The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In winter, breathe uneasy
- Pollution figures soar with dip in mercury

It’s time for the mercury mark to drop and the pollution level to rise. The half-hearted bandh may have provided a temporary respite from the smokescreen that clouds overcrowded Calcutta on weekdays, but that is little consolation for a gasping city. Figures released by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) reveal a murky picture — against a daily national standard of 200 microgram/cubic metre SPM (Suspended Particulate Matter) and 100 microgram/ cubic metre RPM (Respirable Particulate Matter), Calcutta this winter has recorded levels much higher. For example, the SPM figures on January 7-8 was 390 microgram/ cubic metre and the RPM was 274 microgram/ cubic metre. Also, nitrogen oxides in air — caused by diesel-belching vehicles — have risen to 67 microgram/cubic metre in 2002, as opposed to 40 in 2000.

Dipak Chakrabarty, project in-charge and PCB chief scientist, says: “The impact of pollution is greater in winter because of less dispersion of air and inversion phenomenon.” In other words, the air settles down closer to ground level, causing lung-related complications.

The effects are showing, with every other household complaining of cold, coughs and other lung-related ailments. “About eight years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had reported that close to 6,000 people died prematurely in the city due to exposure to particulate pollutants, and the situation has not changed much since,” complains scientist Debasish Bhattacharya. “We have not done anything to curb the growth of petrol and diesel-run automobiles and, thus, vehicular pollution.”

Even the state environment department’s findings showed how “80 per cent of the city population suffers from respiratory disorders which are severe in winter” and “an average Calcutta dweller is 10 times more affected than somebody from the Sunderbans”.

WBPCB member-secretary Rabi Kant says: “There is no denying the fact that this is the most difficult time of the year for us, but the pollution figures of the city are showing a downward annual trend. “The analysis of 2002 that I received on Friday shows that both SPM and RPM have decreased marginally, in comparison to the 2001 figures,” adds Kant. The PCB analysis also reveals how industrial and vehicular pollution remain the prime culprits, with each contributing nearly half the total load.

“As far as industrial pollution goes, CESC’s New Cossipore generating station is responsible for 50 per cent, while about 44 per cent is accounted for by small coal-fired industries,” says Kant.

Though WBPCB has tried to involve these units in a project titled ‘Indo-Canada Environment Facility’, encouraging them to switch to oil-fired methods, the response has hardly been uniformly enthusiastic.

“The Board has decided to showcause 130 such industrial units and, if necessary, they will be ordered shut,” warns a senior pollution control officer.

“A recent survey shows that of about 300 such coal-fired units in the city, around 56 per cent have either converted, or is in the process of converting to oil,” says Dipak Chakrabarty. “Cossipore, Dalhousie, the approach to Howrah bridge, Shyambazar and Moulali are the most polluted areas of the city,” he adds. “There is a move to control industrial pollution, with even the CESC submitting an action plan for the Cossipore unit, but vehicular pollution remains the principal problem,” opines one PCB official. With each passing year adding 30,000 cars to the city streets, the pollution watch in Calcutta is growing bleaker by the winter.

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