Guwahati: Among several factors, Guwahati’s worsening air quality might have to do with the inaction on part of various state government departments of Assam, as per a judgement by the National Green Tribunal.

According to an affidavit of the Pollution Control Board of Assam (PCBA), when it sought an action-taken report from various departments, including the Assam Chief Secretary, on an action plan as per Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the departments did not comply. 

Himanshu Nath, a resident of Guwahati, approached the NGT in 2022 with concerns that the city is one of the most heavily polluted cities in Northeast India. He provided examples of severe to poor air quality in the city, blaming dust emissions, biomass burning, and vehicular pollution as major contributors to the increase in PM2.5 and PM10 levels.

PM10 refers to particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter, while PM2.5 refers to particulate matter 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter, which can be both solid and liquid particles suspended in the air.

In his petition, Nath stated that the particulate matter present in the air is causing severe lung diseases, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory problems among the residents of Guwahati.

Non-attained city 

Nath also cited that there are around 10 lakh vehicles unfit to ply on the city’s roads, and 8.42 lakh vehicles operating without pollution clearance certificates, which have been contributing to the heavy vehicular pollution in the city. Additionally, he added that dust emissions resulting from the construction of new flyovers and the expansion of highways were major contributors to the particulate matter (PM) in Guwahati.

Nath also pointed out that the action plan of the PCBA, in response to the CPCB’s directives for ‘non-attainment’ cities and towns of Assam, identified PM10 as the main air pollutant as it had exceeded the prescribed limit throughout Assam. The PCBA blamed road dust and vehicular pollution as the main contributors to air pollution.

In 2019, the Union Government launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, recognizing the increasing threat of air pollution in Indian cities. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) identified a list of polluted cities that violate the standards prescribed by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) 2009, also known as “non-attainment towns and cities.” The identification was based on ambient air quality data obtained under the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP) during the period of 2011-2015.

NGT observed that under NCAP launched by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, a total amount of Rs 5.12 crore has been released to Guwahati City during 2019-20 to 2021-22 and Rs 3.97 crore has been utilised so far in the activities like Installation of Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS), source apportionment study, emission inventory and capacity building by the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati and mass awareness programmes.

The Guwahati Municipal Corporation also filed an affidavit stating that a proposal of ₹7.35 crore has been submitted under NCAP to buy excavators and trucks to clear the city’s drainage. 

Earlier in 2018, NGT directed state governments to establish Air Quality Monitoring Committees (AQMCs) to develop air quality action plans for non-attainment cities, with the aim of meeting the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) within six months of finalizing the action plan. In line with this directive, an AQMC for Assam was established on December 19, 2018.

The committee was to operate under the overall supervision and coordination of the state’s Additional Chief Secretary. The committee developed action plans for the control of air pollution in five non-attainment cities in Assam, namely Guwahati, Sivasagar, Silchar, Nalbari, and Nagaon.

Lost road maps

According to the affidavit of PCBA, along with the action plan of AQMC, ‘Dust Management in Urban Regions – A Road Map’ was prepared by PCBA. The Assam pollution control body stated that Guwahati’s environmental issues were identified and a specific road map to minimise air pollution was circulated. 

On January 2, 2020, PCBA sent a letter to the Commissioner and the Secretary of Assam, Guwahati Municipal Corporation, Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority, Industries and Commerce Department, National Highway Authority of India, Heads of all Urban Local Bodies and all districts of Assam. The letter directed all the authorities to take necessary arrangements as per road map so that Dust Management can be taken care of at different levels. The said authorities were required to submit an action taken report which would have been forwarded to CPCB.

PCBA stated in its affidavit that not a single department it wrote to had submitted their action taken reports till date.

The bench led by Justice B. Amit Sthalekar and expert member, Prof. A. Senthil Vel, however, ruled that steps taken by the Government of Assam as well as Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) have not been adequate in addressing the severity of the air pollution in Guwahati. 

NGT has asked the Chief Secretary of Assam to ensure that all the concerned authorities prepare an action taken report for the dust management and comply with the directions of the PCBA’s letter from January 2,2020. It also ruled that all construction activities such as flyovers and highway expansion should be completed by December 31, 2023. The bench has directed Chief Secretary of Assam to chair a committee comprising of the GMC Commissioner, the Commissioner and Secretary, Public Works Department, Government of Assam, Chief Executive Officer, Guwahati, GMDA, Assam Industries and Commerce Department, National Highway Authority of India and Assam’s Principal Secretary of Urban Local Bodies among the other Members and any other Member as the Chief Secretary may deem fit in the circumstances of the case.

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NGT directed that the Committee will regularly monitor the completion of all the works/projects as stated in the affidavits of the GMC and Government of Assam, and shall also regularly monitor the Air Quality in the city of Guwahati as well as in the other cities of Assam to ensure that the Air Quality is as per the National Air Quality Index norms. It has asked the committee to file an affidavit of compliance by January 15, 2024 to the NGT. 

According to the legal counsel, Vikram Rajkhowa, who represented Nath in the NGT, the NGT order is a step in the right direction. “We at least have a timeline for addressing the key issues related to air pollution,” Rajkhowa told EastMojo

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