After a lot of soul-searching and odds and evens, Delhi has managed to remove itself from the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world. But India has nothing to feel proud about. Four Indian cities – Gwalior (2), Allahabad (3), Patna (6) and Raipur (7) – are still in the top ten. Gwalior has the ‘distinction’ of being on the second spot for the second time running. This means that despite being high on the list, no effort was made in that city to rectify the situation.

The addition of three other cities speaks volumes about the Indian lack of concern for cleanliness and civic responsibility – both by the citizens and the administration – in its rapidly expanding urban spaces. Despite the much touted Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and pumping of crores of rupees in the effort, the situation seems to have worsened. Cities and towns are getting uglier and dirtier by the day, making them largely unlivable. Any further allocation of funds, like in the Smart Cities project, that does not envisage spotlessly clean cities would be a waste of time, effort and money as dirty cities cannot be smart cities by any stretch of imagination.

Four things are prerequisites for a clean city – proper civic sense in citizens, scientific and timely waste management, cleaner fuels for the vehicles that ply on its roads and strictness in monitoring of urban development and real estate projects of both the private and government sector. Indian cities fall in the list of most polluted cities mainly due to presence of high levels of Particulate Matter (PM) in the air as the quality of air is the principal benchmark that the WHO follows to determine these rankings. 

Now Particulate Matter does not fall from the sky. It is generated by the urban spaces themselves and it floats in the air to worsen living conditions. How is this PM generated? Through lack of civic sense, improper and lax waste management, smoke spewing vehicles and giving a free run to urban development and real estate projects.

A city can only be as clean as its inhabitants want it to be. If households treat only their own living space as temples and the rest of the city as a garbage dump, no amount of effort by the municipal workers can keep it clean. Also, there is an army of street vendors in all Indian towns and cities that create an enormous amount of garbage daily. In most large Indian cities, garbage collection and disposal system has been made scientific, with compactor trucks and stations to handle the garbage and fertilizer or electricity generation units that use it as raw material. 

But if one cares to take a walk in lanes and by-lanes of any town early in the morning, one will witness house helps, or even householders themselves, stealthily dispose of their garbage in illegal plastic bags someplace away from their own building. This plastic bag, if not picked up in time by a passing garbage collection van, is likely to be busted by a passing car. Its contents will be strewn all across the street, adding to the unbearable stench and the Particulate Matter. This is what is not letting our air quality improve, especially as it is being done by millions of people across all cities. There should be strict penalties for households and vendors who do not dispose of garbage in the prescribed manner.

Although there has been a perceptible improvement in waste management and disposal techniques in bigger cities, other towns still use manual methods. For instance, when a drain is blocked, civic workers will tie a rope across their waist and go down to lift bucketsful of refuse. This refuse is then stored as small mounds near the drain. The drain is cleared at that time. But there is no coordination between various civic agencies. Those mounds of refuse will remain on the road for several days before the truck of the contractor will come to lift and dispose it. In the meantime, if it rains, the entire refuse is once again washed down the drain. If it does not rain, the sun dries up the refuse and the wind makes it fly across the city, again adding to the stench and the PM. 

There should be a law in smaller towns too that if the municipality cannot afford the mechanised suction trucks that clear drains, the refuse should at least be directly loaded into normal trucks for immediate disposal. Open garbage vats, besides being an eyesore and an assault on olfactory organs, are health hazards and major pollutants. If compactors are not there in Grade Y towns, they should immediately be procured. Funding can be requisitioned from trade bodies if the municipalities are not able enough. These are small things which will go a long way to improve the air quality.

Most Grade X cities have laws that do not permit vehicles older than 15 years to ply on their streets. Ever wondered where these vehicles go? Given the Indian penchant for jugaad, they are obviously sold to buyers in Grade Y towns. Hence it is that such towns are rapidly entering the list of most polluted cities in the world. This apart, the subsidy on diesel and the delay in converting three wheelers and taxis from diesel or petrol to cleaner fuels like CNG or LPG is deplorable. There will always be resistance in conversion of old vehicles, as there was in Delhi recently, but the government has to decide how it will overcome it. 

Lack of maintenance of the bus fleets of state urban transport departments and other private operators means that most of our city buses, even in Grade X towns, are pollutants of the worst kind. Yet, when schemes like odd and even in Delhi are devised, it is the private vehicles that bear the brunt. If the public transport and other commercial vehicles’ are not modernized and maintained properly, more cities will jump up on the list.

Finally, in any city across India, urban development and real estate projects are major pollutants. Various agencies that dig up city roads for laying or repairing cables, water pipes or any other facility, usually leave an ugly hump, with lots of loose earth. This is later converted into dirt and floats in the air to add to the PM. There is no coordination between agencies. No permission should be granted if simultaneous work of reconstructing the stretch is not done. In places like Bangkok, road repair crews stand by if any stretch is being dug up and they complete their work as soon as the other agency finishes theirs. Why can’t we have this in India? 

The boards that proclaim “Today&’s Pain, Tomorrow&’s Gain” are alright, but there is something called pain management in medical science. This should be applied for such projects too. Sand, stone chips, cement bags and other material is indiscriminately dumped near all construction sites. Now if anyone who has ever had dry sand in his eyes and nose will vouch, it is a very painful and harrowing experience. So there should be a law to prevent open storage of such material (in urban development projects, it will not add even 0.1 per cent to the project cost and private developers should in any case not be allowed to inconvenience citizens for their gain), with strict penalties for violation. Otherwise, with more development, air quality will worsen further. Besides degrading the environment, air pollution is the major reason why respiratory diseases are on the rise in our cities. Doctors have found that children as young as five and six years of age are suffering from breathing problems and respiratory tract infections. We debate about putting larger pictorial warnings on packets of tobacco products, while our citizens are getting their lungs damaged even without smoking. What warning should be put out for our cities then?

The writer is Editor-in-Chief of www.indiacommentary.com