In August 2018, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, newly empowered with an amendment to the KMC Act, delivered a show cause notice to the ESI Hospital at Joka. Several mosquito breeding pockets had been found on the hospital’s campus and government had decided it was time to get tough. After all, KMC’s clinics had recorded as many as 75 dengue cases during June and July of that year.
Compare this alacrity with the response to another public health problem – poor air quality. It has taken almost 20 years – starting with a petition in 1999 – for the government to realise that air pollution is an issue that needs urgent attention. This realisation, too, came about only when, on 27 November 2018, the National Green Tribunal, following the Supreme Court’s direction that government officials be prosecuted for inaction on polluters, imposed a fine of Rs 5 crore on the West Bengal government for non-performance of its environmental duties.
The NGT pointed to the many steps it had listed in its order in 2016: phase out old vehicles, tighten checks on emission compliance, stop open incineration of waste, introduce remote sensing devices to monitor emissions, and increase the number of monitoring stations. It seemed that the government had been lax across the board.
While a Rs 5 crore fine may be inconsequential to the budget of the state government, it should serve as a wake-up call. The same order threatens additional fines of Rs 1 crore for every month of delay in complying with the steps listed by the court. It may be sheer coincidence but, within two weeks of the order, in mid- December 2018, the Environment Minister announced a “temporary strategy” to switch buses from highly polluting diesel to relatively clean CNG by bringing in tankers carrying the gas. In addition, 80 electric buses are to be introduced – 20 now and the rest in sync with the extension of recharging facilities.
So, why does the mere possibility of dengue deaths trigger such alacrity on the part of KMC while the proven mortality caused by air pollution gets ignored, even though deaths due to air pollution are greater than dengue deaths by several multiples? One reason, of course, is the relative absence of cause-and-effect data. A blood test can quickly identify dengue as a cause of death, while the slow, insidious damage done by pollution to respiratory tracts, cardiac health and even brain development needs well-designed, ideally longitudinal studies based on reliable records at the ground level. The public are being short-changed by the inadequacies in the health information system.
In this context, the announcement by the new Mayor of Kolkata, Mr Firhad Hakim, that attention to the city’s environment will be a priority for him raises hopes. The need has been longstanding but rarely has a politician recognised the need, let alone put it on his list of priorities. In fact, in recent years the city has been subjected to politicians for whom issues such as environmental health and sustainability were of the least concern. Examples abound: unnecessary and excessive consumption of electricity for decorative street lighting, determined efforts to build a flyover across the protected east Kolkata wetlands, use of antiquated and poisonous hot-mix technology for laying road surfaces, banning of bicycles rather than making provisions for their safe use…the list could lead to reader fatigue.
So if under the new Mayor, Kolkatans were to look for assurance that inaugural statements will in fact be translated into action, what could some of these actions be?
The first – and perhaps most easily doable step – would be to withdraw the intention declared by the last mayor to build a flyover across the east Kolkata wetlands. The wetlands are a protected area, vital to the ecological health of the city for reasons that have received scientific, legal and societal endorsement in India and internationally. The High Court of Calcutta has passed orders, the state assembly has enacted a law and the government has set up an authority – all aimed at protecting the east Kolkata wetlands. Against this, the benefits of the proposed flyover are, at best, questionable.
In the short run perhaps, a few minutes will be saved in journeying to the airport but as universal experience has shown, flyovers are pathetically inadequate at providing a long-term solution because traffic volume expands to fill up the additional roads. Kolkata’s new Mayor would be gifting the city greater climate resilience and environmental health if he sets aside the proposal for this flyover.
The second issue crying for attention is air quality. Our political leaders have to accept the reality that the November to February months – which used to be considered the city’s “high season” – have become a period when the city becomes a gas chamber. While some causes are beyond control – cool temperatures, for instance, trap pollutants making the mornings particularly deadly – mitigation steps can certainly be taken to address others.
Open burning is a major cause – conservancy workers, private homes and institutions burn leaf litter with impunity. These certainly could be curtailed with tighter supervision. The other major source of open incineration is the thousands of roadside tea and food shops that rely entirely on coal. The provision of subsidised smokeless coal to such shops in polluted hot spots could be explored; the cost may be quite affordable, especially if it is seen as promoting public health.
The third area for attention in translating environmental priority into action would be the city’s green cover. Kolkata has been losing green cover because of the greed of squarefoot oriented real estate developers and because of the concretization of pavements. The latter practice weakens trees and makes them more vulnerable in storms. Simple low-cost measures such as putting grates around the base of trees instead of concrete would reduce tree mortality and curb the loss of green cover.
Along with the protection of existing green cover, three simple low-cost ways of adding new green cover could be considered. The practice of promoting urban forests has been found to produce positive results in terms of reducing heat islands and improving weather stability. Urban forests are dense clumps of trees that do not require large tracts of land; even small areas are enough because the density of the leaves and branches is very effective in capturing pollutants and impacting weather at the micro level: local varieties such as bokul, kadam, pakur and jarul would provide results quickly. Mahogany and debdaru would provide height. Not surprisingly, urban forests have been found to even boost people’s physical and mental health. Cities ranging from Seoul to Melbourne and Athens have undertaken large-scale planting of groves and gardens to reduce pollution, improve local weather and achieve overall climate resilience.
A second low-cost step in adding green cover would be the promotion of vertical gardens – planting literally up the sides of structures such as buildings, flyover columns and even the frames of hoardings. Vines and cascading creepers in highly polluted areas could make a significant difference.
Third, expensive and aesthetically unappealing guardrails could be replaced with dense hedges. Plants such as tagor, kamini and rangon would be ideal. These are evergreen, need very little care and protect motorists from the glare of oncoming traffic headlights. And they have a far lower carbon footprint than painted metal.
Finally, if Kolkata’s environment is to be a priority under the new mayorship, it needs to be subjected to regular measurement. Technology is now available that gives us real time data on air quality, even on a street-bystreet basis. With remote sensing technology (or Googlemap) we can monitor the city’s canopy periodically and track the actual impact of action steps described above.
Political will is what has been missing in Kolkata’s environmental battles. Do we have it in the new Mayor?
(The writers are, respectively, founder-president of PUBLIC, and a consultant with World Bank and a former Professor at Wharton and IIMC)