New Delhi: A city with some of the planet’s most toxic air, Varanasi has done very little to curb air pollution and most plans to clean its air “remain on paper”, said a new study by Let Me Breathe, an advocacy.

In India’s holiest city and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, at least 10 government agencies, including urban local bodies, forest department and traffic police, tasked with curbing air pollution levels--up 2.4 times over 19 years, to nearly 10 times above World Health Organization (WHO) norms--do not appear to have even collated basic data.

Asked about updates on their work, these departments could not provide information on, among other issues, the burning of waste and the number of vehicles violating air-pollution laws, according to the study, which is based on a series of right-to-information (RTI) queries to the local administration.

The study is a follow-up of a 2016 report called Varanasi Chokes by the Centre for Environment and Energy Development (CEED), IndiaSpend and Care4Air, which in an effort to establish that the problem of air pollution is not limited to Delhi, revealed that Varanasi had no good air day in 2015.

Home to 1.2 million people, Varanasi, sprawls along the banks of India’s holiest river, the Ganga, and, since 2016, has frequently overtaken India’s capital New Delhi in terms of air pollution, according to WHO data, IndiaSpend reported on March 9, 2019.

With general elections due on May 19, 2019, Varanasi was ranked third (in 2018) in a list of 4,300 world cities with the planet’s most polluted air, behind Kanpur and Faridabad, also in Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s focus on rebuilding Varanasi neighbourhoods has exacerbated pollution levels because of dust generated by demolition and construction, said the study.

Plans on paper

Varanasi’s air continues to be toxic. The average PM 2.5 level in the city has been recorded at 104 µg/m³ over 25 months to January 2019. This is 1.6 times higher than national annual safe level of 40 µg/m³ and 9.4 times higher than the WHO’s tighter annual standard of 10 µg/m³.

PM 2.5–emitted by burning coal, kerosene, petrol, diesel, biomass, cow dung and waste–is about 30 times finer than human hair. These particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and respiratory diseases. Their measurement is considered to be the best indicator of the level of health risks from air pollution, according to the WHO.

India saw 1.24 million deaths in 2017 due to polluted air, IndiaSpend reported on December 7, 2018.

In May 2018, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) notified an “Action plan to control Ambient Air Pollution in Varanasi”. This plan listed tasks for government agencies, including the urban local body or nagar nigam, the traffic police, forest department and the Varanasi development authority, to deal with pollution from vehicles, road dust, biomass and municipal solid waste burning, industries, constructions.

Source: Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board

Administrative action, too little

Between November 2018 and February 2019, Let Me Breathe filed RTIs with 10 city departments in Varanasi tasked with curbing air pollution. Here are some findings, based on the analysis of RTI responses:

  • The Nagar nigam has taken “some steps” towards reducing road dust and curbing roadside burning of garbage. However, no details were provided about instances and nature of violations.
  • The traffic police said their mandate was to manage the traffic, and they did not mention violations on air pollution laws by vehicles, suggesting “monitoring and implementation gaps”.
  • The forest department and the development authority in Varanasi have planted trees, which reduce the effects of air pollution, but many were cut for infrastructure-development projects, suggesting there may be no net increase.
  • The UPPCB suggested that there were no brick kilns in municipal limits. However, the zilla panchayat (district council) said there might be some in “peri-urban areas”, permissions for which were given by the UPPCB. The municipal boundary cannot be treated as an “ecological boundary” for air-pollution, and “it is evident that the norms are being merely seen in letter and not the spirit of curbing air pollution”.

To read the detailed responses from the departments click here

Varanasi’s air-pollution rising

The focus of the local MP, prime minister Modi, has been on “beautification” and infrastructure that do not fully address the primary causes of consistently poor air quality at the city and regional level, said an April 2019 report titled “Political Leaders Position and Action on Air Quality in India” by Climate Trends.

The report analysed the work of MPs from 14 Indian cities--including Kanpur, Varanasi, Delhi, Jaipur, Srinagar, Patna and Lucknow--all among the world’s top 20 most-polluted cities. These MPs largely remained “inactive” and “silent” on the issue, said the report.

Varanasi is polluted because its roads are dug up and drains are being constructed, so there is “heavy civil construction” underway, UPPCB’s Varanasi regional officer Anil Kumar Singh was quoted in saying in the April 2019 Climate Trends report on MPs.

Varanasi is also among 102 cities identified as failing the environment ministry’s National Clean Air Programme to reduce India’s overall annual pollution levels 20-30% by 2024. The programme envisages more air-quality monitoring stations, air-quality management plans and studies on health effects of air pollution.

One of the major reasons for high levels of air pollution in Varanasi and other of the Indo-Gangetic plain is that the Himalayas to the north and the Deccan plateau to the south trap air, IndiaSpend reported on March 9, 2019. Northwesterly winds blowing across the region spread polluted air across the Indo-Gangetic plain.

About 31% of the annual PM 2.5 pollution came from outside Varanasi, according to a 2015 study. This “strongly suggests that air pollution control policies in the Indo-Gangetic plain need a regional outlook”, said the April 2019 study by Climate Trends.

The concentration of particulate matter in Varanasi is growing at a rate unparalleled in India: 1.9 µg/m3, which increased PM 2.5 exposure by 28.5 µg/m3 to 71.7 µg/m3, an increase of 1.6 times over 17 years to 2016; this is three times the WHO annual standard, said a May 2018 study, and has caused an increase in respiratory diseases, including bronchial allergies, asthma, chest infections and sinusitis.

Varanasi has two continuous monitoring stations but needs at least 11, according to the April 2019 Climate Trends study.

(Tripathi is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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