The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The winter wind blows unkind

December is a disaster when it comes to the quality of air we breathe. And things are getting worse by the day.

Proof of the pollution peril — figures collected by 25 monitoring stations of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board over the past 21 days.

A sample scare — nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the atmosphere were pegged at 92.75 micrograms per cubic metre on December 4; on December 5, it was 108. The permissible national average is 80 micrograms per cubic metre.

A bigger scare — the NOx count rose from 64.75 micrograms per cubic metre on December 4, 2002, to 92.75 on December 4, 2003.

The word is out this winter — pollution levels are alarming and the blame, more than ever before, lies with diesel-driven automobiles running amok in the city.

The reasoning is simple. Air-pollution figures collected by the 25 monitoring stations reveal that out of the major air pollutants, suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) remain almost unchanged, as compared with the 2002 winter figures, despite a visible industrial clean-up.

And the NOx count, indicative of diesel pollution on city streets, is rising consistently, and cruelly, for our eyes and lungs. High NOx levels can even trigger acid rain, warn experts.

Ten years ago, the divide between vehicles and industries as the cause of pollution stood at 50:48. This, say environmental activists, has changed dramatically over the past few years, with smoke-belching buses and cars accounting for no less than three-fourths of the foul air.

“The pollution levels are rising despite industrial pollution dropping significantly in the past 24 months. Big industries in and around the city have been either shifted out (like Rasoi), or have cleaned up their act (like Hindustan Lever),” says Siddhartha Dutta of Jadavpur University.

“Also, air pollution from small units has gone down 10 times due to a highly successful coal to oil-fire boiler conversion project, undertaken by the board under the India-Canada Environment Facility (ICEF) project,” he adds.

Environment activist Subhas Dutta, whose petitions have forced the government to act on a few squalid fronts, adds: “Now, diesel-driven buses, taxis and two-stroke-engine vehicles, like auto-rickshaws and other three-wheelers, must be held responsible for about 75 per cent of the air pollution.”

Through all this, all that the government is bothered about is how to delay the implementation of Bharat II and, in the process, turn the city streets into virtual gas chambers.

“The fault clearly lies with the polluting vehicles of the city. The consistent increase of NOx over the past few years is indication enough. As for particulate matters, the city has hit a plateau, which also is alarming, as the industrial constituents have virtually been snuffed out. Things will continue to deteriorate if nothing substantial and sustainable is done on the automobile front immediately,” says a senior member of the state pollution control board.

But then, “immediately” for a Bengal government, in slow motion on pollution street, usually means later, rather than sooner.

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