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How Lucknow Became One Of India’s Most Polluted Cities


This post is part of theYKA Climate Action Fellowship, a 10-week integrated bootcamp to work on stories that highlight the impact of climate change on India’s most marginalized. Click here to find out more and apply.

By Sucheta Chaurasia

According to the World Air Quality Report 2020, Lucknow is presently the ninth most polluted city in the world with pm 2.5 concentrations docked at 86.2 µg/m3 – 11 times more than WHO limits. The city suffered an estimated economic loss of Rs 8,001 crore ($1.1billion) due to bad air quality, and 6700 deaths in 2020. The air quality in the city is so bad that studies estimate that its residents could lose 10.3 years of their life expectancy on average if the pollution persists. 

Lucknow has become one of the most polluted cities in the world.

In 2020 alone, air pollution in the city caused 20 avoidable deaths in a day. In winters, the problem becomes more apparent as air quality reaches toxic levels. But how did this come to be? And how did a city once known for its charm and hospitality become one of the dirtiest and deadliest in the world? 

Causes Of The Air Pollution

According to the 2011 census, the population of Lucknow has risen by more than 25 percent since 2001.  And while the city has shown phenomenal growth in its area too – from 143 sq km in 2001 to 310 sq km in 2011 – development has neither happened sustainably nor has it been able to keep up with the needs of the burgeoning population. 

For example, Lucknow presently has 8100 people living her square kilometer in its urban parts, as against 690 people per square kilometer recorded at the state level.

Researchers who have studied various aspects of air pollution in the city have identified particulate matter as the main air pollutant in the city, with deterioration in air quality primarily getting caused due to unchecked vehicular pollution and rampant construction.

Presently, Lucknow has more than 18 lakh vehicles, and this number is increasing at an average rate of about 9 percent every year. From 2001 to 2011, the city recorded a growth of approximately 25 percent in population and a corresponding 160 percent growth in the number of vehicles.

Also affecting the air quality in the city is the increase in construction activities in the last few years including construction being undertaken for metro rail, roads, flyovers construction, and multi-story apartment complexes. For example, the construction of private apartments, flats, and buildings alone has increased by 300 percent in the last two years.

An increase in industrial activities, increased energy consumption, burning of biomass and garbage have also resulted in a decrease in the quality of the city’s ambient air.  Besides the four industrial corridors that have at least 155 industries producing hazardous emissions, 255 brick kilns are also in operation around Lucknow City – contributing to pollution levels.

High traffic densities and abnormal meteorological factors ( Lucknow falls in the Indo- Gangetic zone – a particularly vulnerable zone) –  are the two other factors adversely influencing the ambient air quality of Lucknow, especially in winters.

Industry is a major pollutant for the city. Representational Image.

Lucknow’s proposed master plan 2031 envisages that the area of the city will further increase to 654 sq km by the inclusion of 197 villages, seeing a projected population rise of 65 lakh. This will involve not just changing land use plans of existing open/ agricultural areas to residential, commercial, or industrial areas, but also mean that unless some thought is put into the city’s urban planning, the emissions will likely increase due to an increase in population as well as activities causing pollution.

You can find a graphic representation of Lucknow’s air quality here.

What Is Being Done About It?

Along with 14 others in Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow has been identified as a non-attainment city (i.e. a city which does not meet the fixed standard of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) under the National Clean Air Programme (NACAP)  by the Central Board Of Pollution Control for five years now. Under the NCAP, cities are required to prepare city-specific clean air plans as a primary mitigation measure for reducing particulate concentration by 20 to 30 percent by 2024. 

Under this, The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) has come up with an action plan for the next 10 years to counter the declining air quality of the city to reduce pollution levels by 35 percent, 50 percent, and 70-80 percent in the next three, five and ten years respectively. 

While the short-term plan includes measures like conducting awareness drives and campaigns against pollution and installation of ambient air quality monitoring systems; the long-term view involves maintaining at least 33% of forest cover in the city as well as switching to bioethanol as a transport fuel in the city.

The Way Ahead

Since the implementation of the action plan in 2018, the city’s air quality has improved slightly, but the extreme health hazard remains. 

According to an independent CEEW-Urban Emissions study that assesses the 102 publicly available clean air plans, Lucknow’s plan currently lists 56 measures across 17 different agencies. The study also found that among the 15 city clean air plans in UP, the state pollution control board is in charge of only 20 percent of the mitigation activities, while 44 percent comes under the ambit of municipal corporations and urban local bodies (ULBs) and 18 percent under the department of transport. About 50 percent of actions fall under multiple agencies-  something that could fragment accountability

Experts have also observed a lack of proper and sustained enforcement of the measures mentioned in the plan. According to experts, it is the need of the hour to expedite the plan’s implementation and ensure greater transparency regarding its progress for all stakeholders.

Currently, UPPCB is planning to implement a grid-level action plan, using a methodology developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur to manage the air quality at a micro-unit level. As per the plan, Lucknow city will be divided into grids, each measuring 2 km by 2 km each. This is aimed at gathering more detailed information on the air quality area-wise so that the information can be used to and then prioritize the areas that need immediate attention. 

For the implementation of the plan, 45 crores have been granted by the Finance Commission for the implementation of this plan. The UPPCB has also undertaken projects for creating a green cover around the city. This would include the development of greenbelts along the highways, landfill sites, and areas such as that around brick kilns. 

While these measures will no doubt be beneficial if they are implemented, it remains to be seen how soon that will be. 

Feature image credits: Ajay Goyal/Flickr
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