Kolkata may be India’s ‘City of Joy’, but pollution meant residents had little cause for happiness this November.
Coverage surrounding India’s air pollution crisis often centres on Delhi. However, the national capital was not the most polluted city this month. This distinction fell to Kolkata, which recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) readings worse than those of Delhi on nine days between November 7 and November 25.
On average, the city has recorded AQI readings above 300 throughout November. Readings between 301 and 400 are considered “very poor” and hazardous to human health. On November 25th, air quality plummeted into the ‘severe’ category as it exceeded the 400 mark on the AQI. This marked the city’s worst reading since Diwali.
“It is high time that a health emergency is issued,” said environmentalist Mohan Ghosh of the air quality crisis in Kolkata. “People are not aware how lethal this toxic air could be.”
“Kolkata struggles in particular with PM2.5 pollution, fine particulate matter…considered especially hazardous to human health, as such particles remain in the air longer and can penetrate deeper into the lungs compared to larger particles”
Kolkata struggles in particular with PM2.5 pollution – fine particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Pollution of this kind is considered especially hazardous to human health, as such particles remain in the air longer and can penetrate deeper into the lungs compared to particles which are larger in size.
“These particles enter our lungs,” says Kolkata Clean Air co-founder Ajay Mittal. “Sometimes they are so fine they go past the alveoli and get into the bloodstream causing permanent damage to our lungs. This is very dangerous especially among the elderly and kids. This is like a public health crisis.”
Experts attribute the city’s PM2.5 woes to a number of factors. The emission of toxic fumes because of the use of low-quality fuels – often kerosene-blended diesel – is a concern identified by activist Naba Dutta. This is compounded by a “ratio of the number of vehicles to the road space…even lesser than Delhi” and shrinking amounts of open space in the city, Dutta notes.
“Ideally, open space as per population density should be between 25-30 per cent,” Dutta observes. However, he adds, open spaces in the city now account for a mere seven percent of its topography.
“The crisis in Kolkata is a sobering reminder that [air quality] is a national crisis, not confined to Delhi by any stretch of the imagination”
India’s air quality is regularly in the spotlight, especially in the winter months – the country’s de facto pollution season. As mentioned above, Delhi is often in the spotlight when this time of year comes around. This was the case last year, when the National Capital Region (NCR) witnessed such poor air quality that the Indian Medical Association (IMA) declared a state of public health emergency.
The crisis in Kolkata is a sobering reminder that this is a national crisis, not confined to Delhi by any stretch of the imagination. The fourteen most polluted cities in the world are in India, as per World Health Organization (WHO) data. The death toll related to air pollution is not exclusively limited to cities, as is often the public perception. In fact, of the eleven million pollution-related deaths India saw in 2015, 75 percent took place in rural areas.
Poor air quality is considered to be the leading threat to environmental health. It comes as little surprise, then, that India’s environmental health is the worst in the world. This is far from a mere label. It is manifest in the health crises of the kind seen in almost every Indian city and across its rural communities.
Comprehensive government responses to air pollution are of vital importance, at both the central and state levels. Advisories to citizens on how to best protect their health in periods of intense pollution are a must. Also of great importance are long-term measures to improve air quality. In Kolkata, freeing up open spaces and effecting a changeover to cleaner fuels will be a necessity if any improvement in the city’s air quality can be expected in years to come.