City’s pollution inching towards disastrous levels

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City’s pollution inching towards disastrous levels

Avishek Sengupta | October 14, 2017 12:47 hrs

Guwahati, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, will soon have to follow Delhi’s lead with regard to pollution if no steps are taken at the earliest.


In a bid to curb escalating air pollution due to burning of fire crackers during Diwali, the Supreme Court had, on October 9, banned fire-crackers in Delhi–NCR (National Capital Region) until November 10 as the festivities throw up an “abysmal” level of air pollution in the winters. Last year, Delhi faced its heaviest smog – a mix of fog with smoke and other pollutants.


Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, had last year introduced the odd-even scheme to regulate the private-owned cars after the Delhi High Court instructed the state government to come up with comprehensive measures to check the “alarming” pollution level.


Experts reveal that Guwahati’s pollution scenario, escalated by the increasing numbers of vehicles and with the setting up of new industries, will soon reach the same level.


A further complication is the city’s water pollution due to unmanaged dumping of wastes at Boragoan, a locality near the Ramsar Site, Deepor Beel, that is polluting the soil and the ground water alike.


According to a study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated in September 2017, Guwahati stands in the “High” category with 85.6 Pollution Index on a scale of 100.


The report based on a mass-opinion based data had revealed that air pollution, drinking water pollution and inaccessibility are marked at high category, while dissatisfaction with garbage disposal and uncleanliness are marked at very high category.

Air pollution in city: a predicament in making


According to the WHO report, air pollution level in the city is 75 out of 100, which puts the city into the high category of pollution. The report however mentioned that PM10 and PM2.5 – suspended particulates smaller than 10 micron and 2.5 micron respectively in aerodynamic diameter – which are the primary particle pollutants, are 92 and 49 per 1000 microgram.


There are basically six atmospheric pollutants or components of Air Pollution Index (API), namely sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), PM 10, PM 2.5, carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3) that are measured at the monitoring stations throughout each city. The Pollution Control Board of Assam, however, in 2014, had revealed a study based on four-year monitoring data in which they mentioned that the air pollution due to gaseous pollutants in the city is much below the permissible limits.


The board still maintained that the current pollution scenario in the city in 2017 is not that grim but the Diwali season propels the city’s Air Pollution Index above the permissible limits.


“Guwahati’s condition is not as grim as Delhi, but it is still worrisome. While Delhi reaches a whooping 700 in API during the Diwali season, Guwahati, despite having ample reserves of flora in and around, too reaches above 300 in the index. Guwahati’s normal API is within the permissible limit of 100-130,” Gokul Bhuyan, senior environmental engineer of PCBA said.


As per the National Air Quality index set by the Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the 51-100 API is considered ‘good’ while Guwahati falls in lightly polluted category of 101 to 150; New Delhi and Mumbai fall under the highly polluted category of above 300 API.


Bhuyan said that the burning of fire crackers should not be encouraged as it emits harmful gaseous pollutants – sulphuric dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.


“The permissible level of these gases in Guwahati is 50% lesser than the rest of the country. But fire crackers burning might take this to a higher level,” Bhuyan said. Guwahati’s gaseous pollution level is below 40 while the permissible limit is 80.


The larger problem is the particle pollution caused by vehicles and other construction works in and around the city that attributes to most of the respiratory diseases in the city, Bhuyan said.


It should be mentioned that according to a report published by Indian Association of Health Administrators, there has been a rapid increase in asthma cases in recent years in many parts of India.


“In Assam, 3% of the population was reported to be suffering from asthma. As of 2014, the reported level of asthma is 3,278 per 1,00,000 population in Assam, which is higher than the level reported for India as a whole which is 2,468 per 1,00,000 population,” the report mentioned.


Rajan Kumar Chakravarty, one of the researchers behind the study said, “Concentration of asthma patients is highest in Kamrup (Metro) in comparison to other districts in the state.”


Gautam Khaund, a city-based Pulmonologist said, “Most of the heart and respiratory disorders that are not inflicted by smoking are caused by the concentration of black carbon in the respiratory system.” Black Carbon is a suspended particle emitted when carbon-compound fossil fuels such as coal, petrol, diesel etc are burnt.


District administration to regulate sale of fire crackers


Taking heed from the Supreme Court’s judgment banning fire crackers in New Delhi–NCR during Diwali, the Kamrup (Metro) district administration will also regulate the sale of fire crackers in the city.


Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup (M), M. Angamuthu told G Plus, “Diwali crackers cannot be sold here and there without prior permission. Both wholesalers and retailers will have to take permission for selling crackers.”


The sellers will have to take a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the Fire Department, Guwahati Municipal Corporation, Police, Pollution Control Board and District Administration.


“There will be designated places and only the certified sellers will be able to sell the fire crackers. Disciplinary action will be taken against anyone flouting the guidelines and not having the required permissions,” Angamuthu said.


The PCBA informed that they have already set a guideline for the sale of crackers.


“We have put emphasis on low smoke crackers and will also check the ingredients used in the crackers. For example, the crackers containing Strontium or heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury will not be allowed,” PCBA engineer Gokul Bhuyan, said.


However, regulations were set by the district administration to thwart the sale of illegal China-made crackers last year too, but were openly sold anyway.


“Several raids are being conducted at shops in the city already and the district administration will ensure that the sellers follow the regulations,” Angamuthu said when asked about the imposition of the restrictions.

“Our lives matter too”


The PCBA, through a public interest notice issued on October 5, had directed temporary shutdown of industrial units located within one-kilometre radius on both sides of the National Highway from the LGBI Airport to Khanapara junction and around two kilometre-radius of the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Sarusajai, during the FIFA Under-17 World Cup which is being held here from October 8 to 25.


While the move was welcomed by all sections, the residents of industrial areas expressed the need of such moves to be imposed throughout the year.


“It seems like the government is aware of the toxicity of fumes coming out of the industries, but has not acted until now. Now that, foreign players are coming and the reputation of the entire city is at stake, they came up with this move. Their lives matter, but what about the thousands of families living in the vicinity who are inhaling the polluted air throughout the year? Our lives matter too,” Digvijay Borbhuyan, a resident of Nalapara area that falls within the pollution radius, said.


Demands for the shutdown of big industries in and around the city that emit toxic wastes in solid, liquid and gaseous forms have been raised for quite some time in the city. Besides several micro, small and medium industries, the Guwahati Carbon Ltd that manufactures calcined petroleum coke and carbon electrode paste, is causing most of the pollution in the area. Allegations are that the industry is dumping its toxic wastes in the Deepor Beel.


“At least one out of every five children in this region has respiratory problem. Even we adults find it difficult to breathe around the industrial areas. We have to put on air fresheners in our homes. Whereas these last for about six months, here, we need to change them every two months,” Ismail Hussain, a resident of Pub Borbari said.


When the PCBA was asked regarding the same, Bhuyan said, “The pollution from industries is not much of a concern here in Guwahati. Most of the industries in and around the city are micro, small or medium industries. These don’t emit much pollutant. However, the areas in the vicinity of the industries face concentration of pollutions. It is mostly due to unplanned setting up of these units,” Bhuyan said.


“It is true that the Deepor Beel’s water quality is depleting, but there is no indication that can point to a particular unit or house to take action against them,” Bhuyan said.


Demand to draft policies for industrial waste management


Conservationists and experts moved Dispur to chart out a comprehensive policy to regulate the waste management of the industries in and around the city.


Greater Kamrup, including both Rural and Metro, has as many as 21 industrial units in which there is one large industry – Guwahati Refinery at Noonmati and at least 42 medium production units besides several small and micro units.


“The city needs a comprehensive waste management policy. These industries are dumping their wastes without any regulation. In other states, there are certain guidelines to be followed before dumping. Most of the wastes from these industries are either toxic or at least non-biodegradable. These wastes need to be scientifically processed and the toxic part needs to be separated. Then, there are designated places for dumping of these wastes,” Mirza Rahman, a river expert and water conservationist said.


Jayaditya Purkaystha, secretary of Help Earth, a Guwahati-based NGO said, “Due to dumping of industrial wastes in particular and other garbage in general, the fauna in and around the city are getting badly affected. The Greater Adjutant Stork, commonly known as Hargilla, is on its way to extinction. Deepor Beel, which used to attract migratory birds every year, has become so polluted that very migratory birds come now. The amphibians and the aquatic animals are the worst affected. Without a policy to regulate waste management soon, Guwahati will have only humans and diseases.”


Moloy Barua, president of another city-based NGO, Early Birds, stressed on drafting a plan to not only regulate waste management but to restrict the setting up of industrial units in the city.


“Guwahati is confined by the Brahmaputra River on one side and bracketed by hills and forest lands on all fronts. There is not much scope for the city to spread and that is why, city planning is very important. We understand that industrialisation, to a certain extent, is also important, but not at the cost of our ecosystem. The government should divide the city into different zones and accordingly allot lands. Now, industries are mushrooming anywhere and creating pollution,” Barua said.


Boragaon dumping area not scientific, say experts


What that used to be the threshold to Deepor Beel and a must-visit location for ornithologists from the world over is now a dumping ground for the city’s waste.


After travelling for about a kilometre along the Vigyan Path - a detour to the right about 4.8 kms along the National Highway 37 towards Khanapara – one reaches the disposal site of the city’s waste which is situated virtually along the banks of Deepor Beel, a wetland which was declared Ramsar Site, one of the 25 in India, for sheltering more than 219 species of birds including more than 70 migratory species.


“It is obvious. Dumping of waste in this area will directly affect the ecosystem there. And yet, the government is blissfully negligent about the damages,” activist Rahman said.


He said the dumping area is unscientific and the GMC should have conducted a proper study before setting up one.


“It is true that this area is away from the city. But they should also look into this wetland’s ecological importance. Also, the Deepor Beel, besides being the source of the Burha Bharalu River, is the largest water body and contributes to the ground water that runs under the city. Polluting this area will automatically pollute the ground water,” Rahman said.


A study conducted by Aaranyak, an Assam-based conservation-related NGO, revealed that Deepor Beel, which once recorded a count of 19,000 water birds in a day that included some of the of the globally threatened species of birds like Spot Billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), Lesser Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos javanicus), Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri), Pallas' Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), Greater Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos dubius), currently receives only 2000-3000 birds every day during the winter season.


“The migratory birds don’t change their tracks. Most of them only know one location and don’t go around exploring. There had been instances of avian like Migratory Water Fowl, the Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus) regularly migrating here during the winters from Siberia and dying here. All of these could have been avoided if the dumping ground had not been set up at Boragaon. There are other means of pollution there, but Boragaon attributes the bulk to it,” Purkaystha said.

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