Dr AG Ghoshal, the institute’s medical director. “We can now confirm that air pollution has been directly leading to increases in mortality. The situation is worse in the congested areas of Kolkata.”
A comparison of age-adjusted incidence rates of lung cancer in India’s major cities also shows Kolkata at the top.
Awareness campaigns run by environmentalists seem to have struck a chord with the city’s ordinary residents, who are now more aware of the pollution menace than they were a few years ago.
“We are constantly trying to make people aware that air pollution has an insidious and disastrous effect on our health and quality of life,” says Ajay Mittal, founder of Kolkata Clean Air, a community-led initiative that seeks to make Kolkata one of the most liveable and climate friendly cities in the world.
Many residents now think of raising the issue of pollution with their prospective candidates before casting their votes. “Politicians seek our votes by making lofty promises but they do nothing,” complains Sujay Verma, a hardware engineer from Girish Park, North Kolkata. “The government has been taking no concrete action in checking emissions from vehicles. We will definitely raise the issue when the candidate of our area comes seeking votes.”
None of the political parties, however, seem to be taking the issue seriously, with the ruling Trinamool not even mentioning tackling pollution in its manifesto. In Pramod Nagar, near the Baranagar dump, Banerjee says none of the candidates who visited the area during the parliamentary election campaign made notable mention of this critical problem.
There is one independent candidate, though, who appears to have designed much of his campaign around the issue of pollution. Niraj Agarwal, a cyber security expert, is contesting from South Kolkata and talking about addressing pollution and improving education and preventive healthcare systems.
“The level of pollution is rising in the city and it is high time people stepped forward and took action,” says Agarwal, 37, who claims to be receiving support from even his opponents on these issues. “I realised that contesting polls could be the best way to raise awareness on these issues as controlling pollution levels will obviously bring down expenditure on healthcare as well. I am conducting door-to-door campaigns and trying to explain the ill-effects of pollution to the people.”
Meanwhile, officials at the Pollution Control Board are reticent about speaking on the matter, citing cases filed by the environmentalist Subhas Dutta. He has filed several cases at the National Green Tribunal regarding air pollution caused by road repairs, fires at the Dhapa dumping ground, plying of old vehicles and burning of solid waste.
“The matter is sub judice and I cannot say anything,” said Kalyan Rudra, the board’s chairman. Activists, however, dismissed Rudra’s statement as a ploy to evade questions about the government’s failure to curb rising levels of air pollution.
Activists seeking to generate awareness about air pollution emphasise the creation of alternative modes of transport as a solution. “The time has come when people should start using alternative systems of transport like trams, electrical buses, e-rickshaws,” says Mittal. “The frequency of trams should be increased and commuters should opt for metro trains to reduce their dependency on private vehicles and public transport emitting toxic gases.”
Some progress has certainly been made. Twenty electric buses were introduced on three routes in February and there is a plan to have 80 electric buses in total plying on 10 routes. But until the combination of factors behind the toxic air in the city are addressed in a planned, coordinated and urgent manner, this may turn out to be a case of too little, too late.
The name has been changed on request to protect identity.
This article first appeared on Citizen Matters.