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Draw in death with every breath

Don’t dare breathe at Behala Chowrasta. Run miles away from Minto Park. Fight shy of Shyambazar. Go to Gariahat with a prayer…

This isn’t about the terrors of The Day After Tomorrow. This is about today, and how toxic the air we breathe actually is.

The 2002-2003 report of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB), covering 17 points in Calcutta, makes what we fear official. Yet again.

On three major indices of ambient air quality — suspended particulate matter (SPM), respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — most of Calcutta soars high and ugly above the national standard.

Try this for your lungs — the national standard for RSPM (that is predominantly emitted by diesel-driven vehicles and hits the lungs the hardest) is 60 microgram per cubic metre, but the Calcutta average is 93. Some areas, like Behala Chowrasta, Shyambazar and Topsia, have even touched the hundred mark.

Or this: the Calcutta SPM count stands as 182 microgram per cubic metre, way above the national allowable standard of 140.

What it means is a city of respiratory diseases and worse, with vulnerability reaching the womb and the race to stay healthy lost at the starting line.

If this is scary, take a deep breath —or maybe you shouldn’t, for the sake of your lungs — for the killer RSPM count is rising alarmingly. The respirable suspended particulates are small enough to be inhaled and go deep in the crevices of one’s lungs, causing maximum damage — often irreversible —to the respiratory system.

The average RSPM figures were higher than the standard this time at all 17 points, confirms the report. “The most chilling finding of the survey is the rise in the average RSPM figure. For example, at Behala Chowrasta, the count has climbed from 60 microgram per cubic metre in 2001-02 to close to 100 last year,” said an environment department official.

The NO2 factor is also a serious cause for concern. A direct fallout of diesel-dominated automobiles plying on the city streets, the NO2 average count has crossed the standard 60 microgram per cubic metre in 10 out of 17 points. “Nitrogen dioxide was not a major problem even a few years ago, but now it is crossing the danger mark,” warns an environment expert.

The reason, of course, is not hard to find. The government of West Bengal, which had taken the lead — on paper — in preparing an alternative fuel-based action plan in 2002, has done little to get its clean-air act together.

This, despite a high court deadline — subsequently pushed back — of all vehicles running within the Calcutta Metropolitan Area meeting Bharat Stage II auto-emission standards by April 1, 2004. The next deadline for the government to meet is October 1, when national tailpipe emission standards are put in place.

“The air pollution in the city has reached a plateau. It can only go from bad to worse, with the huge number of vehicles being added every year,” says Sudip Banerjee of Calcutta University’s environment department.

“Things can improve significantly only if some significant steps — like introduction of LPG or restriction of the number of vehicles being allowed to ply — are taken on the transport front,” he added.

But with the ruling reds stumbling from dither pillar to denial post when it comes to matters green, that looks like a tailpipe dream.

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