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A Dismal Scenario
Air pollution
Noise pollution
Surface water pollution
Impact of air pollution on health
Impact of noise pollution on health
Impact of Surface Water pollution & poor sanitation facilities
Air Pollution - a detailed report

A Dismal Scenario

New Delhi - Not long ago, India's capital, with its shady tree-lined avenues and imposing residences, could lay claim to being a garden city. Especially the colonial area, which was designed by the celebrated British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyen's original layout hasn't been tampered with, but as the city has grown, surrounding areas have become an eyesore. And the attendant proliferation of vehicles and small-scale industries has led to increasing pollution.

In Delhi, as in most other cities, vehicular pollution is the main culprit for air pollution, accounting for 65 per cent of the city's total pollution. Industry and thermal plants contribute 25 per cent and the remaining 10 per cent is due to domestic activity. Imagine the scenario in five years when five million vehicles will inch their way through the roads at 10 km/hour, belching out pollutants. As well as in each monsoon, the city's civic system collapses. Drains get choked, electricity fails, telephones go dead, the public Transport is paralysed and epidemics break out..

Today, as the city of 10 million struggles with constant power and water shortages, thousands of makeshift factories in the most crowded areas release poisonous fumes into the atmosphere. Things are so bad that Bharati Chaturvedi of Srishti, an NGO set up to address the city's civic problems, says, "We are heading for an urban catastrophe."

Air pollution

Industrial pollution

Delhi has seen a mind-boggling 500 per cent increase in industries in the last 30 years from 18,500 units in 1961 to around 93,000 today. Most of these are small-scale industries which manufacture polyethylene, nylon, chloroform, lead, rubber, and insecticides. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates that 2,000 metric tonnes of poisonous gases and 300 million litres of waste water and corrosive liquid by-products, are pumped into New Delhi's environment each day. Some industrial processes result in new, little-known compounds, which endanger workers' safety and health and persist in the environment long after use.

Following a writ petition by M C Mehta, a well-known environmental crusader and lawyer, the court ordered the immediate closure and relocation of about 9,000 businesses. These primarily include hazardous and noxious operations which, according to the city's 35-year-old Master Plan, are prohibited in the capital. Others include those that violate the air and water standards of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC).

"Closing down a few industries is only touching the tip of the iceberg," adds T.Venugopal, a senior environmental engineer at the CPCB. "The number violating the air and water standards in Delhi would be much larger if these were rigorously monitored by the DPCC. Add to this the 82,000 units operating in Delhi's non-conforming areas, all of which would also need to be closed and shifted."

There is no easy solution. Many environmentalists hope, however, that growing public opinion against environmental pollution will gradually force industries to clean up their acts and save the day.

Vehicular pollution

The vehicle boom has spelt doom for the city. The road space being limited, the growing number of vehicles forces lowgear driving, pushing up the pollutant levels to an undesirable limit. The absence of a strong public Transport system, failure of pollution control norms, abysmal quality of fuel, ignorance of vehicle maintenance, all have contributed to the environmental mess.

A study on air quality by the Indian Institute of Technology reveals that the level of suspended particulate matter (SPM) which is mainly dust and carbon particles coated with toxic gases is 460 micrograms/cubic metre as against WHO's safe prescribed limit of 200. At busy traffic intersections like the ITO, AIIMS Crossing and the Ashram Chowk, the SPM levels are, at times, two to six times the maximum permissible limit.

Noise pollution

Delhi is moving on a high-decibel track. Noise has become the Capital's greatest "public enemy in shadow," launching an unchecked assault of 90 decibels (dB) and above daily on the eardrums of the people. In addition to the dubious distinction of being the world's fourth most polluted city, Delhi now also ranks among the world's noisiest cities.

The study undertaken by Dr. Malik's non-governmental organisation Vatavaran looks at all the important sources of noise pollution. it throws up several shocking revelations, like for instance, that noise levels in each of the 25 silence zones in the city, around hospitals, educational institutions and residential areas, far exceed the permissible limits.

The din around hospitals is attributed to their locations in heavy traffic areas and excessive honking within the premises. For example, the LNJP Hospital near the Delhi Gate ITO Crossing, records the highest noise level, averaging daily at 90 dB duration in the night, 80 dB in the morning, 75 dB in the afternoon and 79 dB in the evening. Similarly, the Moolchand Hospital near the busy Defence Colony flyover, records 60 dB during mornings, 65 dB in the afternoon, 68 dB in the evening and 69 dB in the night. Fifty per cent of the 9,000 industrial units in Delhi are located in residential areas. Though the recent Supreme Court order asking polluting units to shift from residential areas may have had a salutary effect, the mechanical noise caused by moving parts of machines, vibrations of engines' shifting of raw material and end products and movement of heavy vehicles and loaders, causes enough disturbance to residents of a number of areas.

Identifing only 5 per cent of residential colonies, including East of Nizamuddin, Friends' Colony and Asiad Village, as having low-noise levels, the Vatavaran report identifies the city's "sleepless colonies." It also points out that owing to long power-cuts, the noise created by generators is fast becoming a nuisance in relatively quiet areas.

Surface water pollution

The river Yamuna, which meanders through 48 km of Delhi, has been reduced from a lifeline to a sewer. While Delhi's stretch of Yamuna is only 2 per cent of the rivers total length, it contributes to a disproportionate 71 per cent of the total pollution load of the river. It has become the receptacle of 1,700 million litres of human wastes and toxic industrial effluents, emptied daily by 17 open drains criss-crossing the city. A recent study by the Centre for Science and Technology also shows a high level of chemical contamination in the river, owing to heavy pesticide discharge from fields in Haryana.

A meeting of NGOs was convened and one of them, the Society for Development Alternatives, was given responsibility for monitoring the water quality. Using simple equipment, they measured pollution levels at various points in the river's course - noting as they did so that many people were using the water, even when turbid and foul-smelling. Near one drain they came across an old lady and her daughter-in-law, who had come all the way from London for bathing in the holy river. They sprinkled the water on themselves and drank it. They felt that Yamuna, as a holy river, could never harm people who had faith. The harm the water could do was all too evident. It is full of sewage and phosphates. Discharges of effluent have reached official limits. Oxygen levels are becoming too low to support life.

For most of the unregulated, small-scale industries without safe sewerage, waste-water disposal, and modern technology, pollution problems are getting worse. Their haphazard growth makes it difficult to install remedies such as common effluent treatment plants, which are relatively cheap. Failure to do so is causing problems that will be much more expensive to deal with.

Impact of air pollution on health

The electronic data base at Delhi's National Medical Library only lists the various respiratory problems which could be related to pollution like wheezing, decreased ability of lungs to perform normally, chronic bronchitis, persistent coughing and worsening of asthma. Only a few specialised centres have their own records to highlight the increase in respiratory disorders.

While claiming that respiratory disorders are multifactoral and cannot be conclusively attributed to air pollution, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, however, admitted that 7,000 people died of acute asthma attacks last year. 'The figure is based on data from 19 big hospitals in the city. Lamenting the lack of comprehensive data, Dr. Rajesh Chawla, a senior consultant in respiratory medicine, confirmed that Delhi had the highest number of asthma cases in the country.

An independent study carried out by Dr. J. N. Pande of the Medicine Department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), indicates that 40 per cent of children in Delhi suffer from at least one respiratory disorder. This is not surprising considering that the city has 2.8 million vehicles, outnumbering the total number of vehicles in Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai put together. Having seen a 23 per cent rise in acute bronchitis cases in the past two years, Dr. Chawla estimates that five million people in the city suffer from respiratory disorders of varying intensity

The `Rajen Babu TB Hospital and the T.B institute' at Mehrauli have registered a 35 per cent increase in the incidence of tuberculosis in the last few years while the Respiratory Clinic at LNJP Hospital has reported a spurt in TB cases in recent years. While supporting figures are not available, doctors cite air pollution, General deterioration in hygiene and sanitation and failure to complete the course of medication as reasons for the rise in incidence of TB.

Impact of noise pollution on health

Noise was recognised as a pollutant in the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Following a notification by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1996 on ambient air quality and noise, the CPCB specified noise level standards. These, according to Mr. Biswas, prescribe 45-55 dB in silence zones, 55-65 dB for residential colonies, 65-75 dB in market places and commercial areas and 80 dB for industrial areas. Surprisingly, there is no law to restrict noise levels in these areas or to make offenders liable for penal action. Only the Delhi 'traffic Police is empowered to book a driver for causing loud noise or playing loud music while driving. But the implementation leaves much to be desired.

The extent of damage inflicted by this invisible pollution is something to worry about. Since people do not die of noise pollution, the gravity of the situation is not noticed. A nagging headache or even seemingly minor episodes of forgetfulness like inability to remember with ease what you did yesterday could be indicative of the effects of noise pollution, " warns Dr. P. Ghosh, former Head of the ENT Department at AIIMS.

Dr. Ghosh quotes an international study on noise induced temporary threshold shift (NIT'I'S), which is a temporary loss of hearing experienced after a relatively short exposure to excessive noise while noise induced permanent threshold shifts (NIPTS) is caused by prolonged exposure to noise. "The normal threshold of pain for ears is between 135-140 dB. Therefore, an aureal pain should always be considered to be an early waning signal of excessive exposure to noise," he cautioned.

Mr. Ghosh, however, adds that the ill-effects of noise pollution on human health cannot be conclusively derived, given the ignorance and lack of data. "The general trend is to attribute the causes of a biorhythm disturbance in a person to other probable biological factors and even ageing. It is only now that there is some awareness of sound levels. Maybe in years to come there will be more specific data to establish the nexus between noise and health," lie said.

Further, taking advantage of the laxness of Indian laws, countries which disallow flight movements over their territory between midnight and dawn to prevent a surfeit of noise during the period of sleep have their aircraft land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, which registers the highest levels of international flight movement during these hours.

Impact of surface water pollution & poor sanitation facilities

Tests conducted in private laboratories point to high bacteriological contamination, indicating that no life can survive in the Yamuna in Delhi. Given such a dismal state of affairs, little surprise then that waterborne diseases like choleral jaundice, gastro-enteritis and typhoid become endemic, particularly during the rainy season when the river spills over the banks.

While it is accepted that major alterations to the, environment have been wrought by growing urbanisation and a General breakdown in sanitation facilities, a major cause for concern is the favourable conditions existing for the spread of diseases and for the comeback of plague, tuberculosis, malaria, kala-bazar, cholera and typhoid, many of which were once considered conquered.

Though government officials do not admit that there is a resurgence or a high incidence of various water and vector-borne diseases, non-governmental survey", clearly point to the failure of disease control programmes over the years. If authorities plead that epidemiological interpretation is difficult owing to variable methods used in various studies, health experts point out that there is no evidence either of a substantial decrease in the risk of infections.

Increase in malaria : While Dr. Harsh Vardhan takes pride in saying that there have not been even five deaths due to malaria since 1991, he ignores the fact that 11,241 cases of malaria were reported in 1992 which fell to 4,365 in 1994 but again rose to 7,167 last year. Cases of the more dangerous cerebral malaria (Plasmodium Falciparum) did not show much of a decline either: 24 in 1992 and 22 in 1996.

The beleaguered State Health Department does not identify any malaria-endemic zone in the city, it also shows "zero-level" encephalitis in the city in the last five years. It does report 55 cases of kala-azar in 1994 and one case in 1995, but these were reportedly brought in by migrant labourers from Bihar State of the country.

It was generally believed that Delhi's expenditure on health and civic amenities was considerable and that diseases were only poverty and hygiene induced. But the incidence of dengue among, the rich last year left the metropolis shaken and also laid bare the abdication of duty by the city's caretakers. The colossal civic failure led to the outbreak of plague in September 1994, while 200 fatalities and 2,000 cases of mild to serious dengue haemorrhagic fever were reported between September and November 1996.


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