Traffic jams are a common site in Varanasi, India’s famed town of ghats and temples that hit the national spotlight last year when it became the home constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Fumes of diesel vehicles force residents to cover their faces with cloth or black masks as they walk or cycle. Over the years, economic growth has brought a large number of two- and four-wheelers to the city, but no change to the mesh of narrow roads that were already host to rickshaws, three-wheelers and cows. The resultant jams are the primary contributor to air pollution in Varanasi.
The 2011 census puts the population of the city in eastern Uttar Pradesh at 1.2 million, 17.32% more than the population recorded in 2001. Without any mass public transport systems such as metro, trams or regular bus service, people rely on the estimated 28,000 auto-rickshaws in the city.
Particulate matter 10 (PM10) is the most prominent pollutant in the city that was expected to witness a sea-change with its ‘VIP’ status and Modi’s promise to his constituents that a massive clean-up was on the cards, that he would not let Varanasi get dirty. During a 24-hour cycle on June 12, for instance, the PM10 level touched 500 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) — meaning severe, the worst standard for air pollution – according to the real time national air quality index. This would affect healthy people and seriously impact those with existing diseases. PM10 averaged 167 over the day, indicating breathing discomfort to people with lung, asthma and heart diseases. Up to 50 is considered ‘good’ by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) standards.
The four primary factors polluting the city are congested roads, heavy traffic, digging of roads for sewer lines and the operation of diesel generation sets, according to T.N. Singh, assistant scientific officer, Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB). “The biggest contributors to the air pollution in the city are heavy vehicles, which pass through the city as there is no bypass road for them,” he said.
CPCB had identified 17 cities where national ambient air quality standards were being violated. In the report Air Quality Trends and Action Plan for Control of Air Pollution from Seventeen Cities, published in September 2006, Varanasi’s traffic pattern was characterized a mix of slow and fast moving vehicles. The report – there has been none since to explain the causes of pollution in Varanasi – recognised that the roads were encroached upon, had inadequate width and improper geometries. “These factors, either singularly or in combinations, are responsible for frequent and hours lasting traffic jams in the city,” it stated. The report also noted that there were many factories operating inside the city.
While sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in the city meet national ambient air quality standards, the report stated that respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) and suspended particulate matter (SPM) levels exceeded the standards. In the most recent CPCB report, National Ambient Air Quality Status 2008, Varanasi’s SPM and RSPM levels were found to be ‘critical’ in a four level pollution classification – low, moderate, high and critical.
SPM are finely divided solids or liquids suspended in the air and RSPM is that fraction of SPM which is readily inhaled by humans. Continuous inhalation of RSPM can cause aggravated asthma, coughing, painful breathing, chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function.
“Varanasi presents a peculiar condition with its combination of narrow roads between tall buildings. It presents a canyon like condition where pollutants can sustain,” said Ashutosh Kumar Pandey, who has studied pollution trends in the city for the last five years and has recently submitted his thesis on the issue.
Explaining why Varanasi’s streets are full of dust and smoke, he added, “The ‘canyonization’ of pollutants in combination with re-suspension of dust, which is characteristic of the Indo-Gangetic plains, causes them to linger on the streets.”
With the ancient city becoming amongst the more polluted in the country and the promised clean-up still in the works, residents are furious. Like 80-year-old Shailendra Singh, a former army officer, who says he is increasingly ill as he is forced to breathe burning plastic during his morning walks. He comes across mounds of burning domestic waste most mornings, he said angrily.
Although open burning of garbage is banned, the ban is not enforced.
Singh’s complaints to the municipality office go unheeded because of regular protests by sanitation workers, who are not paid their salaries on time. The bureaucratic ineptness saw the collapse of the solid waste management structure in May when the Varanasi Municipal Corporation cancelled its contract with a waste collection and management company. This resulted in large-scale burning of waste at dumping grounds on the outskirts of the city.
Impact on health
Varanasi is a “gas chamber”, said S.K. Agarwal, professor at the Department of Respiratory Diseases, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), who has studied the impact of air pollution on health of people in the city for decades. “When I was a medical student at BHU, the lung capacity of an average person was 15 to 20% higher than what it is today. This decrease over three decades can be attributed to air pollution and lack of exercise,” he told thethirdpole.net.
Agarwal has also seen an increase in number of patients suffering from bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COBD). “During summers, up to 80% patients that come to me are diagnosed with bronchial asthma or COBD. The number of patients comes down as soon as it rains as the suspended particulate matter settles down.”
Madhoolika Agrawal of BHU has been monitoring air pollution levels in the factory-lined, most densely populated banks of the Ganga and in the university area since 1988. Though her results show a decline in SO2, she says NO2 levels are now four times the permissible limit in areas where heavy vehicles pass.
Her research has also found high levels of surface ozone in suburban and rural parts of Varanasi. “Surface ozone is highly toxic and it has been affecting plants, trees and crops leading to decreased yield of wheat, moong, spinach and mustard,” she said.
Forced to breathe dirty air and use dirty water, residents of the world’s oldest city to have inhabited without a break are hoping the government will act on the Prime Minister’s promises sooner rather than later.