Ecological plan need of the hour, not smog towers
An air pollution management protocol should have been triggered by the government when the bane continued well into February - nine of the first 17 days showed “very poor” air quality. This protocol should have included capping dust-producing activities like construction
Mumbai is choking. This has probably been the line flying out at Mumbaikars from the internet, social media, newspapers or articles lately. Mumbai’s air quality has been substantially worse than what it has previously been. From November through January 2023, Mumbaikars have lived through a nightmare with 66 days of ‘poor’ and ‘very bad’ air quality, as opposed to just 28 over the previous three years. Mumbai’s air quality has also been worse than Delhi’s, and that is saying something. Glaring reports have shown how residents have been battling a huge spike in breathing problems, cold, persistent dry cough, headaches, and throat infections. Children and senior citizens have had the worst of it, with many hospitalised or in ICUs, owing to respiratory ailments, as per data.
An air pollution management protocol should have been triggered by the government when the bane continued well into February - nine of the first 17 days showed “very poor” air quality. This protocol should have included capping dust-producing activities like construction. Instead, the government — primarily that of Maharashtra and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) — carried on as normal. It did not reveal its plan to tackle air pollution until the budget, but these weren’t obvious, quick actions. Instead, BMC plans to erect air purification towers and monitoring stations in the near future, which is hardly the best way to reduce the constantly high AQI levels.
Mumbai, blessed with an abundance of sea wind that has so far helped to remove the harmful pollutants, cannot accomplish miracles, but the government should start working seriously on long-term planning for improved air and immediate relief. This necessitates acknowledging that vehicular emissions, road and construction dust, and dust from ongoing construction projects are the three main sources of poor air, accounting for up to 70% of the pollutants; with the rest being airport operations, landfills, and industrial emissions. Additionally, the changing direction and speed of the sea breeze, as a result of climate change, has deprived Mumbai of its natural advantage and for strategizing the next steps.
A thorough ecological plan that guides city growth must be part of the long-term strategy, not momentary and superficial solutions like smog towers. All the previous ones --- set up here and in other states --- have failed. The best way to control pollution is to detect it where it starts—in infrastructure development and construction. Air purifiers are expensive and offer little benefit. Moreover, several building construction projects have begun at the same time. None of these strictly adhere to time, dust, or sound laws. Also, we do not consider the enormous casting yards for bridges and metros as building projects.
The government should identify and tackle sources of air pollution by staggering work hours, and implementing pollution control rules. As a former environment minister who worked on pollution mitigation, I can vouch that these towers are an absolute a waste of public money. The BMC already has a climate action plan made in our tenure, shelved now, which identifies these problem spots and has solutions for it.
Again, this is not just a purposeful or ill-researched critique done merely to sear the present government. My thoughts align with that of doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, who have said that smog towers have significant limitations. They are expensive and hardly have any impact on air pollution exposure. In terms of how much we are spending and how much we are getting back from it, we must carefully consider its cost-effectiveness.
At best, smog towers are a waste of taxpayer money. An air purification system cannot be used outdoors, and we have no idea how much area it covers or pulls. Rather than focusing on identifying pollution issues such as massive construction work releasing dust in the city, addressing industrial pollutants, or focussing on the installation of flue gas desulphurization, we are looking at useless measures for pollution abatement.
Let us now look at the financial aspect. The BMC is making one smog tower at about ₹3.5 crore, whereas it actually costs around ₹15-20 crore. Another source of pollution is road dust which emerges from the BMC road contracts, which is again, reeking of a ₹6,080 crore scam. So, is it an exaggeration to say that the process is entirely vendor and contractor driven, with no hoots given to people’s safety or health?
We are not here only to criticise without solutions. There are so many impactful solutions that are now opening up to the world, like ultra-low emission zones being built across different cities. We must also bring all the departments together to fight the menace of air pollution and not work in silos, which fosters effective handovers and inter-departmental cooperation. We had initiated the Maharashtra Council of Climate Change, to bring under one umbrella, all relevant departments of the government. We also had initiated the Mumbai Climate Action Plan, exactly a year ago, which now stands shelved under this government. It is time to bring in scientific interventions and experts to sieve the city of the poisonous air that engulfs it now. If we stand together in implementing solutions that eliminate the roots of air pollution, the financial capital of India will breathe free again.
(The author is an MLA and former state environment minister)