Mumbai: A city under development is hard on the lungs
Mumbai seems to be perpetually under construction as exposed metal, concrete slabs and barricades confront citizens on nearly every arterial street in the city and suburbs.
Mumbai: Eighty-two year old Nina Verma recalled the year she moved into her two-storey apartment located on the leafy and shaded Jamshedji Tata Road. Her home had a sprawling balcony which gave her a view of Madame Cama Road to the west and Churchgate to the east. “It is lovely, sprawling balcony that was designed to let the air and light in,” Verma said. In 2017, when the construction for Metro-3 line began, several trees along the road were cut down. “Since construction work began we have been living in a cloud of dust. I gargle regularly with turmeric and warm water now to take care of my throat, which isn’t something I did earlier,” Verma said.
“The hoarseness in my voice should give you an idea of how bad things are,” she added.
About 33 kilometres from Verma’s home in Churchgate lies the suburb of Dindoshi in Malad. In 2016, construction work on Metro Line-7 began — earlier this month, a part of the Metro line was operationalised, including Dindoshi station — but the residents of this locality, which lies 1.3 km from the Western Express Highway faced similar problems to Verma’s.
In December 2021, a 78-year-old Dehradun resident, who was in Mumbai to visit her daughter, was rushed to Powai’s Hiranandani Hospital after she complained of breathlessness. The septuagenarian, who requested anonymity, had no history of any respiratory illness or common comorbidities like diabetes or hypertension. Yet, after spending a week in her daughter’s apartment in Dindoshi, close to the site of the construction work, she started wheezing and found it increasingly difficult to breathe. The area is also dotted with several residential projects that have gone into development in the past few years.
This was the second time she was rushed to a hospital when visiting her daughter. The first time too, the symptoms were the same. “When she was in Dehradun, she never complained of any breathing issues. But as soon as she arrives in Mumbai, her discomfort sets in gradually,” her daughter, a 60-year-old retired academician, said.
Dr Swapnil Mehta, a pulmonary medicine consultant who treated the elderly woman, said that her symptoms were typical of acute bronchitis precipitated by the environmental factors.
Mehta put her on bronchodilation therapy to ease her breathing and prescribed a course of antibiotics to tackle a possible lower respiratory tract infection.
“It is not uncommon to see patients who live in hilly regions with cleaner air coming to Mumbai and struggling to breathe. Mumbai’s poorer air quality had a definite role to play in this elderly patient’s case, because as soon as she went back to Dehradun, her breathing discomfort disappeared,” he said.
A city in scaffolding
Mumbai seems to be perpetually under construction as exposed metal, concrete slabs and barricades confront citizens on nearly every arterial street in the city and suburbs. There are eight metro lines being constructed all across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), from Thane in the north to Churchgate in the south. In addition to this, other major infrastructural projects are in the works: Coastal Road construction is underway along Chowpatty and the Worli sea face; the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) budget for 2022-2023 allotted ₹8,973 crore for big-ticket infrastructure projects, including the Goregaon-Mulund Link Road (GMLR), besides proposing four new flyovers in the western suburbs and Central Mumbai and reconstructing or repairing 212 bridges in the city; a development boom can be witnessed in the eastern suburbs after the easing of Covid-induced curbs.
Out of 14 proposed metro corridors across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), three are operational. Four lines —3, 4, 6 and 9 — are held up indefinitely due to land acquisition issues, including the conflict over the Kanjurmarg plot. While Lines 2A and 7 are expected to become operational by the end of the year, the remaining are under construction.
“Mumbai Metro is probably the largest construction project the city has ever undertaken, at least in terms of area. So naturally, inconveniences to citizens are also not restricted to any one locality. North, south, east, west — everyone has complaints. Advertisements for real-estate projects in South Mumbai have begun to clarify that they are located at a safe distance from the noise and air pollution of the Metro-3 line,” said city-based environmentalist Zoru Bhatena.
Experts say the emergence of dust pollution hotspots around construction sites, which occupy a significant chunk of the city’s land cover, is a cause for concern, particularly in light of the Mumbai Climate Action Plan’s claim that particulate matter (PM) concentrations in the city are showing an overall decline.
From an annual average PM10 level of 120μg/m3 in 2015-16, Mumbai recorded a dip to 91μg/m3 in 2020-21. This is still higher than the safe limit of 60μg/m3 prescribed by the Centre’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). For PM2.5, the concentration fell from about 80μg/m3 to 46μg/m3 in the same time period; the safe limit prescribed by NAAQS is 40μg/m3.
Experts have strongly cautioned that this trend is simply not informed by enough data, and provides a very limited picture of air pollution in Mumbai, given the dearth of monitoring stations across the city and the emergence of hotspots which are not captured by the existing monitoring network.
The MCAP attributes the decline in large part to a slowdown in polluting activities during the Covid lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, but data now shows that those activities are approaching pre-pandemic levels. For example, the BMC approved 2,473 building plans in 2021, up from 1,955 in 2020. Recent amendments to the coastal regulation zone have lifted restrictions in partly developed CRZ-II areas, which will make around 10,000 buildings eligible to be pulled down and redeveloped, an activity which was earlier not permissible.
A health hazard
With the Metro specifically, there is strong evidence to bolster resident’s claims of high dust pollution post commencement of building works. A state-funded source apportionment study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) found that 3.2% of all Mumbai’s PM2.5 comes from construction of the Mumbai Metro alone.
“This is a very significant fraction of emissions for a single infra project. Just the number itself is enough to prove that the impact is wide reaching. The ones who are worst impacted will be those who live and work alongside the metro corridors. It would have an implication not just for ambient air quality, but also indoor air quality,” said Sachin Panwar, an independent air quality scientist.
Studies have shown that aerosolized particulate matter can carry pathogens that trigger infections. Bacteria, pollen and other biological ingredients can react with chemical agents, such as heavy metals, elemental carbon, dust and secondary species like sulfates and nitrates, in the presence of catalysts like sunlight, and these combinations mean that particles can have complex effects on the body.
“People react differently to the impacts of air pollution. While some adapt, a few will continue to battle with allergic symptoms, and a section of people will land up in the hospital. Children and the elderly are the most susceptible,” said Mehta.
Officials in the MMRCL directed inquiries to their media advisor, Sanjay Karhade, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment. VM Motghare, joint director (air) at the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, also did not respond to requests for comment on plans to increase monitoring stations in the city, the status of implementation of tasks prescribed in MCAP and if any specific interventions were going to come up around construction sites and metro lines.
Lack of data
Mumbai has nine monitoring stations operated by the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), seven stations under the BMC and nine stations under the Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) network of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). But experts said, this network isn’t enough.
“Delhi has enacted a rule which mandates AQI monitoring around every single construction site more than 2,000 square meters in size. There is no similar rule for Mumbai. Besides, most major construction sites are not very well captured by the existing network of official air quality monitors, so it’s very hard for a citizen to access information on pollution levels around their homes or offices,” Ronak Sutaria, founder of Respirer Living Sciences, said.
Officials in the BMC’s environment department said they are planning to resolve this gap within the year. “As per the recommendation of the MCAP, Mumbai will have the country’s most comprehensive network of air quality monitors in the country. We are roping in medical health officers to carry out community surveys at a ward level within the next three to six months, which will allow us to plan some hyper local mitigation measures. In our budget for the next financial year, we have kept funds to install 128 sensor-based systems to monitor air quality and provide real-time data and health advisories. There will be nearly one monitor per four square kilometres,” said Sunil Sardar, officer on special duty in the BMC’s environment department.