Bangalore's ambient air quality is under threat

This is not new information. Since the 1980’s, when the Air Act was enacted, the government has been advised to check the problem. Back in 2002 the then CPCB Member Secretary attributed 72 per cent of urban air pollution to vehicular emissions. A stitch in time would have saved nine. Today, Bangalore’s air pollution problem has grown to gargantuan proportions and has become an issue of immediate concern to its citizens. In this 21st century high-tech city nobody really knows how big the problem is, but everybody keeps saying it is big.

In 2001, the State Transport Department received an overwhelming response to a Karnataka High Court call to Bangalore’s residents and the state to voice their opinion on the issue of air pollution. Even after eight years the citizens have not got a reprieve from this scourge. When confronted, the ministers and mandarins, who complain of air pollution in private, turn defensive.

According to a 1998 World Bank assessment on health damages from air pollution, high level of particulates in 126 cities worldwide, in which India, represented by 12 largest cities in the sample, including Bangalore, lost 12 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) per 1,000 residents. These health damages, in monetary terms, are 9 per cent of the respective income (GDP per capita), implying that the costs to the society, part of which is direct productivity loss in the 12 largest Indian cities, are as high as nearly 10 per cent of the income generated in these cities from all economic activities.

In addition, the study estimated, based on an analysis of a subset of the sample, that social costs worth $3 billion are incurred due to air pollution, of which 64 per cent is due only to health costs. If this doesn’t convince, hopefully the mortality statistic will. A 2003 WHO study estimated that every year globally 800,000 people die prematurely from air pollution-induced lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and 150,000 of these deaths occur in South Asia alone, implying about 630 Bangaloreans die prematurely from this bane.

Who is in charge of controlling and abating this deadly problem? Since the enactment of the Air Act in 1981 and the comprehensive Environment Act (1986) Bangalore’s air pollution has increased instead of decreasing, making a mockery of these legislations.
They empower the KSPCB to act only with respect to industries, since section 20 of the Air Act, which deals with emissions from automobiles, limits the Board to merely prevail upon the government to issue directions to the Motor Vehicle Department (MVD). This has lead to poor enforcement of vehicular air pollution control. The Regional Transport Officers (RTOs), trained in the lucrative business of generating revenue for the state coffers, saddled with the additional task of vehicular pollution control, have so far miserably failed to keep a check on vehicular pollution.

Much of the air pollution in the city is attributed to dust from city’s open spaces, road sides, unpaved foot paths, in addition to the dust generated from construction. BESCOM is responsible for 7 per cent of air pollution by not being able to supply adequate power and compelling business and industries to use diesel/kerosene fired captive power generating sets which emit fine particulates.

There is no one agency or department who can take ownership of all actions and be held responsible for controlling air pollution. This lacuna is seriously hampering the ushering in of clean air in Bangalore. In 2001, finally, a high powered Task Force for control of air pollution in Bangalore under the chairmanship of the additional chief secretary was constituted. The inferences from this report and the Supreme Court’s directives on the issue is a commentary on the decade-long efforts of the task force to control air pollution.

The air pollution problem afflicting us has to be dealt with the same urgency and concern as the nation is dealing with the terrorists. Only if the various departments and organisations of the government (KSPCB, MVD, BBMP, FCSD, UDD) coordinate, cooperate, and unite to tackle the problem with single minded dedication, mitigation is possible. And, while dealing with terrorists, the government has shown that it can work this way.

Every government since 1986 has been playing the blame game when it came to the air pollution problem – shifting the responsibility between the KSPCB and the MVD according its convenience. This study puts an end to that game. Will the KSPCB put up the TERI study on its website? There cannot be a better document than this that can bring about environmental awareness among those that are still in slumber.

(The writers is Professor at Don Bosco Institute of Technology, Bangalore)

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