In Delhi, no matter what time of the year, rain is always welcome. It cleanses the air of pollutants and makes the dust settle on the ground.
It has been part of the Delhi legend. Every summer, the hot, dry wind blowing from the Thar Desert in the west would hit Delhi like a typhoon of dust. This condition would persist till the monsoon rains lashed the city. Until not too long ago, this used to be only a seasonal phenomenon.
Now, you see a shroud of dust covering the skies all year round and long for a surprise shower. No matter how many rounds of dustings, it is just impossible to keep the house dirt-free. It is certainly not the seasonal desert sand we are dealing with.
Already the largest urban sprawl in India, Delhi has developed an amazing appetite for the brick and mortar. The city is an unending construction project with more roads, flyovers, pavements, metro lines, shopping malls, and offices coming up every day. In residential neighbourhoods, if it is not a single storey being converted into multi-storey ‘builder’ flats, there is always an extra room, an extra floor being added somewhere.
While it loves to build, Delhi doesn’t have a plan to deal with construction waste. According to one estimate, Delhi generates at least 4,000 tonnes of construction debris every day but the sole processing plant can deal with only 10% of it — mostly the more visible pieces such as concrete blocks, discarded tiles and hardware. The rest is dumped just anywhere.
Growing up in Delhi, I have rarely seen people bothering to remove the building material – sand, cement, mineralised quartzite (popularly known as the red Badarpur soil) or finer concrete – once the construction was over.
Today, much of Delhi’s ‘earth’ is made of construction dust. If you pick up a fistful, you’ll see how it slips out of your hand. Those who have a green patch at home would know how sandy and gritty the top soil has become. Many just buy sacks of earth to replenish their gardens.
But construction waste is not only in the earth we walk on but also the air we breathe. Last year, the civil engineering department of Jamia Millia Islamia and Central Pollution Control Board released a study on 19 construction sites in Delhi that found that areas where the air pollution index for PM10 was higher, there were more people suffering from respiratory diseases.
Exposure to construction dust affects breathing and respiratory systems, and damages lung tissues. Construction workers are at risk of developing silicosis if they breathe high quantities of concrete and rock dust. Demolition sites may release dust from asbestos that is known to cause Mesothelioma cancer and is banned in more than 50 countries, but not in India.
Last year, Beijing, which competes with Delhi on top of the global pollution chart, made it compulsory for all construction sites to install cameras so that authorities could assess how it was contributing to the city’s smog and punish companies that were using open trucks to ferry material or carried out outdoor construction on heavily polluted days. Contractors were told to place special funds for dust control in government-controlled bank account before construction began. Since last month, Beijing has also started levying construction dust pollution fees.
In Delhi, municipal laws to fine those who dump debris on public land are rarely invoked. There is zero monitoring of construction sites to check pollution. For years, the ecologically-sensitive Ridge forests and the Yamuna floodplains have been the city’s favourite dumping grounds.
Two years back, when the National Green Tribunal took up the matter, government agencies, including Delhi Metro and Central Public Works Department, turned out to be the biggest culprits.
Already, Delhi’s many ponds and water bodies have died under concrete rubble. The plan to set up more concrete-recycling plants is still gathering dust. The city, in the meantime, is gasping. It can no longer bet on a few drizzles of unseasonal rain to catch its breath.