Pollution becoming Gurugram’s underbelly
Last week, the news that Gurugram was the world’s most polluted city in 2018, as per data released by IQAir Visual and Greenpeace hit the headlines. (Ghaziabad stood at number two, Faridabad at number four; seven Indian cities were among the world’s top ten polluted cities). Clearly, as a country, we have set our priorities wrong for development. What is most disappointing and ironical is that even with General Elections just around the corner, the issue of pollution is nowhere being publicly discussed by political parties or solidly etched on their election manifestos.
As one of the fastest growing cities of North India, Gurugram has paid a high price for development. We must be fools not to realise that pollution, eventually, will impact Gurugram’s ability to attract investment and talent. From what I hear from my friends in corporate roles, conversations about moving corporate offices out of Gurugram are not uncommon. More aware citizens especially those who have lived outside India have been shouting from the rooftops about the falling air quality on social media groups for a while now. Affected families with children falling sick due to respiratory allergies are also saying good-bye to the city. Gurugrammers are raising a war cry against pollution. The “liveability index” of the city is certainly at its lowest ebb.
Pollution is a complex problem to tackle especially in India that has democratic structures aligned to populist politics and diverse stakeholder priorities. Besides, it has to be fought on multiple fronts. Unless there is political willingness to take drastic steps, nothing much will change. (Singapore recently banned new car registrations). Besides, authorities need to back the policies with stringent enforcement and stern actions. Last but not the least, citizens have to be fully engaged as drastic steps and enforcement will mean some pain (and withdrawal symptoms) for the larger good of a cleaner environment. Many cities like London, New York and Beijing have been able to pull the odds and reversed pollution, so why can’t we?
After all, we must remember that progressive cities are those that have good quality integrated public transport, walking and cycling tracks, is low on emissions, adopts solar, makes sustainability and inclusiveness as their core priority. These are certainly not cities that thrust more and more cars on their roads, then build more roads and flyovers to accommodate these cars and soon enough have choking roads. And certainly not when all this is coming at the price of “clean air”.
Where do we start? Planning to fight pollution is as important as fighting it. We need to have a national action plan with clear short-term, medium term and long-term goals, enforced down to the city level. In each city, a multi-disciplinary high-level committee (with citizens involvement) must review the problem on a regular basis. Gurugram currently has only two air quality monitoring stations at Gawal Pahari and Vikas Sadan. A city of its size must have atleast eight air monitoring stations. And a city with such a quantum of pollution, should have regular analytical assessments on the causes and trends of the problem. The high-power pollution committee in Gurugram must focus on one or two immediate actionables to set it on correction course.
The main pollution culprits are dust, vehicular emissions, waste burning/dumping. To control dust, construction sites that flout construction norms such as sites to be duly covered etc need be monitored closely. Besides, C&D waste cannot be allowed to be thrown willy nilly. Trucks carrying construction material should also be covered well. Water sprinklers could be used to settle the dust using recycled water at construction sites, roads and public spaces.
Vehicular emissions can be controlled by better quality pollution checks, avoiding traffic jams, encouraging e-rickshaws, improving public transport and last mile connectivity as well as introducing non-motorised infrastructure including pedestrian walk paths and cycle tracks. Waste burning, waste dumping and lack of scientific landfilling is causing air pollution too. Decentralised waste solutions will reduce the transportation cost and congestion of over-loaded trucks of garbage going to and fro to landfills. About 220 trucks currently carry city’s garbage to Bandhwari (city’s landfill site) every day. This can easily reduce to 30 trucks a day by adopting decentralised solutions.
In all this, enforcements by authorities will play a key role – we need strict penalties for non-compliance at construction sites, waste burning, C&D waste dumping and tree-felling.
Citizens’ education and awareness will play a key role in creating vital checks in neighbourhoods. How many Gurugrammers know that waste burning is an offence? Fighting pollution is also about raising collective consciousness at an individual and community level. Can we limit ownership of multiple cars, not buy luxury SUVs/diesel cars, take to car-pooling, go “car-free” once a week, compost our kitchen waste, switch to solar and plant trees?
The beauty of starting the city on the sustainable trip is that different progressive steps all integrate at one level and one positive cycle builds the other. If we improve the waste cycle, we will see both water and air cycles improve too. So, if we start solidly somewhere, it won’t be long before we start seeing synergistic gains elsewhere. Recently, Gurugram scored a poor 83 ranking (among 99 cities in its category) in Swachh Sarvekshan 2019, an annual cleanliness ranking of cities in India. It may not be misplaced to say therefore that had our Swachh Sarvekshan rankings been better, we would have reflected well on our pollution scorecards as well.
Finally, we have all heard the story of how the greedy farmer cut his goose that lay golden eggs, in the hope of getting all the eggs in one stroke. Gurugram is the golden goose of Haryana. Let’s not exploit it to the point of no return! Let’s embark on a sustainability trip and reverse pollution.