India's crumbling cities: Ageing Kolkata bent by pollution, poor infra

Topics Kolkata | pollution | Durga Puja

Calcutta Medical College
The festive season in Kolkata ended on a sour note this year when thousands of worshippers ignored a National Green Tribunal order, smashed the locks on the gates, and barged into the Rabindra Sarobar lake for the Chhath Puja festival, clashing with environmentalists. The tribunal had banned the use of the lake in south Kolkata, which is surrounded by a green belt, for the rituals because the waste that’s usually left every year endangers the flora and fauna.  

While the police failed to stop the devotees breaking their way in, livid with the blatant disregard of the ban, environmentalists lit into the West Bengal government. But they have other reasons too for being disgruntled with the government. While Delhi hogs the ‘limelight’ as the pollution capital of the world, Kolkata on many days is either not much better or even worse. 

Last month, in many localities, the Air Quality Index (AQI) surpassed the 400 mark, which means the air quality was close to hazardous while in Delhi it improved from very poor to poor. The number of diesel vehicles in Kolkata is so high that the city is known as the ‘diesel capital’ of India. Rough estimates suggest that more than 80 per cent of vehicles, including the big yellow taxi fleet, in the city run on diesel, known for emitting a very high amount of harmful particulates. The anti-pollution measures taken by the government include sprinkling water at construction sites, taking cars that are more than 15 years old off the roads, and banning coal-based ovens at roadside food stalls. The environmentalists’ concerns are not confined to pollution but the overall sustainability of Kolkata as home to nearly five million people. On the one side, its crumbling infrastructure needs immediate repair. On the other, its coastal location makes it highly vulnerable to the impact of rising sea levels.   

“The West Bengal government is doing literally nothing to address environmental issues. Building parks or sprinkling water doesn’t address environmental problems,” said Naba Dutta, secretary of Sabuj Macha, a platform of environmental organisations. 

These apprehensions are supported by numerous reports on the threat of climate change to Kolkata. A recent study by scientists at Climate Central, a US-based non-profit organisation, pointed out that rising sea levels mean parts of Kolkata will either be underwater or ravaged by recurring floods by 2050. 

A more severe warning came in a 2011 World Bank report, which warned that east Kolkata, the fastest-growing part of the city and home to costly real estate on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, will bear the maximum brunt of climate change. The report mentioned nine wards which face an imminent threat. It also said, in Kolkata Municipal Corporation areas, the damage from floods over span of last 100 years flood will increase to $6.8 billion in 2050 due to climate change.

Unplanned land use, poor socioeconomic and environmental conditions, and decaying infrastructure were mentioned by the World Bank as some of key factors for the poor state of affairs. Evidence of decrepit infrastructure came from the state government’s own recent audit, which found that seven flyovers needed urgent repairs. The East Kolkata wetlands are unique. They are both natural and human-made wetlands on the fringes of the city covering about 125 sq km. They comprise salt marshes, salt meadows, sewage farms, and ponds. 

Not only do the nutrients contained in the waste water sustain fish farms and agriculture, the water body also locks in a substantial amount of carbon. However, in the past three decades, the soaring real estate construction has changed it all; so many water bodies have been filled for construction that the area has shrunk by nearly 70 per cent. “The water bed in East Kolkata wetlands is increasing and there is an immediate need for dredging. Already the number of ponds have come down from 300 to about 200 in the area due to real estate activities,” said Dutta.

What’s ailing
  • In 2018, West Bengal public works department  identified 7 bridges in the city as “most vulnerable” requiring urgent repairs
  • About 30% of pure water supply gets wasted due to leakage in old pipes
  • The 16.6-km-long rapid transit system, connecting Kolkata and Howrah faces delays due to unexpected stumbling upon aquifer bursts in North Kolkata. Old rakes in existing metro need urgent replacement
  • The iconic Howrah Bridge faces problems of corrosion, with spitting constituting one of the key reasons
  • Kolkata Municipal Corporation faces acute fund crunch. The year 2019-20  opened with a cumulative of Rs 1,030.2 crore under the revenue fund of KMC

Writer and environmentalist Jaya Mitra said Kolkata was heading towards a very unhealthy environment. “So many trees are being cut for metro or road construction. The number of automobiles on the roads is on rise and so is the use of air conditioning,” said Mitra.

The deficiencies in urban planning were laid bare in 2016 when a 150 metre steel span of the Vivekananda Road flyover in Girish Park which was under construction collapsed, killing more than 50 people and injuring 80. In 2018, a 20-metre deck of the Majerhat bridge caved in. More recently, during the construction of the East West metro, many old buildings in north Kolkata developed cracks overnight, leaving hundreds of people displaced. Rising sea levels, pollution, and ageing infrastructure are the multiple challenges of urbanisation that Kolkata — and many other Indian cities — need to get a handle on if future growth is to be sustainable.

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