Notwithstanding a massive Rs 536 crore received by Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) since 2019 to combat air pollution, the City of Joy has recently been ranked second on the pollution count by a survey that was carried out among the world’s most polluted cities.
KMC sources point out that they have used up around 50 to 60 per cent of the funds. Environmentalists, however, allege that the funds were used inappropriately and invested in non-priority areas.
According to a global study, the city's PM 2.5 concentration in 2019 was 84 micrograms per cubic metre of air, more than double the national standard of 40 micrograms and nearly 17 times above the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard of 5 micrograms.
The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) considers reduction of PM 10 — fine respirable particulate but less toxic compared to PM 2.5 — as the criteria for air pollution improvement, with sufficient arrangement of measuring PM 2.5 does not exist throughout the country.
However, the city has not shown much improvement over the last three years in terms of PM 10 concentration as its annual average has struck around 100 micrograms. During 2021-22, the concentration increased to 106 micrograms compared to 99 micrograms the year before, according to NCAP data. The national limit for annual PM 10 concentration is 60 micrograms.
“Under NCAP and the then 15th Financial Commission, KMC, received Rs 536.5 crore between 2019-20 and 2021-22. As per the NCAP norms, the money is given to KMC directly and a small portion is allotted to the State Pollution Control Board through them,” said senior environment department officials to The Plurals.
KMC officials claimed that they have been working as per the air action plan prepared for the city which is pivoted by the environment department. They, however, admitted inadequate infrastructure to handle such huge funds to counter pollution.
“We could use about 50 to 60 percent of the funds as we do not have the required set-up. In keeping with the advice of the environment department, we have spent on road development, bio-mining of legacy waste in Dhapa, two construction and demolition waste recycling units in the city and water sprinklers on roads. We will support at source separation of solid waste in the city,” an official said.
KMC has also purchased about 170 new vehicles to replace its fleet of 15-year-old vehicles.
“While undertaking these steps were important, what about priority areas like controlling vehicular pollution and taking steps to replace old polluting commercial vehicles? KMC should not use the fund in covering other activities and should prioritise its action on urgent air pollution related areas,” said environment activist Subhas Datta.
Datta also pointed out that scattering of construction waste on footpaths and roads and garbage burning continue unabated within greater Kolkata despite various announcements.
KMC said it has invested around “Rs 60 to 70 crore” in building charging stations for electrical vehicles and rolling out some CNG buses.
“It’s strange that such a huge amount of public money was spent apparently to counter the city's air pollution without public consultation. We demand the government and KMC to declare their spending patterns, organise public consultations and prioritise the spending to combat the most critical sources of the city's air pollution,” said Naba Dutta, environmentalist and secretary of the green platform Sabuj Mancha.
“Based on the NEERI report, we earlier asked KMC to prioritise actions on construction, road dust counter and water sprinkling, waste burning,” said a senior environment department official.
“This year, we have asked KMC to focus on transport, solid fuel and stubble burning,” said the green department official, conceding that earlier actions had proved inadequate in cutting down pollution to a significant level.
Incidentally, the NEERI report has come under the scanner as it is found to be inconsistent with air pollution reports prepared by other premier institutes of the country.