India’s smaller cities are making news for all the wrong reasons. Ghaziabad, Allahabad, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Kanpur, Khurja and Jamshedpur are among the world’s most polluted cities.
Over half of the world’s most polluted cities are in India and a majority of them are emerging towns. “Ranking cities based on pollution levels shows that it’s not the big metros now but the small cities and towns that are rapidly scaling the pollution ladder,” says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, associate director, Centre for Science and Environment.
A study by Kanpur’s GSVM Medical College showed lower lung function among people living in more polluted neighbourhoods of Vikas Nagar and Juhilal Colony than the less polluted parts of town. In Lucknow, bronchial asthma is common in children living in polluted areas due to exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic byproducts of fuel burning (both fossil and biomass).In Bikaner, 87% taxi drivers have lung impairment, as do traffic policemen in Amritsar.
The consequence of rising air toxins in smaller towns can be analysed from a study by the Mumbai-based Institute of Population Sciences, which reports about 18,000 pre-mature deaths and 1.7 crore cases of illness each year in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata because of poor air quality. Of these, 3,000 deaths take place in Delhi.
Delhi is the only metro in the top 10 most polluted cities in India in 2009.
But towns such as Ghaziabad and Firozabad, which entered the dirty city ranking for the first time in 2007, are shooting up faster. “Air pollution is a new challenge in smaller towns,” says SP Gautam, chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
Substantial public money had been spent in the last decade for cleaning air pollution in big cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, with the introduction of CNG and public transport such as the metro rail.
Within the same period, the number of vehicles in smaller towns such as Agra and Satna has doubled, but the road size has remained same . “More time on the road means higher air pollution, putting those within a one-km radius at highest risk,” said a senior scientist at the Delhi-based Central Road Research Institute.
According to the Health Effects Institute, respirable suspended particulate matter or (PM 10) of 200 ug/m3 increases premature deaths because of air pollution by 3%.CPCB data shows that many smaller cities fall in this bracket. "This indicates that on some days of the year, the PM10 level is over 400, which is highly critical for health," said Chowdhury. The national standard for PM 10 is 80 ug/m3.
The Centre now wants to clean up smaller towns under the 12th five-year plan. But, with the availability of resources unlikely to increase in the next plan period, the government will have to depend on the private sector to invest.
Investing for cleaner air can save a lot of expenditure on health — the Institute of Economic Growth and Bhimrao Ambedkar College found that Kanpur alone can save as much as R 21.3 crore in health expenditure annually.