By Badri Chatterjee
Emissions and pollution have been more of a burning concern in recent years, especially in the wake of the pandemic, which saw a large number of people succumb to a virus because their compromised respiratory systems couldn’t handle the strain. Furthermore, during the second wave, studies found a strong link between district-level air pollution statistics and COVID-19 cases, with locations using more fossil fuels falling prey to more cases.
While we assume that infections and dubious lifestyle choices were at the root of respiratory illnesses, toxic particulate matter found in today’s air pose greater harm than a cigarette.
Air pollution can no longer be dismissed as a localised concern, particularly in the landlocked north Indian cities, which accounts for the majority of information indicating the problem’s significance. Instead, the problem must be handled before it turns into a public health emergency.
Owing to its industrial expanse and strong fossil fuel reliance, the Mumbai region constitutes a large airshed for western India. The city’s financial clout, accessible resources, and vast population build a strong impetus for Maharashtra’s government to bear a large share of the burden of reducing emissions for Mumbai.
Air pollution causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide, and poses a severe threat to Mumbai’s health, with a Swiss air quality organisation IQAir highlighting US $2.9 billion in losses and 20,000 fatalities due to ambient air pollution in 2020-21.
Variability in pollutant concentrations, hotspots
A startling comparison came to light in 2019 when the Union Earth Sciences Ministry’s System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research revealed that the concentration of finer PM2.5 particles in the overall PM10 concentration was much higher in Mumbai than in Delhi, implying that while the air in Mumbai may not be as polluted, the impact on human health may be greater.
During a vulnerability assessment for the Mumbai Climate Action Plan during the previous two years, the World Resources Institute India found that Deonar, Govandi, Mankhurd, and Trombay areas in M (East) ward consistently recorded the highest pollution levels, followed by Mahul, Chembur in M (West) ward, and F (North), including Antop Hill, Sion, and Ghatkopar. While particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were identified as primary pollutants, much above national and international safety standards, these showed fluctuations.
Four key sectoral challenges and potential solutions
In Mumbai, traffic emissions, construction operations, paved and unpaved road dust, landfills, open rubbish burning, and industrial emissions are among the major sources of pollution.
Traffic and industry Emissions
Road travel accounts for 80 percent of Mumbai’s fossil fuel emissions. More pollution under control (PUC) centres must inspect automobiles every six to seven months. Ideally, a scrappage policy of older vehicles will ensure a shift towards cleaner fuels, increased use of non-motorised transport and electric vehicles through the state’s new robust policy powered by renewable energy. Industries, with the power sector contributing to 71 percent of Mumbai’s greenhouse gas emissions, should also make the shift to cleaner fuel by phasing out older powerplants, and treating their emissions as per standards laid down by the Centre.
Rampant realty and road construction activities as a result of the population boom account for over 71 percent of particulate matter in Mumbai’s air, up from 28 percent in 2010. To mitigate this ever-growing problem, the first step could be stringent enforcement of the Construction & Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016, which mandates a safe and effective construction waste disposal system. For spreading information on bad air quality, a construction site-specific Air Quality Monitoring Plan is required.
Dumping grounds are a massive problem for Mumbai, especially because there is rampant burning of waste, which pollutes the air. While there have been site-specific drives at the ward, neighbourhood and community levels against indiscriminate incineration of garbage and crop residue, it is important to develop ward-level action plans to prevent open-waste burning. The government should recruit more manpower to drive the message home because remote pockets of the city still lack education on waste management. Authorities must create a plan that outlines essential wards with high levels of particulate matter in the air, as well as garbage segregation, transportation, and recycling that is environmentally beneficial.
The Action Plan
For a densely populated city like Mumbai, air pollution is a larger threat because the density per square kilometre runs high and toxic air in one place can be a problem for a large number of people. It is important for sub-city level authorities to always stay alert to changes in pollutant strains, atmospheric composition and sources of air pollution. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has been a key driver in framing air pollution policies. While it is effective, it suffers from a lack of manpower. The first step is replenishing the forces for a level playing field.
Secondly, air quality monitoring needs to become robust and regular, with real-time updates about the critical air pockets and sources of pollution along with health information. Data dissemination should be quick, sorted, combed through and effective so that analysis becomes easier for mitigation and policymaking. Higher manpower will also ensure that there are more awareness campaigns across the city, from popular squares to the more difficult-to-navigate slums.
Thirdly, emission norms for industrial sectors should be tightened. Factory smoke should be treated before it is discharged into the air. Both factories and vehicles should aim towards using low-emission fuel. Vehicles below the BS-IV level of engines should be scrapped with immediate effect. This is a mammoth task unless there are regular follow-ups.
Lastly, a very important step is to be inclusive and involve everyone in the decision-making step. The government can form a city-level committee under the National Clean Air Program Mumbai Clean Air Action Plan, including citizen stakeholders and experts from civil society. The inputs from the committee and collectives can be taken into consideration while addressing different sources of air pollution.
Reduced levels of pollutants in the atmosphere would improve the health of most city residents, but the impact would be greatest among low-income people, informal communities (residents and workers), migrant labourers, and outdoor workers, who are most exposed to the harmful effects of ambient air pollution.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).