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The air we breathe: Your tomorrow could look like...

mumbai Updated: Nov 30, 2016 09:28 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Badri Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Imagine a Mumbai with green roads and clear air(Siddhant Jumde)

Your city is among the 16 most polluted in India, choked with smog and smoke from vehicles, industries and burning garbage. You run home to safety, wear masks and try to keep your children away from the all the bad air.

Now, imagine a Mumbai with green roads and clear air, where streets are lined with trees and people cycle to work, where you don’t have to protect yourself from thick, dark plumes of smoke while sitting in an autorickshaw.

The good news is we have not gone too far down on the path of destruction, and even better, our government has a plan to clear the air we breathe — an air pollution mitigation action plan where short-term and long-term measures have been charted out by the state environment department and pollution control board.

The plan was submitted, discussed and approved by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) officials in New Delhi on November 24 for immediate implementation across Maharashtra. Satish Gavai, the principal secretary of the state environment department exclusively spoke to Hindustan Times about the short-term measures, likely to be implemented by the end of 2017, and then some long-term goals for the next few years.

In the long term

A priority on the state’s plan — stricter emission norms for vehicles. The state environment department has been stressing on the need for stricter emission norms for vehicles, but the decision depends on the central government to regulate emission standards from Bharat Stage (BS) IV to BS VI before 2020. Bharat Stage emission standards are norms established by the Centre to regulate output of air pollutants from engines. For the past three years, India has been following European emission norms. BS-IV norms are currently applicable in 33 cities in which the required grade of fuel is available. “In a city like Mumbai, most of the pollution comes from traffic. Government intervention is needed to make sure traffic is reduced,” said Gavai. “If the Centre speeds up the process even before the timeline of 2020, the BS VI filter system will help the whole country.”

Another way to bring down pollution is to build workspaces close to where workers live to reduce commuting. “Twenty years ago, this may not have been possible. But we are in the digital era, we can very well have satellite offices, and one need not travel more than five kilometres to work. Such an idea, however, needs more thought and legislation,” Gavai said. “But one quick step is to not allow anymore road transport projects in the city, as this will only lead to more traffic and more pollution.”

To get citizens involved in cleaning up the air, the environment department is mulling the idea of bicycle banks and has discussed it with civic chief Ajoy Mehta. “The idea is to promote the use of public transport. Cycles will be parked in enclosures near stations, with citizens swiping their plastic cards, getting a bicycle and using it for an allotted time-frame,” said Gavai. “The commissioner whole-heartedly agreed. Among the most toxic pollutants that enter the environment are from industries. “We have introduced flue gas emission desulphurization (FGD) to remove sulphur dioxide (SO2) from power station emissions,” said Gavai. While the equipment is expensive, CPCB has given enough time to industries.

“Air pollution is not only affecting our respiratory system but also causing diseases. Citizens need to get involved, they must carpool, walk or use bicycles,” said V Ranganathan, former civic chief.

And the quick-fixes

To begin with, the state will set up 11 new real-time mobile air quality monitoring stations across Mumbai by April 2017. There are two stations at Sion and Bandra. These monitoring stations will be mobile and shifted on the basis of where they will be required. “Tenders for the equipment have been issued and orders are being placed with vendors. The project completion is likely by April end,” said Gavai. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board will also begin checking emissions from industries through an online emission monitoring system, which has been installed at Tarapur industrial area, in Palghar district. “The MPCB is in a position to monitor real-time air quality from major polluting industries in the state on a real-time basis. According to our assessment, about 90% polluters are concentrated in one area that accounts for a major source of pollution in the state,” said Gavai.

The state will also crack down on the use of wood for cooking in slums, which the department identified as a major source of particulate pollution. “We are looking at providing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to these areas,” said Gavai.

The MPCB has also issued a list of guidelines for sites where construction is taking place.

To stop one of the most common causes of pollution — fires at dump yards — MPCB has issued a list of directives to the municipal corporation to use enzyme-based products to curb the methane emission from city dumping grounds. “We have been told tenders have already been floated for scientific waste management solutions along with organic waste segregation and composting to reduce the burden at all three city landfills,” said Gavai

The need for action

While there is plan, experts said it must jump off the paper. “It is important the action plan is linked with departments of the government. If they are not interrelated, it will lead to action only on paper and hardly on ground,” said Rakesh Kumar, director, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.

Departments should unite in fight against pollution: Australian scientist and climate strategist, Dr Anthony Horton

What can people do to protect themselves from air pollution?

The most effective way people can reduce exposure to construction and roadside dust is to stay away from these sources. People should try to limit time they spend outdoors near construction sites and roadsides, avoid peak-hour traffic and wear a mask with a filter.

Large quantities of pollutants are generated from vehicles, at traffic jams and crowded parking spaces. What can be done to reduce this problem?

Three main strategies. First, limiting age of vehicles licenced to use the roads. Compared to older vehicles, more recently manufactured ones are generally made in accordance to a more stringent design standard. Second, improving quality of fuel with stringent fuel quality standards. These standards can target pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. Third, introducing alternative fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas or natural gas.

Give us an example

A good example is Seoul, South Korea, which adopted a range of strategies to improve air quality after the special act on the ‘Improvement of Air Quality in Seoul Metropolitan Area’ enforced in 2005. This Act led to recognition that action needed to be taken.

What according to you is lacking in the endeavours of local governing bodies that calculate RSPM, NOx and SO2?

Different departments within the government, from transport, industries, textile to science and technology, should have the courage and willingness to reach out and share data with each other, and to discuss initiatives they have implemented that have been successful as well as acknowledge those that perhaps haven’t been so successful. With adequate financial resources, the government should be able to purchase, operate and maintain air quality monitoring equipment that is in accordance with international standards.

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