Most people believe that India’s megacities like Delhi and Bombay have the dubious honour of having the highest levels of particulate matter (PMI) in air. What few realise is that the mantle of “India’s most polluted city” is increasingly shifting to India’s Tier 2 & Tier 3 state capitals as our megacities slowly get some sort of grip on the biggest sources of air pollution eg. construction sites, 3-wheelers, old cars & trucks, etc. Sanskrita Bhardwaj’s story on Guwhati is representative of what’s happening in India’s less high profile state capitals, namely:

“Open burning of waste, road dust from vehicles and construction activities are causing particulate matter pollution in Guwahati… the latest 2023 World Air Quality Report by IQAir–a Swiss air quality monitoring group–which has ranked Guwahati as the second most polluted city in the world. According to the report, Guwahati recorded an average annual PM 2.5 concentration of 105.4 microgram per cubic metre of air (µg/m³), more than 20 times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended level of 5 µg/m³….

The report by IQAir placed Begusarai in Bihar as the first and Delhi as the third most polluted cities in the world…”

Whilst many of us in the stockmarket might scoff at these sorts of environmental concerns, there is a very good financial reason to worry about the prevalent levels of air pollution in India: “IndiaSpend previously reported that if India were to meet the WHO air quality standards, it could potentially extend the average lifespan of its citizens by four years.” Longer lifespans, especially for middle class people, means that they will consume more and spend more and need more healthcare. Imagine the profits that all of that extra consumption would generate.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Guwahati – a city where one of our investee companies has its main factory and thus we are indirect contributors to the citiy’s plight – things are taking a turn for the worse: “Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi, said that the Swiss air quality data for Guwahati are a bit on the higher side than the data she was able to access from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

Roychowdhury added that if the Swiss air quality report has combined Byrnihat–an industrial town in Meghalaya state on the border with Assam–it is quite possible to have a high average annual PM 2.5 concentration of 105.4 for Guwahati….

“Key point is that in Guwahati, the overall pollution levels are on the rise. Guwahati has certain geographical disadvantages: It is more like a valley surrounded by hills and in that kind of geography, there is often the tendency for the pollution concentration to be higher because the trapping bit happens, especially during winters,” she said.

Rahul Mahanta, associate professor at Cotton University’s department of physics in Guwahati, reiterated Roychowdhury’s point. He said that PM 2.5 is “basically because of black carbon, and Guwahati has had a high PM 2.5 for a while now. During the winter months, conditions change: The moisture stays, a lid forms due to cold air that flows from the hills, and particles remain suspended in the air,” Mahanta said….

According to Roychowdhury, the main sources of air pollution are vehicles, open burning of waste, and construction activities. Apart from these, she said, in dumping grounds where methane emission happens from the rotting waste, if that catches a spontaneous fire, it tends to emit continuous toxic gases. She added that small and medium scale industrial units could also be a contributor.

Currently, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation dumps the city’s daily waste at Belortol in Paschim Boragaon village of Guwahati…

According to Shirshendu Sekhar Das, founder of Guwahati-based environmental conservation organisation The Midway Journey, “the dump site has been on fire for the last one month now. Due to high temperatures of the food and plastic waste, the harmful gases get ignited on their own. There is no fire extinguisher…”

If you want some good news on this issue, here it is – India is not the most polluted country in the world. That wretched honour belongs to Bangladesh. Pakistan gets the silver medal in pollution and India gets the bronze medal. Time to uncork the champagne.

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