If Delhi has long been known for poor air quality that chokes lungs, clogs throats, causes scratchy eyes, and leeches energy, Mumbai is catching up fast.
The surge in open-air garbage burning, traffic, waste from refineries and industries, and construction work is taking a toll on air quality in the western metropolis. The Arabian Sea, tropical humidity and the linear layout of the city have done little to dissipate the cloak of smog.
As political leaders, civic bodies, industries, factories, builders, motorists and blame each other for going down the Delhi way, a worried Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has come out in frantic firefighting mode, prohibiting garbage burning, cracking down on cement mixing factors, and pulling up builders for flouting rules.
Since October, the Air Quality Index (AQI) here has worsened, even after pollution levels finally dropped in the rest of Mumbai following a slew of measures like a deadline for bursting crackers.
When it comes to air pollution, Govandi-Deonar is a magnifier for the rest of Mumbai. In the first week of November, when Mumbai’s AQI averaged 124, Deonar’s air quality index was almost 30 points higher. When its AQI is moderate, that of Govandi-Deonar is severe.
Residents of the slums around the Govandi-Deonar mega dumping ground can’t remember a day when they weren’t breathing in methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide, or the black smoke from the incinerator.
For the Deonar dumping ground, the municipality is still considering setting up a waste-to-energy plant that will treat around 600 metric tonnes of garbage every day and generate 1.7 million units of energy annually. Even if it comes up, it’s too little too late, say activists and residents of Deonar Govandi.
Every 10 minutes, trucks with Mumbai’s waste trundle into the Deonar landfill, belching black fumes on the way. Around 7,000-7,500 metric tonnes of solid waste is dumped into its landfills every day.
Mountains of rubbish—as high as perhaps an 18-storey skyscraper—tower over the jumble of huts and tenements that make up the slum. With a population density of more than 35,000 people per sq km (as per the 2011 census), the sprawl has expanded over the years as the mountains grow taller.
This year, there was an outcry on the poor AQI from the suburbs to the island city. Mumbai’s air quality index did not touch 400 like in Delhi, but it kept the BMC and the MPCB on their toes.
The city’s famous coastline has always helped it keep pollution levels in check. But infrastructure projects like the metro and coastal road, the demolition of old buildings, the construction of towers, changes in wind speed, and increased vehicular emissions have contributed to rising pollution levels in the financial capital. According to BMC administrator Iqbal Chahal, construction activity is underway across 6,000 sites in the city.
Mumbai experienced a similar crisis in October last year, following which the BMC allocated Rs 25 crore in the 2023-24 budget for the ‘Mumbai Clean Air Initiative’.
The plan outlined improved construction and demolition work practices, measures to reduce dust on roads, the importance of clean transportation and sustainable waste management, projects to promote urban greenery, effective air quality monitoring, and communication and awareness campaigns.
BMC also devised strategies to mitigate the ill effects of dust generated by construction and demolition activities. It instructed developers to install dust screens along the facade of buildings, use water sprinklers to settle dust clouds and use covered vehicles for transporting debris and construction material, among other things.
It looked good on paper, but the take-off has been bumpy.
The Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI) Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (MCHI) said that it was unfair to solely attribute rising pollution levels to heavy construction. Others claimed it was politically motivated, citing Uddhav Thackeray’s support for the real estate industry.
Later that week, the BMC started cracking down on the burning of waste in the open.
The BMC is also in the process of setting up a command-control centre to gather hyper-local data to tackle air pollution at the micro level. Contractors and real estate firms were served notices for not adhering to the pollution norms.
Earlier this month, the MPCB instructed Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), Tata Power and some logistics and chemical companies to cut down production by 50 per cent in order to curb pollution.
BMC also served notices to gold and silver smelting units in Zaveri Bazaar. They even demolished the chimneys of four such small-scale factories on the grounds that when “precious metals are melted in a furnace, gaseous byproducts are released into the air through chimneys.”
Considering the worsening air quality, the Maharashtra health department issued an advisory asking people to avoid outdoor morning and late evening walks, running, jogging and physical exercise in case of a “poor-severe” AQI.
On 9 November, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde instructed the BMC to deploy 1,000 tankers to ‘wash’ Mumbai roads. He also asked municipalities to increase urban forested areas (Miyawakis) and ordered administrative bodies to collectively campaign for a pollution-free Maharashtra.
Describing the smog towers and the road washing plan as a “bogus scheme”, the opposition criticised the Shinde government for failing to enforce these measures. It would help if the CM’s “builder and contractor friends” actually followed air pollution guidelines, they said.
Mumbai is on a top 10 list of the world’s most polluted cities, alongside Delhi, Lahore and Kolkata. Mumbaikars fear that it will only get worse.