Breathless in Bangalore
The toxic mix of unbridled vehicular growth, dusty constructions and chemical emissions triggers unprecedented air pollution
For over five decades, Panduranga Rao had cultivated his morning brisk walk schedule with an unwavering, almost religious passion. A few yards from his house, the jogger’s park fitted his daily routine perfectly. But then came the earth movers, widening the adjoining road, big enough for the four-wheeled and six-wheeled monsters to invade, billowing out thick layers of smoke. Masked in a layer of hugely polluted dust mixed with the sweat of his morning rigour, Rao finally bid adieu to the park of his life !
Forty-five lakh vehicles of every configuration known to humankind occupy every inch of available road space in Bangalore City. Collectively, they generate enough smoke to pummel the City’s ambient air quality to unprecedented lows. Yes, so low that at many monitoring points, the respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) is three times more than the nationally permissible level of 60 micrograms per cubic metre. Yet, the explosive, unregulated, market-driven onslaught of more vehicles continue, kicking up dust so ceaselessly that it remains suspended in the breathing level air round the clock !
Dust particles suspended in the atmosphere defines air pollution, a definite invitation to a zillion health issues. Size of these particles is an issue. So is their chemical composition, their capacity to carry potentially toxic substances (organic matter, metallic compounds) adsorbed in their surfaces. Since open spaces are fast dying out, the polluted air remains trapped on the roads, to be kicked up to breathing levels by vehicular movements.
Directly inhaling this air, two-wheeler riders, pedestrians and yes, the traffic constables are the obvious victims.
Old vehicles remain
Alarmed by studies that older vehicles pollute much more, the government had declared that automobiles over 15 years old would be phased out. But that remains just another tall promise. So, even when the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) says the sulphur content in fuel supplied in bunks across the City is under control, the older vehicles use older technology to keep the pollution levels high! Untouched by the police, front-engine autorickshaws in revenue layouts, for instance, consume huge amounts of adulterated fuel readily available in the market.
Strict pollution control norms in the past had ensured that heavy vehicles did not come into the City’s core areas. But over the years, the core itself has expanded. For instance, autorickshaws not running on auto LPG were to be completely banned from entering areas within the Inner Ring Road. But today, no one is even aware of this rule.
Apparently, not even the law enforcers, because there are hardly any three-wheelers booked for this crime.
The unchecked vehicular population is not going to be arrested in a hurry, a fact attested by the City’s traffic police top brass themselves. Tasked with monitoring and recording the pollution levels, the KSPCB too doesn’t see a way out. The Board admits its relative success in controlling pollution from industries can hardly be replicated on the road.
Arresting industrial emissions
Industrial emissions were once the City’s big polluters before the vehicles took over that role. But pressure from different quarters, including KSPCB, arrested this to an extent, as KSPCB chairman, Vaman Acharya says. The Board, he recalls, was instrumental in closing several units of the Karnataka Power Corporation factory in Yelahanka. For more than two decades, the factory ran on oil-fuelled DG sets, producing huge quantities of smoke that enveloped vast areas in its surroundings. “Within the City limits, you cannot use furnace oil. Only green fuel is allowed. But these norms were not in place when the factory came up,” informs Acharya.
High on pollution potential, non-industrial Diesel Generation sets, however, remain largely unchecked. Most business outlets in commercial areas run on these DG sets during power disruptions. Since these are placed right at the entrance of the shops, the fumes get mixed with vehicular emission triggering massive air pollution at the pedestrians’ breathing level!
Besides vehicles and the related road dust, construction activities contribute immensely to polluting Bangalore’s air. The high RSPM levels recorded at many intersections and roads within the City’s core are attributed to the Namma Metro project. The high pollution levels in Whitefield is directly blamed on the ongoing construction of several multi-storied apartment complexes in that area.
Supreme Court intervention
The City’s rising pollution levels were noticed by the Supreme Court as early as in August 2003. Categorising pollution in seven cities in the country as “alarming,” the apex court identified RSPM as the most critical pollutant in Bangalore City. The State was directed to draw up a plan of action to lower the RSPM, to be placed before the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, headed by Dr Bhurelal and team.
Subsequently, a Task Force was constituted by the government, with the Additional Chief Secretary as Chairman and members from Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, Bangalore Development Authority, Departments of Urban Development and Food & Civil Supplies, Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited , the Oil Industry and KSPCB. The Task Force had about 20 meetings.
A 14-point action plan was drawn up to improve the City’s ambient air quality. Critical among them was to ensure that all autorickshaws and taxies within Outer Ring Road limits ran only on LPG or diesel; to set up over 236 emission checking points; to prevent adulteration of fuel through strict vigil by the Food and Civil Supplies department; to boost use of public transport including Metro Rail; to adopt a parking policy and to monitor air quality through 13 Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations and two Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations.
Chairman, Karnataka State Pollution Control Board
“Although the Pollution Control Board is more of a legal authority than an implementing agency, we have had success in reducing pollution from industrial units. KSPCB was instrumental in closing down highly polluting units.”