Why pollution in India is a national crisis

READING TIME: 6 MINUTES

I recently visited family back in Delhi and Siliguri, India. Everyone said it was the best time of the year to go back since Diwali celebrations were impending. Having not been back for over half a decade, I was obviously very excited to see how India, now the world’s seventh largest economy, was faring in its offering to global sustainability.

Delhi’s air pollution crisis

My first stop was the capital Delhi where my brother is based. Its residents suffer from the worst air quality of any city in the world, and that is not an exaggeration since I endured it first-hand for 5 days straight!

The view from my brother's terrace in C.R. Park, South Delhi
The view from my brother’s terrace in C.R. Park, South Delhi

Perhaps, this image does not fully highlight how poor visibility was since I could not get a proper view of the CBD from his house.

Delhi’s infrastructure, on the whole, is generally very well planned and maintained but it tends to be unevenly distributed, with Central and South Delhi’s development taking precedence over less affluent areas such as North Delhi. Unmaintained pavements and derelict bridges in this part of the capital are increasingly being occupied by Delhi’s beggar population. Lacking proper education on resource or waste management, they burn increasing amounts of wood and coal, especially in the winter, to keep warm. These toxic fumes mixed with the dust, already present in the atmosphere, cause levels of airborne pollutants to go ‘off the scale’. The Print highlight ‘dust, burning of plastic and other materials including leaves in the open area and vehicular pollution’ to be major contributors to air pollution not just in Delhi, but in other parts of the Indian subcontinent as well.

Delhi is also unfortunate in that it does not benefit from the coastal influence of the sea the way cities such as Mumbai do. Its geographical proximity to the desert state of Rajasthan causes dust to be blown in from westerly winds into the city. Construction activity has also been a major contributor to air pollution. Since dust pollution, caused by both the construction of buildings and roads, increases the likelihood of air-related diseases, the state-owned construction NBCC most recently directed its contractors to transport building materials (i.e. sand, gravel, grit) in closed steel containers. Furthermore, between the 1st-10th earlier this month, construction works were completely forbidden. The banning of materials being carried openly around the city is reassuring to hear as small steps are being taken to combat this issue that has become a fixture on every Indian household’s news screen.

Siliguri’s water abuse

My next stop was the settlement of Salbari in Siliguri, a town in North Bengal. Fifteen years ago, this place was completely barren with our family home being one of the first settlements to reside in the neighbourhood. You could see paddy fields and livestock for miles away. The changing built environment when I visited this time around was staggering. Strolling across familiar ground evoked fond childhood memories where the areas I used to play before were now occupied by new apartment complexes. I also witnessed poor waste management, particularly around rivers and streams, that were breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies. This image of a garbage-filled stream was taken not too far from my childhood home.

Littered waste in Salbari, Siliguri

The Siliguri Municipal Corporation doesn’t really hold sustainable development and public health to be at the core of its agenda. I saw more billboard posters praising high academic achievers across the city instead of recycling or appropriate waste disposal initiatives. Since the dawn of the millennium, Siliguri has rapidly grown to become the largest metropolis in northeastern India, and so the wave of internal migration has brought upon an onslaught of development. As a result, the Mahananda River (pictured below), which flows through Siliguri, is being polluted beyond control.

River pollution in Siliguri
(Source: India Climate Dialogue)

Critics of the public authorities responsible for maintaining infrastructure and environmental health mention how they have ”failed to take any remedial and precautionary steps. The river is being polluted by discharge of sewage and other effluents and dumping of waste…”. Once the lifeline of Siliguri, the Mahananda river is now a dumping ground for industrial, chemical and human waste. Fishermen who used to rely on the river for their income have suffered due to marine life being silently wiped out.

For the issue of pollution to truly achieve steady progress, whether it be light, air, water, etc, it is nearly impossible to conduct a national collective effort. In a nation of 1.3 billion (and growing), locally pocketed efforts and conversations need to arise as the de jure effect of the High Courts can also do so much. My generation is realising that this is not a crisis that they can simply view on TV; instead, they are experiencing it. The de facto change I was glad to witness was within my localities. For example, young autorickshaw drivers are now adopting battery-operated vehicles across Delhi and Siliguri as they are aware that these silent vehicles, although slower than conventional autorickshaws, cut carbon emissions and are incredibly environmentally friendly. This is a process that will be ongoing for a while and despite administrative laxity being evident, progress will be made by educating oneself first before advising someone else on how to effectively recycle or manage waste; the same way I mentioned during my previous article on water sustainability.

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