Surface & Ground Water Pollution
Unsystematic & Unhygeine Disposal of Garbage
Towards the City of Joy
BY most accounts, Calcutta is a prime candidate for any award for the most polluted city in the world. Long on culture and political consciousness, the city is, paradoxically, an environmentalist's nightmare because of the poor quality of life it offers. The near-poisonous air, deafening noise levels and degraded water reserves have contributed to low quality environment. In conventional wisdom, Calcutta's woes arise mostly from an unsuitable geographical location and other hydro-geological factors. But the city's environment appears to have worsened over the years, primarily because of haphazard land use, inadequate civic facilities and poor public response to the need for environmental protection.
A recent survey by the Calcutta Environmental Management and Action Plan (CEMSAP) showed that air pollution was likely to contribute to high rates of morbidity from chronic and acute respiratory diseases. In the Calcutta Metropolitan Area (CMA), mortality from chronic respiratory disorders was mostly among older age groups. Prof. K.J. Nath, director of the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, said "A random opinion survey among general practitioners indicates that the number of patients with bronchial problems and allergic asthma has roughly doubled in the Nineties." What is the environmental quality of Calcutta? Following is a report:
All major ambient quality Parameter on the city roads as well as at important traffic junctions are above permissible threshold values. The values go awry during the winter months. Even though no epidemiological survey exists to assess the effect of air pollution on humans, the short term and long term exposures to sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter are the key factors in respiratory ailments such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. According to a WHO report, exposure to carbon monoxide at different concentrations 11.5-114 micrograms/cubic metre - can adversely affect the haemoglobin levels in persons working in different occupations.
The average concentration of suspended particulate matter (SPM) at busy traffic intersections between 1978 and 1994 was extremely high: around 400 microgram / cubic meter. The oxides of nitrogen (NOX) concentrations, however, showed an increasing trend from 1990 and its concentration is around 100 microgram / cubic meter. Secondary data shows that the concentrations of SPM, NOX, and SO2 measured at traffic intersections are alarmingly high. Ad hoc studies have shown significantly high ambient levels of lead (Pb), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene soluble organic matters (BSOM). All of these are carcinogenic. Motor vehicles emit large quantities of air pollutants, including toxins like lead and PAHs containing carcinogenic benzapyrene. Explaining the extent of pollution in the city's air, Mr. Gautarn Samanta, a senior research worker in the School of Environmental Studies in Jadavpur University, said, "The concentration of benzapyrene, for example, is so high at the Gariahat crossing (south Calcutta) that if a person spends eight hours there, he will consume the toxin which he will have otherwise inhaled over 15 years. Such consumption can have a grave impact on health, at times leading to cancer."
Power Plants: The Major Source of Air Pollution
According to environmentalists, automobiles are not the main culprits in emitting pollutants. As Ms Bonani Kakkar of PUBLIC (Public United for Better Living in Calcutta), puts it: "We need to refocus our thinking. Vehicles are a major source of pollution but will have to make the Government realise that power plants are the biggest contributors to air pollution." They account for 44 per cent and 64 per cent of the total NOX, and SO2 emissions (CEMSAP data). The combustion of fuel contributes the most towards industry emissions. Coal is the main source of fuel with oil being used as a standby, while in a few isolated cases, gas is used as the primary fuel. lt is roughly estimated that industries using coal contribute to about 43 per cent and 30 per cent of the total SPM and SO2 emmisions. Also contributing to air pollution are small-scale units numbering about 15,624. They are mostly factories producing acids, storage batteries, lead and also tanneries emitting carcinogenic substances. In the Picnic Garden area in east Calcutta, there are 27 lead factories producing lead ingots and lead alloys. about 200,000 people breathe foul air in this area.
The concentration of lead in the soil or air is about 5,000 to 20,000 micrograms/ gram, according to Dr. Dipankar Chakraborty, director of the School of Environment in Jadavpur University. The 'Tiljala tanneries in east Calcutta discharge chromium, another dangerous pollutant.
The number of vehicles in the city has increased by more than 45 per cent from 387,004 in 1987-88 to 567,727 in 1994-95. This, coupled with congested traffic, limited road surface area (6 percent against the international norm of 25 per cent) and poor condition of roads and vehicles, all contribute to adverse air quality, especially in areas adjacent to main traffic arteries. The vehicular population in the city is expected to go up by 50 per cent in the next 10 years. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the daily emission by all vehicles in Delhi is 872 tonnes and in Bombay and Calcutta 548 tonnes and 283 tonnes.
A study conducted by the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health shows that the carbon monoxide (CO) level at busy street-crossings in Calcutta ranges from eight to 20 particles per million (PPM).
Surveys carried out by different agencies in selected residential, commercial and industrial areas show that the average ambient noise levels are above the standard, both during day and night. Even in the designated silence zones, the noise levels are significantly in excess of the prescribed limits. The high levels cause deafness and neurological disorders even in children and affect pregnant women.
Noise levels during festivals have come down significantly following court intervention. Goaded into action by a series of tough court directives, the administration has started taking punitive measures against violators of noise pollution norms. The court. has Fixed the "festival time" noise level at 65 decibels, down from 85 dB. Efforts are on to curb traffic related noise levels.
Although the city has an abundant source of surface water, the public water supply system suffers from poor maintenance and inadequate distribution, The water related problems have been aggravated by pollution from a leaky, sewerage system. The poor bacterial quality of drinking water is the root cause for the endemicity of water-borne diseases in the city, and frequent outbreaks of epidemic diarrhoea, gastroenteric and infectious diseases. The city gets flooded frequently during the monsoon.
Dr. Chakraborty said a recent bacterial experiment on water samples collected from all over the city showed that nearly 40 per cent of the samples contained faecal coliform bacteria. The presence of arsenic in water obtained from deep tubewells has added to the administration's list of worries.
Environmental degradation is at the root of the spread of diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, jaundice, enteric diseases and respiratory ailments. Among the factors fuelling the spread of such diseases are unplanned construction of high-rise buildings, shrinking water bodies and open spaces, discharge of biowaste in large quantities by hospitals and nursing homes and poor civic sense.
Calcutta has a very unsystematic and unhyegienic mannual garbage collection system. No steps has been taken to involve the local public to help and separate the waste before final disposal. The photograph shown here gives a dismal picture of the story.
In the `City of Joy' Calcutta, at one level, the scene appears to be bleak. But at another level, efforts are on to make the city aware of the need for measures to protect the environment. Much of the impulse for these efforts comes from the Government, the courts and a number of nongovernment agencies.
In 1991 the national Congress government began to cut regulations and invite foreign investors into India. As cities from Bombay to Bangalore competed for riches, Calcutta had no choice but to join in the hunt for hard cash. In effect, Calcutta's Berlin wall fall on Nov. 24. On that night the Marxist government sent Bulldozers to crush the shanties of some of its poorest constituents to make the streets safe for capitalism. "It is ridiculous that somebody should be allowed to encroach on the pavement because he is poor," says Jyoti Basu, chief minister of West Bengal and the grand old man of Indian communism. On its part, the State Government has embarked upon beautifying the city, an expression of which was found in the recent removal of hawkers from city roads.
If there is a spark, plug of Calcutta's reforms, it is Ashim Barman, the city's intrepid municipal commissioner. Barman brings back ideas for change from visits to cities like London, Chicago and New York (where he has studied). Among other things, he has formed unblushing alliances with private business. After turning over the city's erratic electricity supply to private management, Calcutta now produces surplus power. The government has attracted private investors to build office towers and shopping malls, and it has leased out public parks for private businesses to run. Barman also has signed an agreement with a U.S. company to burn some of Calcutta's 2,200 tons daily of refuse to generate electricity. Another company will pay the city for garbage that it can process into fertiliser.
Garbage is Barman's latest obsession. Having bulldozed main sidewalks clean, his government is trying to tidy up the rest of the mess in Calcutta. Garbage collector now make their rounds earlier-before 9 AM and authorities impose 60 cent fines on households that throw refuse into the streets after the morning pickup. Movie stars have made public-service ads urging people to keep the city clean, and schoolchildren fan out to urge pedestrians not to litter, spit, urinate or jaywalk. Neighbourhood committees have been found to wash away graffiti and to catch new offenders, who are then paraded before their friends. "Fear of public humiliation helps in promoting overall cleanliness," says Pradip Datta, a volunteer who works in north Calcutta.
Just as important, Calcutta is trying to clear the air. Barman has banned 15,000 smoke-belching trucks from the city center, as well as the coal-fired street ovens that used to spew thick smoke over the sidewalks. He also has banned slow-moving rikshaw , a measure that now lets city traffic move at an average of 14 kilometres an hour rather than five. He even has tried to pen up some of the stray cattle that wander the streets of Calcutta.
All of Calcutta seemed to bask in its new-found cosmopolitanism. In truth, many of the city's problems have been swept under the rug. Thousands of homeless people and small businessmen evicted from the city's main business districts have simply moved to the side streets to bide their time until the government's campaign eases off. They might have to wait, for a while. At the government's urging, a half million slum dwellers have relocated outside of the city centre, offering hope that congestion might be permanently eased. Many other small businessmen evicted from sidewalk stalls have pooled their money and opened legitimate stores. Citizens groups seem to be springing up daily-this one to help keep parks clean, that one to help with garbage collection. Examined coldly, the renaissance of Calcutta has been purchased with pretty small change. Yet that is precisely the approval the city's turncot Marxists have hit upon: they have made a real difference by paying attention to the little things.