When it comes to polluted air, Tezpur city in Assam is doing very well. According to the World Health Organization’s latest report, Tezpur is the least polluted city in India. A city blessed with bucolic environs and enviable cultural and literary traditions, Tezpur’s air has been measured to have just 6 micrograms of fine suspended particulate matter (SPM) of size 2.5 micrometers per cubic metre of air. Having low levels of SPM 2.5 means the city air is easy on its denizens’ lungs — as the fine particles are known to settle deep inside lungs and cause breathing problems. On this count, the top three cities in the WHO list Tezpur, Pathamthitta in Kerala and Hassan in Kartaka are highly livable. The primary reasons for their good ambient air quality must be the far smaller numbers of fossil fuel burning vehicles on the roads and polluting industries, less haphazard construction activities, more green cover and favorable geographic conditions. In urban areas across the country, air pollution level has become an important factor in determining the quality of life. It is a hot topic of discussion if not a life-and-death matter in the country’s capital city itself. There is much debate in Delhi and elsewhere whether its residents can now breathe easier, with the city ranked 11th in WHO’s latest list of most polluted cities; last year, Delhi had hit headlines for the wrong reasons by ranking first in this list. The capital city’s SPM 2.5 concentration level has lately come down from 153 to 122, which is still way above the safety limit of 20. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is claiming credit for this improvement, attributing it to his much touted ‘odd-even’ scheme of allowing four-wheelers with only odd or even registration numbers on road on alterte days. Environmental experts have pointed out that it may not be pollution but ‘rate of increase of pollution’ that has slightly come down in Delhi; so the odd-even scheme can only be an emergency measure, it cannot substitute for long-term measures. Besides, air pollution readings can change appreciably, depending on wind speed, rainfall and moisture content.
Be as it may, urban India on the whole may figure somewhat lesser in WHO’s latest list, but that is small comfort. The WHO survey in 2014 had put 13 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted cities in the world. Presently, there are 10 Indian cities in this list, mely Gwalior and Allahabad globally ranked second and third, Pat and Raipur ranked sixth and seventh, followed by Delhi, Ludhia, Kanpur, Khan, Firozabad and Lucknow. So urban planning and development needs to go a long way to put aright development gone badly wrong in most Indian cities. The Centre has drawn up a list of 100 cities to be developed as ‘smart’ cities, but 17 among these also figure in the WHO list of polluted cities. Improving air quality in cities is therefore as important as building better urban infrastructure, upgrading civic amenities, providing e-governce and promoting technology in communication, transportation and energy use. While green technology and clean fuel are expected to help improve air quality, cities will be ‘smart’ only if these are clean in sanitation and waste magement as well. The WHO list of polluted cities and the Central government’s projected list of smart cities need to be compared with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan list of 73 clean cities that the Union urban development ministry brought out on February last. In this list, 60% marks were assigned for solid waste magement, 30% for toilet construction, and 5% each for sanitation strategy and ‘behavior change’ communication. Sikkim is the only city from the Northeast to figure among the top ten clean cities in India, being ranked eighth. While Agartala (33rd) came in the ‘aspiring leaders’ category, Guwahati (50th) and Shillong (53rd) were marked out among cities requiring a big push (acceleration required), while Kohima (60th) and Itagar (71st) from this region languish as slow movers. The Northeast has many things going for it, which its cities ought to harness to be clean, least polluted, smart and eminently livable. The onus is on our planners.