Varanasi’s toxic air quality is emblematic of wider malaise affecting entire Indo-Gangetic plain

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In 2017, CPCB called Varanasi the most polluted city in the country, while in 2018, WHO listed it as the third most polluted city in the world

The city of Varanasi is among 43 critically polluted zones in the country. The extent of air pollution here is such that in 2015, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), said that the city did not have even a single good air quality day that year. And air pollution is only a part of the problem — the quality of water here is terrible as well.

Pollution indices in Varanasi, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, have only got worse with time. In 2017, CPCB called it the most polluted city in the country, while in 2018, WHO listed it as the third most polluted city in the world. Data revealed that pollution levels in Varanasi were 20 times more than WHO’s standards. In fact, the city’s air quality was found to be more toxic than in Delhi. This is despite the fact that in 2017, the city reported seven days of good air quality, as compared to zero in 2015.

The problem of pollution in Varanasi is emblematic of the situation in the Indo-Gangetic plain (IGP) as a whole. Almost 40 percent of the country’s population lives in this region. In 2020, the CPCB conducted a survey of 54 cities in this region. Half of the cities reported ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ air quality. Vehicular emission, industrial pollution and dust were cited as the major causes of pollution.

Other studies have thrown up similar findings. IQ Air, an air quality information platform, releases a list of world’s most polluted cities every year. As per its 2019 index, out of top 30 polluted cities, 21 were from India. More importantly, all 21 of these cities are from the Indo-Gangetic plain, a majority of them being from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In cities like Kanpur, Agra and Varanasi, both air and water were found to be of very bad quality.

The effects of this air pollution crisis have been disastrous. A research by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) in 2019 showed that people residing in the IGP are on an average losing 7.5 years due to air pollution. The study noted that pollution levels have increased by 72 percent from 1998 to 2016.

The IGP separates the peninsular plateau from the Himalayas, and spans four countries — India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In India, the region stretches from Rajasthan to Assam. It is now facing serious ecological challenges, like many other ecosystems. These include damage to river basins, air pollution, and increased urbanisation and human activity in general.

Plans aplenty, but inadequate implementation

As per a ‘clean air plan’ prepared by Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, the primary sources of air pollution in Varanasi are road dust (92 percent), vehicular emissions (2 percent), burning of solid fuels in households (3 percent), garbage burning (2 percent) and agriculture waste burning (2 percent), besides industrial pollution, use of diesel generator sets and brick kilns.

“The Indo-Gangetic plain is essentially landlocked,” explains Dr Pallav Purohit, a researcher at the Austria-based International Institute For Applied Systems Analysis. “The Himalayas prevent polluted air from escaping to the north, creating the so-called ‘valley effect’—the formation of low-pressure troughs across the region which cause winds to converge. These result in trapping local pollution, as well as pollution from outside”.

For Varanasi, the government has drawn up an action plan which lists a number of short and long-term activities to curb pollution. These include introducing electric buses and establishing charging stations, construction of ring roads and peripheral roads to avoid congestion in the city, creating multilevel parking facilities, creating cycling zones, using bio-ethanol in the city, installing waste to energy facilities etc.

But successful implementation of these measures is a steep challenge. For instance, the city has only one online air quality monitoring system that measures both PM2.5 and PM10 levels. In November 2020, the government decided to install 10 new monitoring stations in the state, out of which three will be deployed in Varanasi. However there is no clarity on when this will happen.

The state government cleared a project for rolling out electric buses across various cities, including Varanasi. But these cities still lack the requisite infrastructure to facilitate the operation of the electric buses.

Waste burning and road dust continues to negatively affect the city’s air quality, as was noted in a recent study by a local group.

Varanasi’s dense urban structure is again typical of the factors that characterise cities in this region. Dr. Sarath Guttikunda, Director, Urban Emissions, a research group engaged in science and data based analysis of air pollution in India, noted, “Pollution levels in the IGP are higher because of density of population, industries, and emissions from other sources such as transport, waste burning, cooking and heating, and dust.”

Impact on agriculture

A study by the University of California, San Diego, had highlighted the impact of air pollution on agriculture in states located in the Indo-Gangetic plain. It examined the effect of pollution on rainfall levels and temperature patterns. For example, Uttar Pradesh, a major wheat producing state, was seen to have a witnessed a major wheat yield loss. Similar effects have been observed for rice-producing states in the northern plains.

However, while stubble burning has been said to be a cause of pollution in Delhi, such a situation may not extend to many others parts of the IGP. A study conducted in six IGP cities (Delhi, Jaipur, Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi and Patna) finds that reduction in biomass burning, including stubble burning, will have a smaller effect on reducing air pollution as compared to reduction in anthropogenic emissions.

Therefore, the focus of pollution mitigation measures should be on anthropogenic emissions, specifically on household energy usage, such as promoting use of clean cooking fuels, say experts.

“A focus on the reduction of primary PM2.5 (e.g. tightening emission norms for vehicles and power plants) will only address half the problem,” says Dr. Purohit. “A significant share of emissions still originates from sources associated with poverty and underdevelopment such as solid fuel use in households and poor waste management practices”.

Unscientific response

Unfortunately, in India, discussions and policies on air pollution are episodic and piecemeal in nature. The issue gets attention only when air quality reaches very poor levels in Delhi-NCR and other cities, especially during October and November.

“We have year-round sources of air pollution, which need attention. These sources include any sector that burns petrol, diesel, gas, waste, and coal, and dust on the roads and from construction activities,” says Dr. Sarath.

Official responses also often ignores principles of science and logic. An example of this is the installation of smog towers in the National Capital Region. According to a paper by Dr Sarath and Puja Jawahar, it is “unscientific to assume that one can trap air, clean it, and release into the same atmosphere simultaneously.”

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