Column: No Time To Breathe Easy

By Sandeep Sahu

I have often wondered how many denizens of ‘Smart City No. 1’ have bothered to have a look at the electronic boards displaying the temperature and something called ‘AQI’ at a few important junctions in the city like Rabindra Mandap square or the now defunct one at the Power House square? Of those who have seen them, how many know what AQI – or, for that matter, (SPM) – stands for? Of those who do know that they are abbreviations for Air Quality Index and Suspended Particulate Matter respectively, how many know that their ‘Smart City’ is among the 102 cities in India that have failed to meet the air quality norms fixed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and that there are five more cities in the state – Cuttack, Balasore, Rourkela, Angul and Talcher – which also figure in the same list? And last but not the least: how many of those who know this also know that an average citizen would live 2.7 years more if the city met the air quality norms specified by the World Health Organisation (WHO)? [The last of these facts is according to an extensive Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) survey undertaken by the University of Chicago.]

The extent of ignorance about the direct correlation between air quality and health – and even life – was brought home in telling fashion recently by the angry reaction of the people to the hefty fine (up to Rs 10, 000) imposed on commuters who don’t have a Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificate. I have been talking to a cross section of people in the city since the crackdown under the amended Motor Vehicle (MV) Act began on September 1 and was appalled to find that the vast majority of them think it’s an ‘unnecessary’ and eminently avoidable ‘irritant’. “Why should they keep imposing fines even after the Chief Minister asked the police and transport authorities to go easy till December 31? And who has the time to queue up before the PUC centre to get his vehicle checked? When they are not checking helmets, why should they fine us for pollution? It amounts to nothing short of harassment,” said a seemingly educated smart young man. Who will explain to him that while he endangers only himself by not wearing helmets, he harms others by not adhering to the pollution norms?

I find no good reason why Bhubaneswar, of all places, should figure in the list of 102. There are no big, polluting manufacturing industries here nor does the city have to contend with stump burning that leads to a serious deterioration of air quality in Delhi after the harvest every year. Just about the only possible explanation I can think of is the number of vehicles plying on the roads, which is grossly disproportionate to the human population – just like the national capital. An average family in the city – even those who belong to the economically weaker sections – has, at the very least, one vehicle. The number goes up as one goes upward in the economic ladder and it is not uncommon to find families that have two, three or more vehicles, including two-wheelers. That, in itself, is not bad. But what makes it so is the fact that those who have one are loathe to using public transport. And those who don’t would rather use auto rickshaws than opt for public transport. I realized this while doing a story on why there are few takers for the scores of smart, modern and well-equipped ‘Mo Buses’ recently. “For one thing, one has to walk to the bus stop and wait for the bus to arrive. For another, commuters have to alight at a fixed stop from where they have to walk some distance to reach their destination. In these busy times, who has the time to walk or wait? In contrast, autos stop to pick us up and drop us wherever we want,” a lady working in a government office told me. I wanted to ask her why she couldn’t start a few minutes earlier and walk the few hundred meters to the bus stop to board a bus and then walk from the bus stop to the office – but couldn’t because she was in a hurry! Tracks were laid and ‘Mo cycles’ kept at all vantage points in the city during the Hockey World Cup last year, but very few use them. Try explaining to people that walking or cycling to work and back is not only good for their health, it also saves them the trouble of being fined for pollution. Chances are that you would get a mouthful for sermonizing!

If this is the level of ignorance and apathy among the supposedly ‘smart’ citizens of Bhubaneswar, one can imagine what would be the situation in other places. The people of Angul-Talcher mining-industrial belt, of course, know because they have suffered heavily due to the worryingly poor quality of the air in what is one of the environmental ‘hotspots’ of the world. But they are helpless in the face of the gross apathy of the state government, which has permitted more and more thermal power plants to come up in the area. The situation in Jharsuguda and Rourkela is no better. Last year, the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), tasked with monitoring air quality and keeping it under control, launched a good initiative called the ‘Star Rating’ system that rates industries on a scale of 1 to 5 according to their compliance level on air quality norms. But no one knows if any industry or mines has been punished for failing to meet the norms.

Expecting the mines and industries to act on their own is futile because they simply can’t see beyond profits. Punitive action by the concerned authorities – the SPCB in this case – is the only way they can be made to fall in line. But since the Board – and the industry-obsessed government as a whole – is terribly reluctant to act, it is now on the people to force the government and the industries to take necessary measures in this regard (as they did in the case of the Oswal plant in Paradip a few years ago). But how can one expect the people to act when they are either blissfully unaware of the grave consequences of a deterioration in air quality or are too engrossed in issues of bread and butter to mount collective pressure on the government/industries to reduce pollution levels?

But there is hope yet. At a workshop jointly organized by the Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago (EPIC-India), Tata Centre for Development (TCD) and the Journalism department of BJB College at BJB College earlier this week, I was happy to see nearly half the students raise their hands when I asked them how many of them walked or used bicycles/public transport to come to the college. Here is hoping that the younger generation would do what their parents’ generation did not; namely, be aware of the hazards of poor air quality and force the authorities to act when it fails to meet the norms.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)