#LetOurCitiesBreathe – Kolkata’s Air Pollution Crisis


  • A crime has been committed.



Place: Kolkata


Time: 08:00 hrs.

One November morning, you are about leave for school or work. You leave the house and start walking towards the main road. You notice something in the air- it is a little foggy, you wonder. The air feels a tad bit heavy too. You take a glance at your phone, wish for a miracle to happen so that you are not late (again). You move on with life.


Time: 20:30 hrs.

You are now on your way back home, after a hard day’s work. Walking towards your home, you feel the nip in the air. Winter is on its way, you wonder. Once again, you feel the heaviness in the air. You look at the time and dreaming about a delicious dinner, you reach for the doorbell.


Two weeks later:

Another Monday morning. You wake up groggily and feel an irritation in your throat. As if something is stuck and you are desperate to remove it. Blaming the seasonal illness, you gurgle with lukewarm water and carry on with life.

You take the same route to work; the air feels a little different today. And your sore throat is having trouble coping with it. But life goes on.


If you could relate to the above, then you must know that Kolkata is now the most polluted city in the country, defeating the National Capital in the competition. The city registered the worse air quality in the last week of November, surpassing the figures of Delhi, the city known infamously for its air pollution levels.

Before going into the nitty-gritty’s of those pollution level figures, let us first understand the Air Quality Index (AQI) and how it came to being. AQI is an index designed to communicate to the public about the quality of air in their vicinity as well as to forecast about the air quality, in accordance with national air quality standards. India, for example, launched The National Air Quality Index in 2014, as a part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan program.



  • The Proof: Air Pollution as per NAQI.



The Central Pollution Control Board had designed the following AQI chart and the corresponding health impact as:

Source: Central Pollution Control Board, Government of India.



  • The Local Story of the National Criminal.



Centre- KOLKATA.

The next box will show the daily AQI figures for Kolkata (Station: Rabindra Bharati University, Time: 16:00) for the month of November 2018.

Source: National Air Quality Index, Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Chang, Government of India.

*Insufficient Data.

-Data unavailable.


The data is very self-explanatory, which is the driving point of any AQI across the globe. The city is fuming under toxic gases. The air is not worth breathing even during the late afternoon when the temperature is on the higher side.



  • PM 2.5- The culprit has been identified.



What is PM 2.5?

Particulate matter or atmospheric aerosol particles are microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the atmosphere. PM 2.5 refers to the tiny droplets in the air which are less than two and a half micrometers (mµ) in width. For a better perspective, there are 25,000 microns in an inch. So PM 2.5 is even thinner than a strand of human hair. They can easily travel up to the respiratory tract and into the lungs, making it their permanent home. The short term health effects on exposure to PM 2.5 include eye, nose, throat irritation, coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath. Prolonged exposure can lead to serious health deterioration including DNA mutation in the long haul, apart from lung infections and cardiovascular diseases.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) designate particulate matter as a Group 1 carcinogen. There has been numerous studies linking PM 2.5 levels to increased incidences of lung cancer, heart diseases, permanent genetic mutations etc. Global exposure to PM2.5 has resulted in almost 4.1 million deaths from such related illnesses in 2016.

Particulate matter is the worst form of air pollution and ranks as the sixth leading risk factor for premature deaths according to this report.



  • Kolkata and PM 2.5- The Toxic Relationship.



Kolkata has been recording worse AQI figures in the last few weeks with numbers mostly in the “very poor” to “severe” categories. The figures for the Victoria Memorial monitoring station are also disheartening, even though the area has a good buffering of greenery with the Maidan. North Kolkata’s air quality is the worst- as good as smoking 18-20 cigarettes a day. Experts fear of dire consequences if the pollution menace is not tackled at the earliest. The following is a part of newspaper article which sums up the air pollution crisis:

The most glaring fact is that life expectancy has decreased by six years due to pollution. There is quite a probability that these figures are going to increase if proper measurements are not taken up and acted upon. 2018 is the first year that Kolkata is waking up to this menace and citizens are demanding cleaner air. All of that is good but the burning question/s remains.


  • What are the policy changes?


  • What is the government mechanism doing in the immediate future to (at least) raise awareness amongst the population regarding the burden of pollution?




In fact, the National Green Tribunal has ordered the West Bengal government to pay a fine of Rs. 5Crore for non-compliance of the CPCB’s 2016 directives to curb air pollution in Kolkata and Howrah. The suggestions included reduction of vehicular emissions, implementation of the odd-even rule for private vehicles, increasing the number of monitoring stations, among others. The state will have to pay an additional one crore per month, if it fails to pay the fine on time. Clearly, the state government needs to overhaul its priorities in the area of environment and climate change.



  • The Punishment for PM 2.5.



There is no denying the facts anymore – air pollution has blown up (literally and figuratively) for The City of Joy. The brighter side is that citizens and activists are willing to sit with the concerned authorities to discuss the way ahead. The following could be some of the possible ways:

  1. Phasing out old vehicles and transitioning towards cleaner fuel for public transport, preferably CNG.
  2. Implementing the odd-even rule for private vehicles with immediate effect (if possible).
  3. Stricter pollution control norms and making sure that they are adhered to. The risk-reward mechanism could be enhanced for better implementation.
  4. Raising awareness in schools, colleges and among the general public.
  5. Investments in cleaner technologies as we move ahead.


In the end, nobody in the system benefits from this crisis except perhaps medical professionals who ends up treating more pollution related cases. I am sure even they want the number of patients to decrease.


  • Moral of The Story.

India is an emerging market with a surplus labour force. The economy would like to take this to its advantage rather than spend on an unhealthy population. The investments for cleaner resources will need to be made way for as the population starts to demand for the same (which is a normal consequence of the development process). The pollution levels need to be taken care of for every congested city of the country. And lastly, the issues of pollution, environment and climate change need to be a 365 day discussion rather than a seasonal one.

Ishita Guha Roy

Ishita Guha Roy

Calcutta University.

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