A small town. An undulating river. Patches of green cover. A blue sky above. The romanticised idea of smaller urban settings is often far removed from the trappings of a bigger metropolis—the din and bustle, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the main road, the pollution. But are smaller towns tucked away in the hinterland are as clean we imagine them to be. Here is a reality check.
On December 3, the air quality index (AQI) recorded at Buxar, a town on the banks of Ganga in western Bihar, was a staggering 427. Biharsharif, another small town near the ancient cities of Rajgir and Nalanda, fared no better at 407. On the same day, the AQI of Sasaram and Bettiah was 394 and 387 respectively—all above Delhi’s ‘very poor’ air quality at 346. In fact, of 11 worst-hit cities listed under ‘very poor’ to ‘severe’ category on the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) bulletin for the day, all except one were in Bihar.
In a country where PM2.5 concentration is 10.4 times above the WHO air quality norms, it should come as no surprise. Experts believe that the topography of the region, weather, general lack of awareness among people and lackadaisical approach of the authorities towards the ever-increasing problem of air pollution have all contributed to turning the Gangetic plains and adjoining areas into a veritable gas chamber, especially at the onset of winter.
And yet, air pollution is often considered to be an exclusive bane of big cities perennially beset with toxic smogs and fumes. The perils of living in the nondescript, asphyxiated towns are seldom talked about despite the fact that the AQI levels above 200 are considered poor and any reading of it above 400 is severe, as per global standards.
But then, Bihar has not seen a sudden spike this year. Far from it, it appears to have become a perennial feature now. Two weeks ago, a different set of Bihar’s towns—Katihar (386), Purnia (384), Siwan (381), Darbhanga (369) and Kishanganj (358)—recorded the worst AQI in the country, leaving many bustling state capitals and industrial hubs far behind.
For the record, on the latest list of the world’s most polluted cities released by IQAir, a Switzerland-based climate watchdog, Bihar’s Muzaffarpur and Patna are in the 28th and 32nd position, while Gaya and Hajipur also figure in the top 100. Muzaffarpur’s average AQI was found to be ‘hazardous’ at 303, its PM2.5 concentration in the air being 50.6 times higher than WHO-mandated norms. Patna was slightly better with its annual average AQI of 250, but still 40.1 times above the ideal limits.
Even as the rest of the country, from civil society and media to the judiciary have been raising alarms over the dangerous levels of air pollution in and around the national capital and other metropolitan cities, the smaller cities, tier-II and III towns appear to have been left to fend for themselves, gasping for breath owing to the absence of any effective plan by the authorities to address the issue at the earliest.
The CPCB has launched an ambitious National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP) in coordination with state pollution control boards across the nation but the towns located in the interiors are yet to benefit from it. This despite the fact that cities like Patna and Muzaffarpur, for example, have often been flagged many times as being too dangerous to live in because of their ‘very bad’ to ‘severe’ air quality by different national and international agencies.
In 2016, WHO had declared Patna to be the fourth most polluted city in the world—next only to Zabol in Iran and Gwalior and Allahabad in India. Incidentally, Zabol, which had topped the dubious list, had recorded PM2.5 of 217 at the time. Two years later, Patna was on the fifth spot on the same list while Gaya’s air quality had deteriorated enough to propel it to the 4th position.
In 2019, Greenpeace Asia, a non-profit environmental organisation had found Patna to be the seventh most polluted city in the world while Muzaffarpur was on the 13th spot. Its report had cited a massive increase in PM2.5 levels in the air that infect lungs and may even cause cancer, brain strokes, or heart diseases. The same year, another study by IIT-Kanpur and Shakti Foundation, Patna was found to be the most polluted city in the country, followed by Varanasi and Kanpur in the Gangetic plains.
Experts believe that the current scenario may well be the proverbial tip of the iceberg of a gigantic problem since there is no system to monitor the air quality of the worst-affected places, especially in India. Nitish Priyadarshi, a Ranchi-based environmentalist, cites the example of Jharia in Jharkhand, where pollution caused by perennial coal fire has adversely affected the health of the people over the years. “Due to the toxic gases being released due to the fire, 10 to 15 lakh people are exposed to multiple health hazards there,” he tells Outlook. “The fine particles present in the atmosphere along with gases such as nitrogen, sulphar, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide have increased the risk of lung and skin-related diseases in the people there. Even in satellite images of the town, there is always a haze over the affected areas, which is an alarming sign.” He says if the fire is not stopped, many areas of Jharkhand will become barren in the future. “Many areas of southern Jharkhand are reeling under fire, which will all become deserted one day,” he says.
Pinaki Roy, a photographer whose family has lived in Jharia for decades, says that that the entire Jharia coalfield area may not be grappling with the underground fire, but the pollution level in and around the town has gone up to an alarming level due to smoke and dust all around.
Patna, incidentally, was identified as one of the 122 non-attainment cities (where air quality was worse than the national ambient air quality standards) under the NCAP and special measures were identified to bring down its pollution level. A clean air action plan by Bihar State Pollution Control Board also came into effect in April 2019 for Patna, Muzaffarpur and Gaya, It had identified dust, vehicular emissions, fuel and waste burning, construction activities and industrial fumes among other things as major sources of air pollution in the city. Under the action plan, measures such as phasing out of 15-year-old commercial vehicles, afforestation, promotion of e-rickshaws and cleaner fuel like CNG, covering of construction sites, etc had been recommended with an ambitious target to bring the situation under control by 2024. But the goal seems too distant at the moment. “The pollution levels went down during the lockdown periods but everything is back to square one now,” says climate activist Maanas Kumar.
Bihar’s lawmakers expressed concern over the alarming pollution levels in the state during the ongoing winter session of the state legislature but nothing has been announced as yet by the government to tackle the issue on a priority level. “That is because issues like air pollution are rarely part of election manifestos in this country,” says Kumar.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Smog Screen")
(With inputs from Navin Mishra in Ranchi)