Kolkata City Dialogue on Air Quality and Transportation Challenge: An Agenda For Action

A Briefing Note
Serious concern over worsening air quality and traffic congestion in Kolkata Ongoing action must gather momentum, says CSE

  • New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) jointly organise the Kolkata City Dialogue on Air Quality and Transportation Challenge: An agenda for action

  • Dialogue focuses on Kolkata’s strengths – the city largely depends on its public transport, its buses and non-motorised vehicles, for moving. Large numbers of its residents also walk to work. If protected and scaled up, this can help Kolkata leapfrog to a more sustainable future and avert the mistakes that cities like Delhi have made in promoting pro-car policies

  • But Kolkata is moving in the wrong direction. CSE’s review of mobility challenges in Kolkata shows disproportionate focus on car-centric measures, such as building roads and flyovers. Kolkata is also neglecting its trams, its walking populations and its bicycles

  • Kolkata, like Delhi, may lose out on the benefits it had derived from its first generation reforms

  • It needs second generation action, including scaling up of public transport, integrated multi-modal transport options, car restraint and walking for clean air and public health

Kolkata, March 16, 2011: For Indian cities like Kolkata and Delhi, maintaining urban air quality and protecting their sustainable urban commuting practices are some of the toughest challenges. While some of these cities have made significant strides in meeting air quality challenges, they have also slipped and made terrible mistakes. Kolkata has been more fortunate among them. Its strength remains in its huge base of public transport usage, zero-emission tram network, and enormous share of walking. It just has to recognise and act upon this immense advantage and strength to move towards being a more liveable city.

This conclusion emerged out of the City Dialogue on Air Quality and Transportation Challenge: An agenda for action, conducted here today by the New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in partnership with the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA). The dialogue’s focus was the challenge of urban air quality and mobility in Kolkata.

The objective of this joint initiative has been to engage with all the relevant stakeholders and the citizens of the city to build public and policy awareness on clean air and public health as well as urban mobility for a liveable city. This collaborative workshop brought together the key regulators and policy makers from the city, experts, civil society groups and industry representatives who are involved with city governance, air pollution and transportation policies. This was also an opportunity to share the experiences and lessons from Delhi and other cities as well.

Benefits of first phase of action in Kolkata
Action on air pollution has begun in our cities and even shown results. Kolkata has already initiated its first generation action, which includes measures like introduction of Bharat stage IV norms for vehicles in 2010; ban on two-stroke autorickshaws; mandatory use of pre-mixed 2-T oil within Kolkata Metropolitan Area; upgradation of PUC emission testing centers, etc. About 21,000 autos, 3,000 buses and minibuses, and 7,000 taxis have been replaced in the city.

Similarly, action on industry includes stricter location policy for new industrial units and restriction on setting up of polluting industries in the municipal area; regulatory compliance for grossly polluting industries; stricter emission standards for boilers, ceramic kilns, foundries and rolling mills; mandatory use of clean fuels etc. The West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) is encouraging industries to go ‘beyond compliance’. Thermal power plants are also regularly monitored to control emissions.

A combination of these steps has helped Kolkata stabilise its air pollution levels. The High Court order banning two-stroke autorickshaws and old commercial vehicles has made an impact. According to the WBPCB, in November 2009, levels of benzene, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide were much lower than the levels recorded in 2008.

This first generation action has helped Kolkata – as a World Bank study shows -- to save more than 3,000 premature deaths due to air pollution-related diseases. This gives immense confidence for future action -- if we act, we will see results.

Kolkata can lose the gains if second generation action is not initiated
But only if Kolkata acts. Kolkata, in fact, is in real danger of losing all the gains of its first generation action as particulate pollution levels are once again rising and levels of newer pollutants like nitrogen dioxides are going up.  Studies forecast a decline in the share of pollution from industrial sources, but an increase from automobiles.

From the public health standpoint, what matters is the daily exposure to pollution. A CSE review of official air pollution data shows that the numbers of days violating daily standards for PM10 and NO2 are quite high in many locations. In Lal Bazaar, PM10 and NO2 exceed 24-hour standards on nearly half of the days – reflecting high exposure of populations to deadly particles and NO2 on a daily basis. Other areas of high PM10 violation are Cassipore and Kasba. Minto Park and Moulali show more days violating NO2 and PM10 standards.

The recent tightening of air quality standards by the Union ministry of environment and forests has further changed the air quality profile of locations in Kolkata. The air quality status based on NOx standards show that Salt Lake, Moulali, Minto Park, Lal Bazaar, Dunlop Bridge, Cassipore, and Behala Chowrasta have changed from ‘high’ to ‘critical’. The status of Kasba and Baishnabghata has changed from ‘moderate’ to ‘high’, while PM10 levels are critical in Kasba, Cassipore and Lal Bazaar.

More evidence has emerged to indicate growing toxicity of the city’s air. The ‘Study of Urban Air Quality in Kolkata for Source Identification and Estimation of Ozone, Carbonyls, NOx and VOC Emissions’, released in August 2010 by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has assessed the risks due to exposure from toxics. The estimated excess cancer risk for people residing in the city was found to be an alarming 3,176 persons in every million population. According to Census 2001, the total population of Kolkata is 13,205,697 – which means 41,935 persons are under threat to develop some kind of cancer only due to inhalation of these carcinogens.

Earlier studies carried out by the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) has found that traffic-related air pollution is associated with a 6.5-fold rise in alveolar macrophage number in traffic policemen and street hawkers of Kolkata, compared with relatively less exposed office workers. The alveolar macrophage number in sputum appears to be a sensitive biomarker of cumulative exposure to air pollution. Also, the percentage of children suffering from upper respiratory infections, cough, wheezing and eye irritation was reported to increase in direct proportion to increasing concentration of PM10.

Vehicles are a special problem
Vehicles are of very special concern because vehicle emissions take place within the breathing zone of the people. This increases our daily exposure to deadly dose of toxins. Vehicles are responsible for the maximum amount of human exposure to air pollution. Studies carried out by the World Bank in other cities have shown that nearly half of the total exposure to particulates that make people ill could be due to vehicles. That is why vehicles require more stringent measures.

The biggest challenge that confronts is the rapidly increasing vehicle numbers that threatens to undo the small incremental gains. An ADB study has shown that vehicles contribute about 22 per cent of the PM10 levels in the city, but if the contribution of only combustion sources is considered, then vehicles’ contribution can increase dramatically. The WBPCB also indicates that automobiles contribute significantly to particulates of the size of 1.1 micron and account for nearly 50 per cent of the air pollution load. Toxic emissions from diesel vehicles is a key concern in the city. In Kolkata, nearly 65 per cent of the vehicular population and nearly 99 per cent of commercial vehicles are diesel-run. Nationally, 30 per cent of new car sales are on diesel. Kolkata will require urgent steps to reduce the share of conventional diesel and introduce clean diesel and save the city from the toxic risk.

There is also a very high impact of old vehicles on air quality. Nearly 65 per cent of the vehicles in the city are more than 15 years of age. This negates the impact of the newer emissions standards. The phase-out plan of the old vehicles and their replacement with LPG vehicles is an important step forward. 

The people of Kolkata want change
CSE has carried out a rapid stakeholders’ perception survey. This is a part of its ongoing assessment to understand the perception of air pollution and mobility problems in the city. They have reflected on the core issues that must be looked into for making the next generation action agenda. A preliminary analysis of the survey’s responses indicates:

  • The majority – about 80 per cent -- of respondents have said air pollution is worsening in the city.

  •  About 70 per cent have said incidence of respiratory diseases, asthma, eye irritation are on the rise.

  • Most respondents have identified congestion as a big problem in the city.

  • About 60 per cent of the respondents have said that cycles and cycle rickshaws are important and should be given segregated space.

  • Nearly 60 per cent have rated public transport services as good, and 40 per cent have said they are average; similar opinions have been expressed for intermediate transports.

  • There is nearly unanimous support for improved public transport and nearly 60 per cent have supported dedicated lanes for buses.

  • Nearly 80 per cent think that a growing demand for parking of vehicles is leading to the problem of encroachment of footpaths, open spaces and to congestion. 

  • The majority find the walking infrastructure poorly maintained.

  • There is support for tramways, but a poor understanding of how these could be integrated with the overall transportation system of the city.

  • A majority have said that trams are a part of the solution, but are also a victim of policy neglect

The mobility crisis in Kolkata
A mobility crisis begins to build up in a city when a large share of its daily trips is made by personal vehicles that occupy more road space but carry fewer people, pollute more, and edge out walkers, bicycles, buses and intermediate public transport. There are signs of this crisis emerging in Kolkata. Growing dependence on personal vehicles is already showing one of its worst impacts – traffic gridlock on all the major arterial roads of the city.

The growth rate of cars has already overtaken that of two-wheelers. Car ownership has jumped from 1.73 per cent of households in 1998 to 11.1 per cent in 2008; ownership of two-wheelers has increased from 5.67 per cent of households to 16.5 per cent. At the same time, percentage of households that did not have any vehicle has fallen from 61 to 49.2 per cent. Kolkata already has 0.4 million cars, as opposed to 1.1 million in Delhi. What will happen if Kolkata has the same number of cars?

Both cars and two-wheelers constitute 50 per cent of the traffic in the city, but meet only 12 per cent of the travel demand. A disproportionate focus by policymakers on this small minority is jeopardising and killing the sustainable modes of the majority of Kolkata’s city dwellers.

Kolkata, like other cities, is paying a very high price for congestion. Traffic jams lead to fuel wastage, more pollution and serious economic losses. A normal commuting time of half an hour has increased to nearly two hours during peak periods. Against the maximum speed allowed in cities at 40 to 50 km/hour, the average speed in 72 per cent of the roads in Kolkata is less than 20 km/hour – or slower at some stretches. On 65 per cent of the arterial roads in the Kolkata Metropolitan Area, the traffic volume has exceeded the designed capacity and the service level of the road. This trend will make the city increasingly unlivable.

More roads is not the answer
Learn from Delhi’s experience. Delhi has not been able to solve its problem of pollution and congestion by building more roads and flyovers for cars. Delhi is most privileged to have more than 21 per cent of its geographical area under road space. Yet its roads are totally gridlocked. Peak hour traffic has even slumped to below 15 km/hour. Cars and two-wheelers in Delhi occupy 90 per cent of the road space, but meet less than 20 per cent of the travel demand. More roads are not the answer.

Kolkata is at the risk of making mistakes like Delhi. Maximum investments are being made for building car-centric infrastructure. Roads and flyovers have dominated the JNNURM urban infrastructure spending in Kolkata Metropolitan Area – at 73 per cent. There is barely any investment in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. On the contrary, active policies are being followed to restrict bicycle usage in the city. Bicycles have been banned on key arterial roads for smooth movement of motorised traffic. The city has started reviving the bus fleet, but it has not adequately spent on the bus infrastructure.

Kolkata must build on its strength
Why should Kolkata -- where 88 per cent of the daily trips are by public transport, bicycles, and walking -- suffer such crippling congestion and killer pollution? In fact, the Comprehensive Mobility Plan of Kolkata sets the goal for public transport at 90 per cent of the total passenger volume by the year 2025. This is the low polluting and low carbon mobility paradigm that the world is trying to achieve today to be more sustainable. Kolkata must be made conscious of this strength.

Kolkata has this advantage because it has closely built, high density environment. This has reduced travel distances and fosters low emissions and low carbon transport like walking, bicycling, para-transit and bus-based transport. It is a big advantage that 60 per cent of the total trips generated in the Kolkata Metropolitan Area have an average distance of less than 3-4 kms. This enables very high level of walking, cycling and public transport usage. Almost 65 per cent of all motorised and non-motorised trips in Kolkata Metropolitan Area are walking trips. Kolkata can make a massive transition to a clean and a liveable city just by modernising and improving its walkways and non-motorised transport.

Kolkata needs urgent reforms to build on its strengths
Reinvent public transport: The City Mobility Plan for Kolkata has set the goal of achieving a modal share of 90 per cent by 2025. Bus transport will play a very important part in attainment of this target. It is projected that even in 2025, among all prominent public transport modes like metro, bus and ferry -- buses will meet more than half of all demands. But buses will have to be given more dedicated space for better frequency and speed and comfort. Public transport cannot be successful in mixed traffic. Kolkata will have to reorganise its road space more equitably amongst all users and accord priority to public transport, walkers and users of non-motorised transport.

The tram has already given Kolkata a sustainable road design that accords priority to public transport. Do not destroy this: It is shameful that Kolkata is letting its tramway die. This system has already given a heads up to Kolkata in road design that gives the right of way to public transport to keep it out of congestion and attain speed. This is exactly the principle that other countries are trying to achieve through the bus rapid transit system and tram systems.

The tram fleet has dwindled in Kolkata. The number of passengers has drastically dropped since the 1970s by 10 times. Already, in some parts of the city, tram lines have been dug up to make way for cars. Instead of letting different public transport modes — the metro, trams and buses — compete with and undermine each other, Kolkata should develop a plan to integrate them and leverage them to cap motorisation. The tram will have to be the part of the vision and solution in Kolkata. Given the land constraint in Kolkata where only 6 per cent of the area is under road network (and this cannot be expanded any further), enhancing the capacity of the tram will be a very important cost-effective and affordable solution. After all the policy neglect, trams do meet 2 per cent of the travel demand in the city. In comparison, the expensive metro, with all its patronage and support, meets only 5 per cent.

The City Mobility Plan has proposed redevelopment of the existing tram system, linking it with the circular rail corridor to establish connectivity within the metropolitan area. This must not remain cosmetic, and must attract both state-level and national support.

Integrate all modes of public transport: Kolkata has an enormous advantage in its elaborate public transport infrastructure including, trams, suburban rail, bus system and also metro. An immediate multi-modal integration of all these systems can be the permanent solution to its congestion and pollution problems.

Build pedestrian infrastructure: Design pedestrian guidelines for approval of road projects and enhancement of the existing ones. Even today, 65 per cent of all trips – motorised and non-motorised – are walk trips in the Kolkata Metropolitan Area. This is an immense advantage in a city with an average walking distance of 3 km. Without proper walking facilities, public transport usage will also remain sub-optimal.

Make cars pay the full cost of using road space and causing environmental damages: Globally, cities are desperate to free up road space from cars. They are making car parking prohibitive; adding high premium to car ownership; exacting dues for entering prime busy areas; only allowing a fraction of them on roads at a time; or just not allowing them in the city centre. They are also giving people more options to cars. But Indian cities charge a pittance for road usage and for parking. CSE’s rapid assessment, for instance, shows that in Kolkata a standard bus pays Rs 23,250 annually as road tax whereas a 900cc car pays a life tax of Rs 25,650. This means a car pays in its lifetime what a bus pays every year. This reflects the trend in other cities as well where public transport is taxed higher than unsustainable cars. Our cities must reverse this. 

Enforce parking controls, rationalise taxes on cars and make way for congestion charging: Experience from around the world shows that parking controls, parking pricing along with taxes top the list as the first generation car restraint measures worldwide. CSE’s assessment shows that cars are the biggest encroachers in Kolkata: 30-40 per cent of the roads in Kolkata are taken up by parking; 50-70 per cent of the footpaths are reduced due to on-street parking. At the same time, cars pay a pittance for parking. This acts like a hidden subsidy. Indian cities, including Kolkata and Delhi, have begun to prepare parking policies but these must include parking controls and pricing to dampen car usage.

The state government needs to frame an urban transport policy with adequate legal back-up to guide action on sustainable transport: Kolkata still has the chance to plan its future growth differently and avoid the path of pollution, congestion and energy guzzling. More road space is not the answer. It needs to make maximum investment in redesigning its existing road space and travel patterns to provide the majority of the people affordable and efficient mode of public transport that can be an alternative to personal vehicles. Soft options have all been exhausted. Reducing personal vehicle usage, upgrading public transport, walking and cycling, and leapfrogging vehicle technology are the key options left. Plan cities for people, not vehicles. Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking, not for cars. This is the only option for Kolkata now.

For more on this, get in touch with Anumita Roychowdhury at anumita@cseindia.org.