For long-time residents of Bengaluru, memories of the old city conjure up images of avenues lined with beautiful trees, iconic lakes, idyllic parks, great weather and relaxed eating joints. Unfortunately, the Bengaluru today is quite the opposite - associated with unrelenting traffic, frothing waterbodies, crumbling infrastructure and breathing problems.
The bad news is that it is only getting worse. A study by the Urban Emissions estimates that air pollution from PM 2.5 particles, which are so fine that they are 30 times smaller than the diameter of hair, will increase by 54 percent by 2030, compared to today’s already-alarming levels. The body’s defence mechanisms against pollution, like nasal hair and mucous, are unable to stop these ultra-small pollutants that are less than 2.5 microns in size. They make their way, all the way, to the lungs, into the bloodstream and to the rest of the organs.
The leading causes of air pollution will not surprise many - vehicular emissions and road dust. Statistics show that vehicles are responsible for 60-70 percent of emissions in the city.
Delhi is not Bengaluru and vice-versa
The common narrative in Bengaluru is that “it isn’t as bad as Delhi”, however, this perception is quite misguided. In Delhi, the pollution is visible, particularly in winter, when it culminates in smog, and has implications affecting daily life. Additionally, being the national capital, the situation there invites a lot of scrutiny of the media and environmental and health activists. In comparison, Bengaluru’s moderate climate, blue skies and lower Air Quality Index (AQI) levels make us believe that we are better off.
The truth is that AQI, which is what the government measures through its monitoring stations, is different from the actual exposure, which is what we actually breathe. Each one of us is constantly subject to the sources of PM2.5 in Bengaluru, that is, our exposure to vehicle emissions and road dust is high. No one is safe when they step out of the house, sometimes not even in your own house and backyard.
Certain demographics such as children and old people tend to be more adversely impacted by poor air quality according to a report published by UNICEF in October 2018. In young children, even as a foetus, high levels of pollution can cause inhibited brain development, lung function impairments and increased chances of asthma. Among the elderly, bad air can affect their cognitive capabilities. If you go for a walk, jog, cycle or exercise or do yoga outdoors in the morning, you are actually causing more harm to your health – because this is when the pollution levels are highest, and exercising increases your breathing rate, and your body takes in more polluted air.
What can be done
Here are some measures that the government (and the people) need to take to address these issues.
Understand the problem better: The city currently has 11 monitoring stations, which give us continuous levels or ambient air quality. We need more stations in the city to understand the distribution and causes of pollution. We also need to measure on-ground exposure. Corporates can support infrastructure, technology and studies.
Better Public Transport Network: Namma Metro has had some impact, but last mile connectivity and parking at metro stations need to be addressed. BMTC needs to increase the total bus fleet and improve its routes and services. Car-pooling and share taxi need to be incentivised.
Promote Green Vehicles: While most auto-rickshaws in Bengaluru have moved to LPG, about 30,000 black autos (which run on diesel) are still operational in the city. To encourage all autos to make the switch, the subsidy mechanism for their shift to LPG needs to be fixed. Additionally, vehicles should be held accountable for their toxic emissions, by conducting road tests. Linking motor vehicle taxes to emission levels will be a great driver for people to explore cleaner fuel sources and non-polluting vehicles.
Civic Measures: The erratic electricity supply forces citizens to rely on alternate sources of electricity such as the highly polluting diesel generators. Addressing issues around electricity procurement, transmission and distribution can help address this to a large extent. Similarly, sub-optimal waste management processes encourage harmful practices such as the burning of garbage. Regulations on construction, transporting construction material and disposal of construction waste need to be updated and enforced.
(Yogesh Ranganath is the Chief Executive Officer of Clean Air Platform - Bengaluru, a not-for-profit organisation working towards improving the city’s air quality..)