Seventy-year-old Raj Kumar Yadav suffers from breathlessness and was admitted to a hospital twice in three months. He often wakes up in the dead of night spending hours coughing and reeling with a severe headache. Yadav, who was a labourer till a few years ago, is now completely dependant on his children for survival. He blames the mountain of garbage close to his house for his deteriorating health.
His two-storey house is just a few metres away from a 74-acre dumping ground at Ramachak-Bairiya village on the Patna-Gaya road in Patna, the state capital of Bihar. He says that the filthy air has been making him ill, “The situation is worse than hell. Heaps of garbage without any segregation is dumped and even burnt here every day. The poisonous gases emanating from the waste are causing severe diseases among the locals. But none seems to be bothered. Even during polls, political leaders refuse to campaign here because of the putrid smell,” he says before coughing up again.
Local residents say they believe that several among them could be diagnosed with severe pulmonary diseases in case their medical examinations are done. “It often becomes difficult to stay inside the houses due to filthy air. The pungent smell simply refuses to go away. It’s everywhere starting from our food, utensils and even in our clothes. The government has left us to die,” rued Lal Charan Shukla, 45, a local shopkeeper.
Rising cases of lung cancer
Medical experts claim that they have observed an increase in the cases of lung cancer in Bihar and attribute air pollution as being one of the major reasons for it. “We used to receive around 19,000 cases of lung cancer annually in 2015 which has now jumped to 25,000 cases, that includes 7.4 percent male and 4.2 percent female patients,” said Dr. Arun Kumar, senior scientist at Mahavir Cancer Sansthan and Research Centre, one of the premium cancer hospitals in Patna that gets patients from across the state.
“Sadly, majority of the patients, however, come in the third and fourth stages of cancer where recovery is almost impossible. They cannot be blamed as most of them face no health complications and continue to live a normal life. It’s too late when they come here. Rising air pollution is obviously one of the reasons for the increasing lung cancer cases in Bihar,” said Kumar.
He further claimed that around 60,000 fresh lung cancer cases are detected every year in the state of which 50 percent succumb due to detection in final stages.
A released by Greenpeace South Asia, a non-profit environmental organisation, had declared Patna, the seventh most polluted city in the world and sixth in the country in 2019. Muzaffarpur, another city in Bihar, was 13th in the report.
The most dangerous aspect of the report was the dramatic increase in PM 2.5 levels – tiny pollutants in air that infect lungs and could cause cancer.
As per 2018 World Air Quality jointly compiled by IQAir, AirVisual and Greenpeace, the annual level of PM 2.5 – particulate matter less than 2.5microns – was 119.7 micrograms at Patna, which is regarded as unhealthy air.
Monitoring air quality
Bihar has 11 Air Quality Index (AQI) monitoring stations in the state located at Patna (6), Gaya (2), Muzaffarpur (2) and Vaishali (1) districts.
The clean air action plan had identified road dust, vehicular emission, domestic fuel burning, open waste burning, construction activities and industrial emissions as major sources of air pollution.
The action plan had recommended various measures to improve the condition that included, restriction on plying and phasing out of 15 years old commercial diesel-driven vehicles, promotion of e-rickshaws, tree plantations along the roads, introduction of cleaner fuels (CNG/LPG) for vehicles, covering of construction sites among others. The time target for various activities in the action plan range from short-term (to be implemented in 2019) to long-term (going up to 2024), varying from city to city.
Environmental organisations tracking the implementation of clean air action plan in three non-attainment cities of Bihar have expressed displeasure over the performance so far. “We have been campaigning for the drafting of clean air action plan since 2015. Finally, it became a reality last year after a long battle. But nothing visible has been done on the ground yet,” pointed out Ankita Jyoti, Senior Programme Officer, Centre for Environment and Energy Development (CEED), an environment organisation that has been campaigning for clean air, specifically “a systematic clean air action plan for Patna with well defined targets and timeline that frame a comprehensive public health policy.”
“There is a complete absence of transparency and accountability in its implementation coupled with lack of community involvement. The government agencies should involve civil society organisations and activists working for environment along with individuals but nothing seems to have been done. The violators are fined sporadically and no regular checks are being conducted to nab those flouting the norms. The air quality has changed a little in Bihar due to lockdown and lesser human activities. The clean air action plan has nothing to do with it,” she said.
As per the action plans, a long term goal in the cities is to have auto-rickshaws convert to CNG and LPG continue to ply with diesel emitting harmful gases.
“Most of the autos in Patna are still running on diesel and petrol because there aren’t enough CNG refill stations. We are keen to convert to clean gas as it cheaper than petrol or diesel but more refill points should be introduced across the city to avoid standing in long queues that results in losses for us,” said Vikash Pandey, 45, an auto driver in Patna.
Senior officials of Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) said that stern action is being taken against those flouting the air pollution norms, “Over 6000 brick kilns in Bihar are one of the major sources of air pollution. We have issued them notices to adopt zig-zag technology that prevents pollution. We have been also recycling the fly ash generated from thermal power plants to reduce pollution. At present, we have around 250 fly ash brick units in Bihar,” said Ashok Ghosh, Chairman of Bihar State Pollution Control Board.
Talking about why government constructions are uncovered with dust flying in the air that can cause respiratory problems, Ghosh said, “We have been planting plants on the road sides but covering the construction work still remains a mammoth task because the pollution control board is a regulatory authority. The district administration has the duty to implement the rules. We have been sending advisories to different department to implement the rules as per the clean air action plan.”
Poor waste segregation and burning of solid waste adds to emissions
The lack of solid waste segregation and management is one of the reasons for emissions that can occur due to burning of such waste.
At present, waste is separated in just 3 out of the 75 municipal wards of the state capital, Patna. “It takes lot of time for us to convince people to segregate the waste at the source because most of them consider the lifting of the garbage from their houses as waste management. We convince them to separate the waste in their houses itself before dumping it. We are currently working in three wards of Patna where slowly people are coming to understand the importance of solid waste segregation,” said Monalisa, managing director of Mithinga waste management private limited, a Patna based start-up involved in creating awareness on waste management through roadshows.
Environmental activist Vikash Chandra, commonly known as Guddu Baba, also blamed wrong disposal of bio-medical waste as one of the biggest reasons for rising air pollution. “It is a major problem in Bihar as hospitals, both government and private, continue to burn the waste in open leading to emission of poisonous gases in the air. There are only three units for disposing bio-medical waste in the state located in Bhagalpur, Muzaffarpur and Patna which are simply not enough. As per norms, the waste should not be transported more than 70 kilometres for disposal but in Bihar it covers several hundreds of kilometres before being destroyed,” said Guddu Baba who has been fighting a legal battle against bio-medical waste in the Patna High Court.
Gurvinder Singh Freelance journalist based in Calcutta, India.