How Mumbai’s air is killing its citizens


Mumbai has been witnessing consequent rainy evenings this week in November. Well, should the rain wear come out or the woollens is the challenge. Maybe a mix of both! After living in denial for three decades, it is finally time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Over the past three decades scientists have been warning us about climate change and we nodded in agreement. Beyond nodding was anything done is the question we need to ask. At the recently concluded COP26 climate Summit my attention was drawn to the proud proclamation stating that Maharashtra bagged the ‘Inspiring Regional Leadership’ Award  from Under2 Coalition Climate Leadership Awards 2021 and became the only Indian state to win one of the three awards by Under2 at COP26 in Scotland!
Well Kudos to the prize winners but also time to ask for a honest answer. What was it that Maharashtra did so unique that it got the award.

Having travelled some of the length and breadth of our vast diverse country’s landscape, it would be an exercise in dishonesty to award any state extra marks for being environment friendly or climate resilient Let us discuss Maharashtra particularly Mumbai. Yes the glamourous, glittering financial capital of India. Climate resilience and environment friendly are two parameters that justify the award. Was it a well-managed PR exercise or is Mumbai truly a champion is the question? Air pollution, waste management, protection of natural spaces, wildlife habitats, green zones, NDZ, etc all are inextricably linked.

While the Kejriwal govt bashers had a field day on National Television , a rude wake up call awaited us in Mumbai. On November 18 as winter set in, Mumbai outclassed Delhi in the race for most polluted city. Air Quality Index of 345 in a coastal city compared to a landlocked Delhi with a reading of 331. The immediate justification was that vehicles were the main culprit in causing high levels of pollution.

Assuming its true, what really should have been the solution? Investing in public transport. Was that done? The common man the one who unwillingly stands out a symbol of Mumbai’s resilience travels by bus or rail. The BEST bus network is one of the most extensive in the world, one that stood the test of time. Its staff who even in Covid times unflinchingly did their duty at great personal risk is an example of how crucial and efficient the network has been. BEST buses should have been the toast of the city, maybe its pride as well. What did the govt do to enhance the efficiency of BEST? Successive govts watched and encouraged its decline. Neither was money pumped into it to buy energy efficient, comfortable air conditioned buses, nor were dedicated bus lanes even proposed, let alone made. Rickety old buses, the old warhorses still carrying on.

Today, Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation buses from the satellite city of Navi Mumbai are stealing a march over the much older experienced BEST. Air-conditioned high quality blue buses have begun to make inroads into the streets of Mumbai. If vehicular pollution is to be tackled seriously, the existing time tested BEST needs a helping hand. Energy efficient buses running from end to end of the city aided by feeder mini buses into the smaller lanes would help reduce the traffic. But this option that can be immediately done is kept on hold and instead, the promise of a Metro network which will be functional in the next five years is being showcased. Does the need or execution of Metro Projects have to come at the cost of a sacrificial lamb the BEST bus service?

All the ongoing work of the Metro projects are major contributors to the SPM pollution of Mumbai’s air. The least that could have been done is to provide the daily travellers a dust free, smoke free travel. When I say that the project work is a major polluter it comes with facts. The prestigious blue eyed boy project of the previous govt Metro 3 underground was supposed to be done at a cost of excavating 3 lakh tonnes of mud. When one reads the detailed project report, it is so encouraging to see the mention about air pollution that would be caused due to ferrying of mud through the streets of Mumbai. So much thought went into the report.

Well, the solution suggested was that to avoid air pollution due to the frequent movement of dumpers, the mud would be carted away from the city using barges via the sea route and taken to destinations where ports were being made on the coastline. Sounded too good to be true. Well documents sought under the RTI act and to which replies were resisted for two years exposed the truth. Not one barge had left the shores of Mumbai and the entire mud was carted through the streets of Mumbai and dumped on low lying areas and wetlands. Every street dug up, perfectly good pavements dug up and laid. A city with an inventory of 7 lakh unsold houses is witnessing non stop housing projects. Not one construction site follows norms of keeping dust levels low by use of sprinklers.

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The state pollution control board a body weak kneed and understaffed occasionally issues token notices and looks away all the while. The icing on the cake is provided by burning of garbage in slums of the forested areas of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and other areas which have been inaccessible to the Municipal corporation. So we have a deadly potent cocktail of dust, cement particles, carcinogens and vehicular exhaust residue finding its resting place in the lungs of Mumbai’s citizens. The easily available basic natural filter the trees have been neutered thanks to the unscientific hacking passed off as trimming by the corporation. Not one branch or foliage is left for the first five metres of the tree from the base. Minus the foliage at the levels which is the breathing zone for all life forms on land, humans included, the dust is constantly circulated by moving vehicles.

Mumbai and Maharasthra have lost more trees ten times more than the number of saplings that are planted and left to perish while being shown as “Compensatory Afforestation”. If one were to believe the previous govt, Maharashtra should be having a dense Amazon like forest (remember the claim of 33 crore trees being planted?). Somehow the trees don’t seem to be showing up on Google earth images and will never will simply because the entire exercise was a well managed PR initiative.

Mumbai has many claimants from the govt side each trying to undo the other with new projects. If one agency undertook the Metro project, the other took up the Coastal road project. The irony is that the underground Metro was promoted and initiated as an alternative to road transport and to reduce pollution. The Coastal road successfully negates that logic by providing encouragement to car owners to populate the roads. The cheapest and most effective support to the BEST bus service is the Mumbai Suburban rail network. Putting out air-conditioned rakes running from end to end of the network at 3 minute intervals, it would have been a blessing to the hapless commuter travelling in sub human conditions to make a living. This suggestion was put up at a public interaction with a senior bureaucrat who said that the idea was on the cards but it would be done after all the other networks were complete!

To sum it up, Mumbai’s air is killing its citizens solely because of lack of sensitivity from the powers that rule the city. Instead of implementing cheap instant solutions, the relentless abuse of the health of the citizens continues. The carrot of better days ahead keeps the citizens trekking on. There are many issues which make up the criteria for a healthy environment and each needs to be analyzed carefully. We will take up issues one by one. This one was on air quality. Other cities barring Navi Mumbai are in a mad race to repeat the follies of Mumbai’s journey. The unseasonal rains a clear indicator of climate change can have devastating effects on farming but for Mumbai, I would say it is God sent. The air quality is better after the rains with the dust settling down only to be sent back into circulation with the intense heat that follows in the day.

On the count of performance of air quality, the first parameter for environment performance analysis, Mumbai fares poorly and certainly deserves minus marks for it. But I guess the award is already in the kitty thanks to a well orchestrated campaign and a jury that had no access to independent data . So let the champagne flow as we choke on foul air!

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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Sagar Biswas

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