CSE suggests a leapfrog roadmap for combating air pollution in Kolkata

CSE suggests a leap frog roadmap for combating air pollution in Kolkata


  • CSE reviews air pollution levels in the city
  • Suggests that pollution is growing and is toxic for our health
  • Wants government to look for big ticket solutions to growing pollution and congestion
  • The time for soft options is over. The city needs second-generation reform to deal with diesel pollution
  • Recommends that the only option is to reduce the numbers of vehicles – to invest in massive transition to modern public transport. Says Kolkata can lead the world in this movement.

Kolkata, February 26, 2009: “Kolkata needs a bold action plan to combat its toxic air pollution”  said Sunita Narain, environmentalist and director of the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the key institution behind the compressed natural gas (CNG) transition in the capital. It is clear that pollution levels in the city are on the increase and like Delhi, Kolkata, will have to take steps to reduce motorisation, so that it can deal with congestion and toxins. This is the leapfrog agenda for the city. “All other actions will be too little, too late, in the face of this every growing pollution” said Narain.    

Narain was speaking at a public dialogue organised in the city today by CSE. Titled ‘Clearing the air: An agenda for action’, it brought together policy makers, experts and civil society groups, to discuss how a road-map for pollution control in the city, which has recently seen strong action from the judiciary to contain its air toxins.

Air pollution levels
CSE presented trends, based on the data of air pollution monitoring by the West Bengal State Pollution Control Board. It found worrying trends:

  • First, the annual average levels of respirable suspended particulate matter exceeded the national standards in 2007 by 1.4 times and as per the monthly data available for 2008, this trend continues.
  • Second, the annual average level for NOx in the city for 2007 was 56 ug/cum, which while slightly below the standard, is showing an upward trend. Worse, the city had many days in winter when NOx levels went way above the standard.
  • Third, the carcinogenic benzene levels in the city were found in the winter of 2006-2007 to be as high as 36 ug/cum, which shockingly, is much higher than Delhi, which has larger numbers of vehicles. The national draft ambient air standard has proposed a limit of 5 ug/cum as annual average, which would mean that Kolkata had dangerously high levels of this carcinogen, which is largely emitted from two-stoke vehicles, with incomplete combustion and without the use of catalytic converters. The city like Delhi is also supplied petrol with benzene levels of 1 per cent. The presence of this carcinogen is then a marker for the quality of Kolkata’s air and its toxicity.

Soft options are over
Highlighting the common challenges confronting the Indian cities Narain pointed out that in the past few years, Delhi and Kolkata have taken some common steps to reduce pollution. The cities have advanced emission norms of vehicles; improved fuel quality, strengthened ‘pollution under control’ system; and taken action on industrial pollution. Delhi has taken extra measures to cap the number of its autorickshaws; converted buses to CNG and restricted non-destined commercial vehicles from entering the city.

Kolkata has also made a beginning to reduce air pollution – its decision to phase out 15-year-old commercial vehicles from plying within the Kolkata Metropolitan Area and to make a transition from old polluting two-stroke engines to cleaner four-stroke engines running on LPG are steps in the right direction. But much more will have to be done.

2-stroke vs 4-stroke
Phasing out two-stroke engines will help the city reduce its carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, carcinogenic benzene and most critically its particulate pollution. But even this is not enough. It may add to the stock of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in the city if they increase in numbers and the technology is not improved. The city’s NOx levels are already high, because of the massive numbers of diesel-fuelled vehicles in the city, including its taxis and buses. Under the current emissions regulations diesel cars have the license to emit three times more Nox then petrol cars. They also emit several times more particulates. According to an estimate, as much as 60 per cent of the tiny particulate matter –PM 2.5 – which is considered to be the most toxic, because it can go deep into our bodies – can come from the vast diesel combustion in city. 

“It is clear that Kolkata has few options: it can reduce its pollution, only when it takes drastic measures against the use of diesel vehicles in the city. This will mean reducing the growth of vehicles and replacing numbers with mass transport – fewer vehicles that can carry more people” explained Narain and her colleague Anumita Roychowdhury, the head of the CSE air pollution campaign.

The biggest challenge is the exponential growth of private vehicles and in particular, diesel vehicles in the city. Automobile emissions are reportedly responsible for more than half of the air pollution load in Kolkata. The city has an additional problem of very old fleet of vehicles -- nearly 54 per cent of these are old and highly polluting, and 55 per cent are diesel-driven.

Reinvent mobility
What is needed in critically polluted cities like Kolkata, Narain says, is a massive transition to public transport on clean fuel. “Over the years, it has become clear that each city is fighting a losing battle against air pollution and growing congestion -- because of the growing numbers of vehicles. A turnaround is only possible when these cities recognise the need for a transition to public transport and adopt it,” she points out.

Cities like Kolkata already have the unique strength in the high usage of public transport. The recent study carried out under the aegis of the Union ministry of urban development shows that even today public transport meets as much as 54 per cent of the travel need in Kolkata, which is the highest in the country. But unfortunately, cities are neglecting this strength. The evidence of this neglect is continuous decline in the share of public transport in meeting the travel needs of the city. The older estimates show in the earlier decade public transport usage in Kolkata was as high 80 per cent. Narain explains that “till now, governments have neglected buses, they have not invested enough and in Indian style socialism tax buses more than cars.” Estimates show that even in Kolkata a standard bus pays Rs 23,250 annually, while a small car that pays tax every 5 years, pays roughly Rs 25,650 over lifetime, which is Rs 1710 per year. A bus is made to pay nearly 13 times more than a car.
“The fact also is that buses have not been replaced in India by the car or the two-wheeler as is the situation in other parts of the world. Instead, buses have only been marginalized. Even today, disorganized public transport system move more than half of its people” she adds. This is why we need a system that focuses on efficiently moving the bulk of the city passengers and not flyovers and more roads for cars. This is particularly important in Kolkata, which is also constrained by the road space – it has less than 10 per cent of its land area under roads, against Delhi’s 25 per cent. Therefore, even though the city has fewer cars than Delhi – 0.4 million against Delhi’s 1.1 million, the result is the same – growing congestion and pollution. It is important to expand the infrastructure for buses and not cars. 

An agenda for action
Narain appealed to the city government to build on the strength that our cities already have.  Expand and upscale public transport network rapidly and implement a time bound target to increase their usage. Use tax measures to control personal transport create dedicated funds for public transport. Use a wide range of instruments -- congestion reduction strategies, and parking policy to encourage people to use public transport. Kolkata is privileged to have multi-modal public transport systems – metro rail, suburban railway, extensive tram network and high usage of bus system. Their proper integration and expansion can save the city from the pollution and congestion nightmare.

Said Narain, “We need big ticket solutions to the growing and toxic pollution in our cities. This can only happen when we invent the very idea of mobility – not as the number of vehicles but the number of people who can be ‘moved’ as fast as possible. Kolkata can become the model for the entire world – an example of how we can combine affordable and equitable access to transport as the best solution to dealing with air pollution and congestion.”


For more information contact:

Anumita Roychowdhury

   Mobile No. 9811793923

Souparno Banerjee

   Mobile No. 9910864339