Kanpur gasps for breath as pollution takes a toll
In October, Abhay, 15, the only Royal Bengal tiger in the Kanpur zoo ( the cleanest and greenest part of the city) died. When a team of doctors from Kanpur and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly, performed an autopsy on Abhay, it found dust and carbon deposit in the lungs.
Previous autopsies of dead animals from the zoo which houses 1,400 animals across of 120 species, including those of deer and birds, had turned up similar reports.
Sure, Abhay died a natural death, as confirmed by Dr RK Singh, the zoo’s resident veterinarian, but the health of the animals in the city’s zoo is representative of Kanpur’s bad air problem.
Between November 11 and 19, Kanpur’s Air Quality Index hovered above 300 and twice crossed 400. A level over 300 is considered very poor and 400, severe.
Since October 4, Kanpur’s air has moved from poor to very poor to the severe category.
According to an in house study that the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, conducted in May, particulate matter like dust and soot accounted for 76% of air pollution in Kanpur during the winter.
“The zoo and surrounding pockets are the most green (area in the city) and a number of measures have been taken to conserve the environment but still if the animals are not safe, imagine how people are coping in the city,” asked Dr SK Paul, an animal welfare specialist.
In May last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Kanpur the world’s most polluted city.
The ranking was based on the Central Pollution Control Board’s data (from 2016) of particulate matter under 2.5 micrograms.
Despite this, Kanpur doesn’t have enough AQI measurement sensors.
The state pollution control board has installed four air quality monitoring sensors at key locations and the Central Pollution Control Board, one -- entirely inadequate for a city of 3.1 million people.
Then, to be sure, even Gurugram, a city of around 2 million people and home to many Fortune 500 companies, has just one.
In Kanpur, to make things worse, all sensors stopped functioning two days before Diwali and did not work for the following four days, said State Pollution Control Board officials who asked not to be named.
Mukesh Sharma, a professor at IIT, Kanpur, one of the country’s best engineering colleges, who was involved in the creation of national air quality standards, has now begun working on a way to measure and combat the city’s pollution.
“Our work will offer options, solution and a time-sensitive plan for this problem,” he said. “Our team is into an in-depth analysis of measurement in environment science; hopefully we will complete the work shortly.”
So, what causes Kanpur’s bad air?
The problem has to do more with internal factors than external ones such as stubble burning.
“Every winter, Kanpur experiences severe AQI ,” said Sharma. The annual average of Kanpur’s AQI, according to a CPCB report in 2017, was 173 micrograms per cubic metre. In reality, this measure could be 230-250, experts said.
The ongoing study at IIT Kanpur about the biggest contributors to the city’s bad air lists the high density of population per sq km (at 6,900, still lower than Delhi at 11,320 per square kilometre and Mumbai’s 20,634 per sq km, based on the 2011 Census and HT calculations), the fact that the main industrial areas are within the city limits; meteorological factors; high traffic congestion (Kanpur has 1.7 million vehicles but only 265 km of arterial roads and 2,890 km of interconnecting roads and lanes, according to the transport office); and inadequate garbage management.
“It is not chimneys alone but beyond that; more so, the industries use a great deal of coal, which is the biggest pollutant. The city has moved to CNG vehicles, yet more is to be done,” said IIT Kanpur’s Sharma.
Weather conditions aren’t kind to Kanpur. The wind usually blows in such a way that it brings pollutants from adjoining areas. According to Sharma, the wind mainly blows from north-west to east. “It makes the (air quality) problem regional more than city centric and needs work on a large scale.”
The high level of humidity in the region also contributes to the formation of secondary aerosols, which remain locked over the region.
The IIT study has also found that the time spent on traversing even distances as short as 1km is very high. A central government report of 2015 says Kanpur is among the top five slowest cities in terms of traffic speed, with an average speed of 17 kmph. Trains passing through the city constitute another big source of traffic congestion -- because of the crossings -- especially along the GT Road, creating a cascading impact. On average, 398 trains pass through the city every day.
The issue is exacerbated by bad and unpaved roads that hinder connections to national highways such NH2 and GT Road that too pass through the city. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) estimates 80,000 trucks pass through Kanpur each day, excluding those traversing the Kanpur-Hamirpur highway. “Trucks having no business in the city have to pass through the city as there is no other way,” says Sharma.
Finally, the burning of solid waste is fairly common in Kanpur in the absence of any proper solid waste management plan. Kanpur generates 1,350 metric tonnes of waste and only 1,100 metric tonnes is disposed. The rest keeps accumulating in whole sale markets of grain, vegetable, fruits and in industrial area. When it reaches unmanageable quantities, it is simply burnt.