Air pollution hits alarming levels in Maharashtra ahead of Diwali 

As the festival approaches, the State stares at a public health crisis.

Published : Nov 09, 2023 17:31 IST - 7 MINS READ

Activists distribute masks and hold placards to spread awareness about the use of masks and increasing air pollution in Mumbai on October 26, 2023.

Activists distribute masks and hold placards to spread awareness about the use of masks and increasing air pollution in Mumbai on October 26, 2023. | Photo Credit: SHASHANK PARADE

Even before Diwali firecrackers add to the smog, Maharashtra’s air pollution has reached alarming levels. The State’s capital, Mumbai, is experiencing a surge in patients suffering from coughing and skin diseases, while almost all major cities in the State are grappling with severe air pollution. The Bombay High Court has expressed grave concern over the situation and urged the State government to take stringent measures to control it. With Diwali just a week away, the government is under immense pressure, and political rhetoric has intensified, exacerbating the already dire situation.

A public interest litigation filed in the court on October 29 called for the High Court’s intervention to address Mumbai’s deteriorating air quality. On November 5, the Hight Court directed the State government to halt until after Diwali construction activities that are contributing significantly to Mumbai’s pollution. Additionally, it ordered the creation of guidelines for the use of firecrackers, suggesting a permissible time window of 7 pm to 10 pm to limit their impact on air quality.

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On the same day the matter was heard in the High Court, the State’s Health Commissionerate issued a 15-point advisory to citizens in 17 cities. The advisory states that it has been observed since November 2023 that the air quality in some cities has “deteriorated rapidly”. In some cases, the Air Quality Index (AQI) has exceeded “200 points”. Therefore, the Public Health Department has decided to issue this advisory for citizens, “divided into two categories: vulnerable and general population”.

The vulnerable population includes children, the elderly, pregnant women, individuals with pre-existing health conditions, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, and occupational groups such as traffic police, construction workers, and road sweepers. The advisory emphasises the need for extra precautions among this group to minimise exposure to polluted air. It also urges them to seek immediate medical attention if they experience symptoms such as cough, sore throat, or other respiratory problems. Local authorities have been instructed to regularly provide air quality index information to the public, allowing vulnerable groups to adapt their social activities accordingly.

The advisory for the general population includes recommendations to avoid areas with high pollution levels, refrain from morning and late evening walks, and minimise the use of firecrackers. It also encourages the practice of wet sweeping instead of dry sweeping to reduce dust dispersion, regular washing of eyes with running water, and gargling with warm water. This comprehensive advisory highlights the severity of the situation and underscores the urgent need for proactive measures to bring air quality back to acceptable levels.

The advisory is not limited to major cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, and Nagpur but also encompasses smaller cities like Kolhapur, Solapur, Chandrapur, Latur, Jalgaon, Akola, and Amaravati. In total, 17 cities are included in the list, where the government has instructed local authorities to implement precautionary measures.

The State Health Department has also resolved to establish a five-member task force within a week to formulate guidelines on air pollution. “The task force will include senior doctors from the pulmonology department. They will issue guidelines periodically. We have already advised citizens to use N95 masks and avoid cloth masks to prevent inhalation of PM10 and PM2.5. Similar guidelines will be issued as and when required,” stated Dr Pratap Singh Sarnikar, Joint Director of the Department of Epidemiology and an expert with the State’s Health Commissionerate.

According to data from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) health department, a staggering 24,000 individuals have visited BMC hospitals and clinics since October 27 for treatment of cough, throat soreness, and respiratory issues. This data pertains solely to BMC hospitals; the actual number is likely to be significantly higher as data from private hospitals and clinics is not included. Similarly, Kalyan Dombivli Municipal Corporation hospitals have reported a total of 3,400 patients since October 30. This alarming surge in respiratory-related complaints highlights the worsening situation.

Construction’s role

Government and non-government experts believe that the rampant construction activities in Maharashtra have exacerbated the air pollution crisis. Mumbai and eight surrounding municipalities, along with four municipal councils, are witnessing a surge in construction projects, including residential, commercial, and developmental works like metro rails and bridges. These construction sites are significantly contributing to the deteriorating air quality. According to BMC data, over 10,000 construction sites are active within the city alone.

Additionally, metro construction is in full swing across the city. Three mega bridges connecting the eastern and western suburbs are under construction, and the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link connecting Mumbai city to Raigad’s Uran region is also underway. These massive projects require substantial amounts of cement mixture, leading to the operation of Ready Mix Concrete (RMC) plants day and night. The dust generated from these extensive developmental works is permeating the air.

To curtail pollution, BMC, Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA), and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) have launched a joint drive to inspect construction sites and RMC plants, ensuring compliance with pollution mitigation guidelines.

Manish Pimpale, Deputy Municipal Commissioner, BMC, informed Frontline that the BMC squad has inspected 1,342 sites as of November 8, issuing show cause notices to 916 projects. “We are halting construction activities if a project is found to be violating pollution mitigation guidelines,” stated Pimpale. The high number of non-compliant sites—916 out of 1,342—highlights the severity of the issue.

BMC has also issued a notice to construction giant J Kumar Infrastructure for failing to adhere to mitigation guidelines at the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). This company is responsible for the ambitious Metro 3 project, which will connect Colaba to Andheri SEEPZ.

In parallel, SRA has issued notices to 281 projects for non-compliance with air pollution mitigation guidelines. Similarly, MPCB has issued notices to 57 RMC plants in the city. “We have sought explanations from these RMCs, some of which are associated with mega companies. During our inspections, we observed several violations, including unwashed vehicle tires and uncovered plant setups. We will take further action after hearing their explanations,” stated V.M. Motghare, Joint Director, MPCB.

The State government’s transport department has also decided to impose fines on Pollution Under Control (PUC) centres that fail to meet emission standards. Vivek Bhimanwar, State’s transport commissioner, informed that instructions have been issued to transport inspectors to conduct surprise inspections of PUC centres. “If a centre is found to be violating emission standards, it will be fined on the spot. Repeated offences may result in licence cancellation,” said Bhimanwar.

Tradition versus public health

While efforts to curb pollution are underway, the government machinery faces additional pressure with the approaching Diwali festival. A senior officer from the State’s Environment Department expressed concern that firecrackers have become a political issue, making pollution control a sensitive topic. “We have raised the issue of firecrackers with Chief Minister [Eknath] Shinde. These days, if we suggest a ban on certain firecrackers, some elements in society label us as anti-community. This discourages many officers from taking proactive measures beyond simply following guidelines,” stated the officer.

Smoke billows from a chimney as smog engulfs the city of Mumbai on November 8. 

Smoke billows from a chimney as smog engulfs the city of Mumbai on November 8.  | Photo Credit: KUNAL PATIL

The State’s Health Department has issued an urgent appeal to refrain from using firecrackers during Diwali celebrations. The Education Department has also launched a special initiative to encourage children to celebrate Diwali without firecrackers. “Students can use light diyas instead of firecrackers. This is the time when we should celebrate the festival responsibly and with care for the environment,” emphasised State’s Primary Education Minister Deepak Kesarkar in his appeal.

Additionally, the State’s Environment Department has embarked on a dedicated campaign to promote an eco-friendly Diwali. However, social activists maintain that these efforts will be futile without a strong demonstration of political will.

Asim Sarode, a lawyer and social activist from Pune, pointed out that political parties are actively promoting the culture of firecrackers. “Political parties have set up firecracker stalls in every chowk and galli [lane]. What are they advertising? Cheap firecrackers at our stall only. How can we celebrate Diwali without air and noise pollution if our political leaders are busy selling firecrackers?” questioned Sarode.

Winter typically brings fresh air to the region. However, in recent years, this season in Maharashtra has been marred by an alarming rise in respiratory ailments, including cough, cold, fever, and lung-related diseases. The situation is particularly dire this year, as smog and dust have already darkened the sky even before Diwali festivities have begun.

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