A citizens-led response to pollution

Stringent regulations have spectacularly failed to stem the slide of Bengaluru’s once clean air into pollution levels beyond human endurance. But as polluting industries thrive, the closure of Graphite India in Whitefield offers a glimmer of hope: That sustained, vigorous citizen activism can indeed make a change.

Yes, the city’s 80 lakh plus vehicles billowing out mega tons of smoke across Bengaluru’s labyrinthine road network is the real elephant in the room. That goes on without any regulatory mechanism to curtail skyrocketing vehicular numbers. But this still does not spare industrial emissions, monitored by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB)’s rulebook.

In a multi-pronged campaign against Graphite India’s Bengaluru plant, residents in and around Whitefield had stood as one. Whitefield Rising, a citizens’ collective, had called out the factory for spewing black dust across a large perimeter for four decades. So, on April 3, when GI announced the closure of its operations here, it was a well deserved victory for people power.

Air quality around the GI plant had deteriorated to such an extent in 1996 that residents of the nearby Seetharampalya village rose up in protest. But it took another 13 years before a collective of Ferns Paradise residents and the villagers brought up the issue before KSPCB. Closure orders in 2012 and court cases followed before the matter went up all the way to the Supreme Court.

As industrial pollution goes unchecked, particularly on the city’s outskirts, can citizens follow the Whitefield model to push KSPCB and other agencies into action mode?

Independent monitoring

But they are not letting KSPCB decide everything on pollution anymore. Not convinced by the Board’s method of measuring pollution levels, citizens are tying up with private firms to install independent monitoring devices across the city. Mitigation plans too are part of this strategy.

Yet, the question remains: Why a parallel monitoring system? While KSPCB measures air quality on terraces of buildings, the private players and individuals say they want to measure pollutant density at the human-breathable level. This, they are convinced, will be a game-changer.

Currently, there are 23 air quality monitoring stations operated in real-time by the KSPCB and 14 manual monitoring stations that measure PM10 on any two days in a week. But the citizens feel that the real-time data on the KSPCB website is not user-friendly. They find it tedious to understand and access location-specific data.

Not calibrated: KSPCB

Insisting that its monitoring devices adhere to stringent standards, KSPCB contends that the devices operated by others are not calibrated. A Board official, preferring anonymity, notes that the instruments are kept at a height to meet the national ambient air quality standards.

“The air quality should be measured when there is free flow of air, and that can happen only at heights of 3 to 10 metres,” the official explains. “At three feet height, you don’t measure ambient air quality, you only gauge the re-suspension of road dust due to vehicle exhaust hitting the kerbs.”

KSPCB, the official informs, measures air quality continuously from seven monitoring stations at Central Silk Board, Hosur Road; Kavika, Mysuru Road; Shalini Ground, Jayanagar 5th Block; Veterinary College, Hebbal; NIMHANS, City Railway Station and Basaveshwaranagar. Besides, the Central Pollution Control Board has set up three such stations in BTM Layout, Peenya and Marathahalli.

Initiatives galore

Despite the Board’s reservations over independent monitoring, several such initiatives have taken off across the city.

For instance, the Health Air Coalition, a health sector-led initiative for clean air in the city, now plans to install 40 stationary monitoring devices across the city soon. As many as 15 devices are already in place. The generated data is available to the public since April 5.

The devices now track the city’s pollution level at locations such as the BBMP head office at Corporation Circle, BBMP public health care centres at Banashankari, JC road, H Siddaiah Road, N R Colony and Basavanagudi.

AirCare, a high-density particulate matter (PM2.5) monitoring network monitors PM2.5 levels 24/7 and hosts the data online for real-time tracking.

The network has been developed by Shiv Shankar, founder of Mapshalli, a non-profit organisation, and Varun Ramakrishnan, a class 12 student from The International School Bangalore, in collaboration with Whitefield Rising.

Using mobile devices, other groups in the city also monitor air quality over a seven-day period in Jayanagar, Banashankari, Silk Board, Electronic city, Uttarahalli and MG road.

The GI case

It was the data from AirCare and other sources outside KSPCB that helped track the pollution from GI, recalls Zibi Jamal from Whitefield Rising. “At GI, the pollution levels were peaking at 2 am and 3 am. It was very clear that vehicular emissions were not causing it. KSPCB was not tracking it 24/7,” she recalls.

The GI factory closure might be a silver lining for citizen activism. But the onslaught of private vehicles continues unabated.

Vehicular emissions remain a formidable threat to Bengaluru’s air, as reiterated by a study by Urbanemissions.info and the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP).

Pollution warning

The study warns that by 2030, pollution from PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns in size) will increase dramatically by 74%. Fuelling this dangerous spike will be the usual suspects: Vehicular exhaust, industrial emissions, on-road dust and construction dust.

At 43%, vehicular emissions are the single largest contributor to pollution in the city. While road dust account for 20%, industrial emissions and construction dust make up 14% each. Diesel Generator sets account for seven per cent.

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