In Gaya, world’s fourth most polluted city, political apathy keeps environmental degradation from becoming an election issue

Rohin Kumar | Feb 23, 2019 | 6 min read




By Rohin Kumar

Gaya: Lord Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, just 10kms away from this tier two town. But enlightenment has eluded Gaya’s municipal and other city administrators on ways to control pollution. A global air pollution database released by WHO in May 2018 rates Gaya as the fourth most polluted city on the planet in terms of PM 2.5 concentration. And while the authorities try to figure out how to solve this pollution problem, “people of Gaya are facing several types of allergy, eye burn, itching, sneezing and whooping cough,” said Dr Faizur Ahmed of Magadh Medical Hospital.

The WHO report, according to which Gaya’s PM 2.5 level at 149 was higher than even larger and more populated cities like Patna and Delhi, evoked much shock among residents and got much outraged media coverage. But the only action taken so far is to ban single use plastic, that too by the state government in Patna, not by the local municipality.

The city, known globally for its fortnight long Pitri paksh (ancestral worship) fair, today is choking on dust and fuel pollution. Its solitary air quality monitoring station at Gaya Collectorate has rated Real time Air Quality Index (AQI) of Gaya in the city for the past several months between ‘very unhealthy’ (201-300) and ‘unhealthy’ (151-200). Even the current week for which data is available, air is classified “unhealthy”.

The reasons are many. Illegal stone quarrying in the hills surrounding the town, the many small and medium units in the towns populated areas, vehicular pollution with increasing private car ownership, lack of any kind of systematic waste treatment and disposal system, and the towns ageing state transport diesel and petrol buses belching exhaust. Converting these to CNG buses is not even being discussed as Gaya is yet to get its first CNG filling station. And recommendations to fine heavy vehicles over 10 years old have gone nowhere.

Owners of numerous small business units have their own tale of woes to tell. Manoj Verma, 51, owns a broom company in Nutan Nagar. A two-storey building that doubles up as his residence and factory. His elder son, Aadi (22) suffers from severe allergic ailment from the broom dust.

When asked about factories like his adding to the pollution, Manoj said he had planned to shift the factory to the city outskirts in early 2017. “But the sudden demonetisation in 2016 derailed our plans,” said Manoj, one of the many owners of small units similarly affected by demonetisation.

A few kilometres from Nutan Nagar is Nai Godam, with its concentration of wholesale retail shops and industries. According to municipal corporation sources, these factory owners were served notices and had agreed to shift their factories away from the town. But the process got stalled due to huge cash crunch and losses after demonetisation. The plan eventually got dumped with the BJP, which rules the municipal corporation, not wanting to antagonise its baniya (trader) vote bank.

Illegal and indiscriminate quarrying is another major polluter. Stone mining in Kaibachak, Murgiachak, Mirzapur and Akalbigha has posed a serious threat to the green areas of the town. For instance, in the 1000-feet high Gere Hills, stone mining has left a 300 feet crater, posing serious threat to living conditions, agriculture and the surrounding environment.

Environment activists allege that stone mining on such a scale is a clear violation of section 106 (2) (b) of Metalliferous Mines Act, 1961. And a number of FIRs have been registered on illegal stone quarrying, with the Patna High Court ordering a blanket ban on mining.

However, there is no data available on the pollution impact from such mining. Protests by locals have been mainly about the dangers posed by these craters and the loss to agriculture due to mining. Pollution has never been a political campaign issue, even in the municipal elections.

Waste disposal is another key need about which the municipal corporation is clueless. Though Dr. A. K. Ghosh of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) said that “guidelines about good practices of waste disposal has been discussed with representatives of municipal corporation, including imposing fine on waste burning,” waste continues to be dumped and burnt at Aliganj, the waste dumping ground on the Gaya-Chandauti highway. Residents complain that on the directions of municipal corporation, workers burn the waste to make space for new arrivals.

Ex-Mayor, Vibha Devi blames the municipal commissioner for not cooperating with the municipal authorities. “During my tenure, I took ward councillors to Gujarat to study how waste is managed in that state,” said Vibha Devi. “We proposed a waste management plan for Gaya. But due to bureaucratic hurdles the plan was stalled.” When this reporter asked Vibha to name five measures taken in her tenure to check pollution, she couldn’t come up with even one.  

Ganesh Paswan, Mayor, Gaya Municipal Corporate said that corporation is conducting awareness team in all the wards of the towns. He categorically couldn't mention how much amount has been specifically allocated for the cause. "We are conducting awareness drives with various sections of the society as well. And, we also plan to amplify the plastic ban campaign," said Paswan. This reporter kept him asking about at least couple of decisions taken on policy level to curb pollution, disappointingly he couldn't highlight the measures.

Even the Central government’s much hyped scheme like Ujjawala Yojna, aimed at cutting down use of coal and firewood in homes for cooking, has its roadblocks in towns like Gaya.

Malti Devi, 35, lives in a shanty and prefers coal over the scheme’s gas cylinder. “We are daily wage workers and cannot afford gas cylinders,” argues Malti Devi. “The government should give it free or give us regular jobs”. Hundreds of families like Malti’s living in various pockets of the city, prefer coal over gas.

Nav Pehchan Welfare Society, a local NGO working on environment issues argues that including Gaya in the National Clean Air Program (NCAP), which aims to cut emission levels by 30 per cent by 2024, would help in controlling PM 2.5 levels. But without sector-wise emission data, there is no clear-cut way to implement this.

Also, the NCAP programme itself was launched without any budgetary allocation or framework. Even after the huge outcry over Delhi’s air pollution reaching critical levels in December-January, the interim budget had nothing to say about financial allocation for the NCAP. In fact, the interim budget has reduced budget for pollution control to Rs 10 crore from the Rs 20 crore allocated in the last budget. Overall, given the lack of importance given to pollution control in the interim budget, that Gaya’s city adminstrators and municipal corporators are indifferent to the city’s pollution problems is perhaps not a surprise.


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