Air Pollution In Vizag: Helpless Residents Breathing Noxious Fumes

The Human Rights Forum (HRF) views with deep concern the increasing levels of air pollution shrouding the city of Visakhapatnam. This toxicity is unremitting, but the government appears to do little about it.

The government’s failure to protect us from exposure to hazardous air in the city violates the citizens’ human rights to life and health. Time and again authorities concerned have fallen short of adequately and meaningfully addressing the crisis. Citizens have a right to clean air. However, we do not seem to have a choice but to breathe noxious fumes every day amidst a sense of utter helplessness. When our lives are in peril, what are elected representatives doing? Are regulatory bodies functioning? Are anti-pollution laws being enforced at all?

As is known, the Air Quality Index (AQI) – the yardstick used to measure quality of air in a given area – is grouped into six categories, each corresponding to a different level of health concern and is measured on a scale of 0 to 500. Air quality in Vizag often records ‘unhealthy’ (151-200) and ‘very unhealthy’ (201-300) levels. On occasion, during winter, it is hitting the threshold zone of ‘hazardous’ (301 and higher).

The culprits responsible for this degradation in air quality and the rapid increase in ambient air pollution are well known – fossil fuel powered infrastructural development, ever expanding industries, increasing vehicular density, waste burning and construction. This is the reason why various pollutant gases and suspended particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) are surging beyond permissible limits. Levels recorded at the ambient air quality monitoring stations in the city confirm this. We are all being exposed to unhealthy levels of ambient PM2.5 – the most harmful pollutant – emanating from multiple sources. Despite this reality, officials maintain that they are ‘proactive in meeting regulatory requirements’ and that they are ‘delivering innovative solutions to improve air quality’. These are empty claims and air pollution continues to plague the city.

This winter we have had one of the worst episodes in the city characterised by a constant spike in levels of illegal air pollution. Vizag has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in South India according to a recent Greenpeace India study. Next in the list is Hyderabad, another developmental showpiece! Both cities have exceeded the permissible limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in terms of two key atmospheric air quality parameters, PM10 and PM2.5 by seven to eight times! The air in Vizag has become so lethal that we cannot breathe – at any hour of day or night – without harming ourselves. It would be no exaggeration to say we are slowly but surely choking to death.

Coal-dust generated by operations of the Vizag Port Trust spreads across the city because of sea winds. In spite of intervention by the National Green Tribunal, there has been no improvement. On most days, air in the city is hazy, trees are laden with dust and windows and floors turn sooty. Continuous exposure to coal dust causes scarring in the lungs, impairing our ability to breathe. In the absence of robust statistics and exact estimates, we really do not know how many lives are being cut short because of these dangerous levels of contaminants in our environment. Imputing from available published data, it is not surprising that many people are dying prematurely because of air pollution.

Vulnerable groups like the young, elderly, the poor and those with pre-existing health conditions are at particular risk from exposure to this persistent toxic cloud. New WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) provide clear evidence of the damage air pollution inflicts on human health, at even lower concentrations than previously understood. It is now scientifically evident that even short-term exposure to low levels of PM2.5 and PM10 is linked to a higher risk of lung cancer, cardiac and brain ailments.

This horrendous situation amounts to a public health emergency. Air pollution levels in Vizag pose a grave threat to our lives and urgent steps are called for to improve conditions. So far, there has been gross official failure on this front with government flouting its duty to protect the lives and health of citizens. HRF demands that authorities initiate and take forward credible, effective and timely measures to halt this breaching of nominal and legal air pollution limits. It is imperative that we prioritise an immediate shift to clean energy and clean transport so as to halt more damage to ourselves. We also urge the Central Pollution Control Board to introduce new national ambient air quality standards that are in tune with the latest scientific understanding and are based on the updated WHO AQGs.

VS Krishna 
(HRF TS & AP Coordination Committee member)

K Sudha
(HRF AP State general secretary)


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