We breathe more poison than Delhi

Delhi is the country’s pollution capital but Calcuttas are breathing in more toxic air because of higher exposure, a study has shown. Conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the survey reveals that the pollution level has leapt by over 60 per cent between 2010 and 2013. Supreme Court directives, coupled with chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s experiment with the odd-even formula, have sharpened the edge of Delhi’s pollution battle. But Calcutta remains unmoved. Metro looks at the problem and possible solutions.                                       

BEWARE THE SHROUD THAT ENVELOPS OUR CITY

 The Parama flyover wrapped in smog. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

Smog is more common in Calcutta than fog because of the high pollution level   Fog occurs when water droplets remain suspended in air   Pollutants mix with fog and it becomes smog   Vehicle emissions and smoke are the two most common pollutants that cause smog

Why is Calcutta’s air so bad, though it has fewer cars than Delhi?

Calcutta has only a fifth of the number of vehicles in Delhi. But Calcutta’s road space is much smaller, which pushes up vehicle density and, therefore, pollution. Besides, Calcutta is the country’s diesel capital. Diesel pollutes more than petrol.

How to tackle the diesel menace?

The state government should try to bring compressed natural gas (CNG) to the city, says Anumita Roy Choudhury of the CSE. Delhi has converted commercial passenger vehicles to CNG.

What are the chances of getting CNG to Calcutta?

The government has shown no interest. Since 2009, CNG is available in Asansol, 200km from the city. It requires a pipeline to be built to bring it to Calcutta. Or else, Calcutta needs to be linked to the Gas Authority of India Ltd’s pipeline network. In 2007, the gas company planned to build five pipelines to take CNG across the country. All have been completed except the Jagadishpur-Haldia line that would have brought CNG to Calcutta.

Why is there no move to put Calcutta on the map?

There is no pressure from the state, nor any court order. The last clean-up in Calcutta occurred in 2008 when the high court ordered banning of 15-year-old commercial vehicles and conversion of auto-rickshaws to LPG. That order too has been implemented only in the Calcutta Police zone and not in all of the Calcutta metropolitan area.

Is there any hope of a court order to bring CNG?

Environment activist Subhash Datta has moved the green tribunal but there has been little movement so far.

As that’s not going to happen in a hurry, is there anything else that can be done?

Yes, says Datta, pointing to what he calls low-hanging fruit. Make sure that pollution checking is strictly enforced for commercial vehicles and road space cleared of shops and hawkers to speed up vehicular movement.

Easier said than done?

Evidence so far shows that to be correct. “Have you ever seen a truck or bus and even a taxi undertaking auto emission checking?” asks emissions expert S.M. Ghosh.

What then is the way ahead?

A bunch of Supreme Court orders already exists for Delhi. They are relevant for Calcutta, too. Let’s take them one by one.

Order I: Commercial vehicles not bound for Delhi not to enter the capital.

Equally applicable to Calcutta where such vehicles push up night-time pollution. To stop trucks from entering Calcutta, a terminal was set up on the outskirts at Dhulagarh but it remains largely unused because of official indifference. All it needs is a nudge, perhaps a shove.

Order II: Doubling of environment compensation charge on commercial vehicles for entering Delhi.

Finance minister Amit Mitra should find this interesting.

Order III: Diesel-run SUVs with engine capacity of 2000cc and above not to be registered till March 31, 2016.

As the country’s diesel capital, Calcutta may consider this. An administrative decision can see it through.

Order IV: Commercial vehicles over 10 years old not to ply in Delhi.

Even the 2008 high court order banning 15-year-old vehicles has proved hard to enforce in Calcutta. Political will in the face of transport lobby pressure likely to be in short supply.

Order V: Delhi government to immediately repair pavements and procure vacuum cleaning vehicles to control dust.

In Calcutta, one is likely to hear: Show us the money.

Order VI: Enforcement agencies to ensure curtains and other dust-control devices are used at construction sites.

Construction, the only business in town, generates about 30 per cent of the particulate (tiny particles) pollution in Calcutta. “We do not have the infrastructure to monitor,” admits a pollution board official. “Let’s say we have no role in this,” adds a CMC official.

Order VII: No municipal waste to be burnt.

Burning of waste is already banned but even municipal workers do it.

Should Calcutta opt for Delhi’s formula of odd-numbered cars on odd days and even numbers on even days?

This can only be an emergency step in times of acute pollution and never be a long-term solution.

What then is a long-term solution?

The only answer is a public transport system that will encourage people to use it instead of cars. It must offer convenient and quick connections – Metro, bus, tram and waterways – to most points in the city and be affordable and comfortable.

Simultaneously, it must be made expensive to drive cars into the city centre by way of congestion charge and high parking fees. In other words, follow the system in place in European cities, says a transport environment expert.