Pollution

Maharashtra has the second-highest number of air pollution–related deaths in the country

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Sumaira Abdulali of the Awaaz Foundation measuring air pollution levels caused by roadside burning of garbage along the Mumbai-Alibag road. Photo: Courtesy of the Awaaz Foundation

With rural and semi-rural areas in the State lacking waste management programmes, the burning of mixed wastes is common. And an ICMR report released in December 2020 makes plain the health consequences of rampant air pollution.

MAHARASHTRA has the second highest number of air pollution–related deaths in the country and, surprisingly, one of the big contributors to this unsavoury claim to fame is the burning of garbage. Heaps of garbage along highways and roadsides are an everyday sight in many parts of the State. While urban areas have a definite waste management programme that is more or less well implemented, rural and semi-rural Maharashtra still dumps its garbage in large open grounds or along roads.

Sumaira Abdulali of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Awaaz Foundation said: “Numerous heaps of burning garbage, which are ubiquitous along roadsides in areas surrounding Mumbai, are not identified as part of any specific initiative. These garbage dumps consist of mixed biomass and plastic and are a major contributing source of localised air pollution. Localised air pollution sources kill people even though [owing to weather patterns] they may not increase the overall AQI [Air Quality Index] level of a larger area to ‘severe’ levels. Burning plastic is especially toxic and can cause respiratory disease, cancer, liver failure and other diseases.”

An Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) report released in December 2020 contains shocking data about premature air pollution–related deaths in the State. It said that 1,39,118 people lost their lives in Maharashtra in 2019 because of air pollution. This accounts for 16.7 per cent of the overall deaths in the country caused by air pollution. The State is second only to Uttar Pradesh where air pollution took 3.5 lakh lives. The all-India figure was 17 lakh deaths.

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The findings are part of a scientific paper the ICMR published in The Lancet Planetary Health. The study was conducted for the ICMR’s State-Level Disease Burden Initiative along with the Public Health Foundation of India and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The paper showed that while 40 per cent of the disease burden due to air pollution is from lung diseases, the remaining 60 per cent is from ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes and neonatal deaths related to preterm birth, highlighting the broad-ranging impact of air pollution on human health.

In December 2020, Waatavaran, a Mumbai-based NGO that works on issues relating to the climate, the environment and sustainability, conducted a one-month-long test on air pollution in Taloja and Panvel in Raigad district and Bhiwandi in Thane district and found that people were exposed to extremely high levels of air pollutants for 17 hours a day. Sumaira Abdulali said: “There are no AQI-monitoring systems in these areas, most of which are recognised among the 18 non-attainment cities of Maharashtra and among the most polluted in the country. There is also no comprehensive data on the sources of pollution.” A non-attainment area or city is one where the air quality is considered worse than the acceptable standards as defined by the Central Pollution Control Board, which requires all city municipal corporations to submit action plans to effectively tackle air pollution. Despite having action plans, 18 of Maharashtra’s cities still fall below the accepted standards of air quality. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) aims to reduce PM2.5 concentrations by 20-30 per cent by 2024 from 2017 levels. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change launched the NCAP in 2019. It is a national-level strategy to reduce the levels of air pollution at both the regional and urban scales.

Sumaira Abdulali explained: “Air pollution is measured by quantifying total suspended particulate matter [PM] identified by the size of the particles. PM2.5 are minute particles 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter. The particles contain a mixture of solids and liquids and include acids such as sulphates and nitrates; ammonium; carbon; and mineral dust.”

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Since 2016, the Awaaz Foundation has documented numerous sites of burning garbage in Panvel, Dharamtar, Poynad, Chondi and other places along the Mumbai-Alibag road; at the garbage disposal site in Alibag city centre; and in Bhiwandi, Kalher and other sites in Thane district. In the absence of adequate municipal systems for disposal, burning is the easiest disposal method: many of these dumps are deliberately or accidentally set on fire.

The Awaaz Foundation measured the PM2.5 levels at some of these sites and found that pollution levels had a direct correlation with the size of the garbage dump that was burning. The dump at Bhiwandi stretches for several kilometres alongside a busy road and shows the highest level of PM2.5. The measurements were taken at one-minute, five-minute and 15-minute intervals at various times from January to December 2020. The one-minute interval PM2.5 concentrations recorded at Bhiwandi, Panvel Naka and Dharamtar were 612 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3), 182µg/m3 and 181µg/m3 respectively.

“It is impossible to control air pollution solely through generalised Air Quality Index monitoring unless all individual sources are also identified and tackled one by one. In several countries, localised information about air pollution sources is used to augment AQI data,” said Sumaira Abdulali. Citing the example of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States, she said: “Air quality in the United States is tracked using a network of national monitors located across the country. The monitors use established technologies that provide regional data on air quality for implementing the nation’s air quality standards, enforcement and research…. The monitoring network, while critical to protecting air quality, has limited use for direct personal or local air quality information. The EPA is evaluating and developing new air measurement technologies, including sensors, to increase the ability of individuals and communities to learn about their local air quality.”

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Sumaira Abdulali detailed the issues in a letter to Aaditya Thackeray, Maharashtra’s Environment Minister. She wrote:

“Emissions are a major cause of climate change. Mumbai is one of 40 cities worldwide committed to reduce emissions by 2030. As Maharashtra’s Environment Minister you have acknowledged, Shri Thackeray, that environmental protections and pollution is a priority of the Government of Maharashtra. We request that lessons learned from the year 2020 when we saw both the cleanest air in decades and alongside, the first detailed reports of the actual death rate by air pollution and GDP [gross domestic product] loss, will result in a long-term action plan.

“We hope that Maharashtra may lead the way to effectively tackling air pollution in India through detailed studies and effective plans to tackle each and every individual source of localized air pollution, asking all civic body across Maharashtra to prepare a road map to ensure no garbage is burnt and also implement the Solid Waste Management Rules so that no burning of any kind of waste takes place across Maharashtra. We request the issue of burning garbage to be taken up on priority and that an appointment be granted to us to discuss details of the action plan.”

Maharashtra needs to get its act together to control air pollution. If nothing else, the fact that the ICMR report quantified GDP loss from air pollution at the stunning figure of Rs.7,182 crore should propel the State to mitigate its hazardous air pollution levels and fight the health emergency they are causing. Despite having a higher loss of life because of air pollution, Uttar Pradesh had a lower economic loss, at $876 million (Rs.6,412 crore). The nationwide loss to the GDP was calculated to be $8 billion (Rs.58,560 crore).

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