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Inside one of the world's most polluted cities

July 07, 2022
topics: Air Pollution
by: Rishabh Jain
located in: India
tags: air pollution, Bhiwadi, fossil fuels, India

Bhiwadi in Rajastan state has been ranked one of the world's most polluted cities, with levels of air pollution that continuously place residents at increased risk for severe illness and death. Locals are looking for way to adopt more sustainable industrial models.

Meera Kumari, a resident of Bhiwadi in Rajasthan, India, has been frequenting a local health centre for the past three months to get her son treated for respiratory issues. The 24-year-old rubber factory worker believes that her son’s health is deteriorating due to the city’s worsening air pollution problem.

"The doctor says that my son might be developing asthma. Earlier he was fine but now we have to take him to the hospital almost every day," Kumari told FairPlanet. "The problem exacerbates during winters because the smog increases and if the situation remains the same, we might have to migrate in order to save the life of our son."

In a report released earlier this year by IQAir, a Switzerland-based tech company monitoring air quality, Bhiwadi was declared the most polluted city in the world in terms of PM2.5 concentration in the air; PM2.5 are tiny pollutants that can bypass the human body's defense systems and cause various diseases. 

With close to 1,766 industrial units and 400 large furnaces in its territory, Bhiwadi had an average PM2.5 level of 106. 2 µg/m3 throughout 2021 - an amount that exceeds World Health Organization guidelines by more than 10 times. 

Bhiwadi, which is located 80 kilometres away from the Indian capital New Delhi, has the highest concentration of industries in the National Capital Region (NCR). Currently, the city is home to three major industrial areas - Bhiwadi Industrial Area, Chopanki and Khuskhera, which deal with food processing, rubber goods, plastic manufacturing and chemical industries.

However, apart from being an industrial hub, there are other factors that contribute to the high air pollution in Bhiwadi's vicinity.

Avikal Somvanshi, an air pollution expert at New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment, believes that apart from the huge concentration of industries, the methods deployed for waste management and disposal have further fueled air pollution. 

"Bhiwadi is a hub for a lot of chemical and plastic material manufacturing units. Most of the waste collected from these industries is not segregated and a lot of wet waste directly gets burnt, which adds to the problem of pollution in [the area]," Somvanshi told FairPlanet.

Somvanshi added that extensive construction activities and rapid urbanisation also contribute to high pollution levels in Bhiwadi.

A 2020 study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur found that the use of coal, fuel and wood as the main sources of fuel in furnaces is the major cause of pollution in the area. The study also identified dust as the biggest air pollutant in Bhiwadi, accounting for nearly half of the city's air pollution. 

The density of dust in air is high due to two factors; the first is the rapid urbanisation and construction activities taking place in and around the area; the second reason is that Rajasthan is home to the Great Indian Desert, which covers about 70 percent of the state's total landmass. 

Somvanshi told FairPlanet that while dust is not toxic in nature, when pollution levels are high it becomes a cause of concern. When the harmful pollutants present in the air adhere particles of dust, it becomes toxic and can lead to respiratory diseases.

Industrial emissions and waste account for nearly 33 percent of the area's air pollution. 

uptick in Respiratory Diseases

"Although it is difficult to recognise how many cases coming during the daily outpatient department are because of air pollution, we have definitely seen a rise in the number of asthma patients coming to us, which is clearly an impact of polluted air," Dr. KK Sharma, a Principal Medical Officer (PMO) from Bhiwadi, told FairPlanet. "Even the number of children coming to us for nebulisation during winters has increased."

The improper management of waste produced by industrial actors contaminates groundwater as well, which makes people living in these areas more prone to develop respiratory, cardiovascular and skin diseases. 

This, in turn, can slash the average life span of human beings. A 2018 report released by the University of Chicago had found that the life expectancy of people living in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, a fertile plain encompassing the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, is lower by 7 to 8 years from the global average due to the area's rising air pollution levels.

The study also claimed that in the NCR, where air pollution levels are already very high, the average life expectancy is going to decrease by a decade. 

Shifting to a greener Future

As air pollution levels in Bhiwadi continue to rise, government agencies and research organisations are coming together to look for cleaner solutions. One such step being taken is the shift to a cleaner fuel like Petroleum Natural Gas (PNG) or Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), to replace coal. 

Mr. R.S. Rathi, the owner of a rubber goods factory in Bhiwadi, has recently shifted to PNG in order to reduce emissions of harmful gases. 

"In the month of February this year, I finally decided to shift to PNG instead of coal. Although this has doubled the cost of running the factory, as the installation process is expensive, keeping in mind the rising pollution levels I am happy that I made this decision," Mr. Rathi told FairPlanet.

However, several significant impediments stand in the way of the proposed shift to cleaner fuel options.

"The main issue with shifting to cleaner fuels is the availability of it," Somvanshi of New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment told FairPlanet. "If you don’t have it then how can you use it? The pipelines need to reach the region and they should be available at a rate which is competitive for them."

Ram Narain Singh, president of Bhiwadi's Chamber of Commerce and Industries (BCCI), has a solution to reducing the costs of cleaner fuels. According to him, the state government of Rajasthan should include cleaner fuels under the ambit of Goods and Services Tax (GST), which will automatically reduce their cost. 

"The issue is that the state charges Value Added Tax (VAT) on the prices of cleaner fuels, which is around 9 percent. Our demand is that the fuel should be considered under GST, which is around 4-5 percent," Singh told FairPlanet.

He further added that since Bhiwadi comes under the jurisdiction of the Rajasthan Pollution Control Board (RPCB), which is simply a regulatory body, it isn't able to solve such issues.

"If we ask them to bring cleaner fuels under GST, they ask us to approach the state government. If it’s about setting a deadline for the shift to cleaner fuels, they ask us to approach Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)," Singh added.

In the midst of the growing public health crisis in Bhiwadi, and the endless bureaucratic hurdles thwarting meaningful preventative measures, the need of the hour is to frame guidelines and policies that will help bring down air pollution levels in the area and pave the way for a better future for future generations.

Image by Wikimedia Commons.

Article written by:
Screenshot_20210902-004609
Rishabh Jain
Author
India
A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology found that the use of coal, fuel and wood as the main sources of fuel in furnaces is a major cause of pollution in Bhiwadi.
© Pratan Ounpitipong
A worker sprays water to help settle pollution caused by truck and coal-loading activity at a coal mine in India.
© Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images
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