Kolkata’s Air Is Toxic, But Where Is The Public Outrage?

Posted by Atasi Ghosh in Environment, Society
January 16, 2018

In 2015, India made a mark in the international media for all the wrong reasons. A New York Times correspondent had narrated his ordeal of bringing up his children in India, due to Delhi’s abysmal air quality. His account of his son’s struggle with asthma influencing his decision to pack up and leave highlighted how air pollution is something that affects the rich and poor alike. However, instead of public outrage at the catastrophic air pollution levels, many miffed Indians reacted with a series of tweets shaming the NYT correspondent for his sense of entitlement rather than addressing the issue in hand: the cost of living with pollution.

As per the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) latest database ‘Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution 2016’, India has the most polluted cities in the world. Out of the 100 most polluted cities in the world, India has 33, while it also contributes 22 cities to the top 50 most polluted ones. India topped the list of countries with pollution-related deaths in 2015, with 2.51 million people dying prematurely in the country due to diseases linked to pollution. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s report ‘Environmental Outlook to 2050’ predicts that the number of deaths caused by air pollution is expected to skyrocket, killing more than 6 million people per year by 2050.

The past few years have seen numerous front-page headlines of Delhi’s infamous smog. Delhi being the capital, gets maximum coverage. However, other cities are not far behind. Kolkata, which has often been criticised for lagging behind the other metros regarding development, has certainly been giving Delhi tough competition as to which one can take the coveted crown of being the pollution capital of India. In recent times Kolkata has achieved the dubious distinction of surpassing Delhi’s deadly pollution on several occasions.

A joint study by the British Deputy High Commission, UKAID and Kolkata Municipal Corporation released last year, found that the city was already the fifth highest among major cities in the country emitting 14.8 million tons of Green House Gas (GHG) and also the second highest contributor in terms of per capita CO2 emission, producing 3.29 tonnes of CO2 per capita. The study also found that around 70% of the city’s 15 million inhabitants suffer from some form of respiratory problems caused by air pollution. A quick glance at the US Consulate’s hourly air pollution site will show that the count of PM2.5, the fine particulate matter in the air that flows easily into the lungs unchecked and passes into the bloodstream, is often above 400 which is categorised as hazardous. It is six times the Indian permissible limit of 60 micrograms per cubic meter (g/m³). The WHO recommendation of the ambient PM2.5 level is 25 micrograms/m3.

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 have grown exponentially since 2010. Vehicle registrations increased by 8% in 2011, 11% in 2012, and a massive 158% in 2013 with 99% of all commercial vehicles in Kolkata being diesel ones. To make matters worse, the West Bengal Pollution Control Board has stopped automatic monitoring of air quality index (AQI) in Kolkata. The US Consulate is the only body maintaining air pollution readings in the city at present. Experts say worsening pollution levels have a more adverse effect on Kolkata than Delhi, because of the high density of population here and lower green cover (less than 5% of the city’s area).

So, where is the public outrage over air pollution spiralling out of control? It is indeed tragic that in a country where people can take to the streets to protest against movies and fictional movie characters, there is no protest to demand cleaner air.

The Supreme Court of India has held the right to clean air as a fundamental right. But judgments are not alone to solve the crisis. It requires collective action by everyone starting from pooling cars to discouraging diesel vehicles and switching to cleaner fuels like CNG. Electric cars are the talk of the town in the west, but India has a long way to go to make a shift to electric vehicles. However, the goal of the hour should be to switch over public vehicles to electric ones or at least to cleaner fuels. Air pollution is not an immediate killer, it may not kill you instantly, but it will surely kill you slowly and steadily.

Polluted air affects children the most, as they have underdeveloped lungs. In India, around 35% of school-going children suffer from poor lung health. Is this the world we want to leave behind for the next generation? Giving a good quality of life to your children is not about swanky cars, dinners at 5-star hotels, fancy gadgets, etc. It is about giving them an environment where they can breathe and be healthy and happy. Air pollution not only leads to physical disorders but also mental health problems such as stress, depression, anxiety, lower IQ in children, irreversible damage to children’s brains, etc.

There have been recent reports of foreign diplomats leaving India and even requesting a “hardship” posting for Delhi which is usually reserved for conflict zones. For a country which prides itself on its nationalism, where is the nationalism and pride now?

Instead of playing the blame game as was evident during the recent test match in Delhi where Sri Lankan players fell sick and couldn’t play because of the poor air quality, we should accept that we have a problem here. Any solution to a problem needs the acknowledgement that you have a problem in the first place. We simply cannot afford to be complacent anymore. To those who think we will eventually get used to it, no, human bodies do not get accustomed to poor air. If that had been the case, we could have lived on other planets.

Kolkatans need to wake up to the fact that Delhi isn’t the only polluted city in India – we are in an equally precarious condition. Irrespective of party lines, ideologies and backgrounds, we must come together and fight for cleaner air. If not, our dream to be a developed nation will forever remain a dream, as a country which gifts a gas chamber to its future generation will perish rather than flourish.