In Bhiwadi’s dust bowl, a battle to save lungs

A study, conducted in 2020, marked out industries related to metal fabrication, forging, galvanizing, chemical and pharmaceutical units as major polluters in Bhiwadi.
A study, conducted in 2020, marked out industries related to metal fabrication, forging, galvanizing, chemical and pharmaceutical units as major polluters in Bhiwadi.


  • Many factories in one of India’s most polluted cities have ditched coal for now. But, compliance remains the key

Bhiwadi: The air inside the outpatient department at ESIC Hospital, Bhiwadi, is weary. Patients slouch on chairs set against the walls along two sides of a large room, awaiting their turn. Two wooden tables pressed together are the centrepiece inside where three doctors, including medical officer Dr Sanju Kurdia, examine around 50 patients every day. It is Kurdia’s fourth year in Bhiwadi, but the city was far from welcoming.

“Within two days of joining, I was down with an upper respiratory tract infection," he remembered. Cues—physical and visual—to being in a critically polluted city were pervasive. He only had to step out after lunch. “You might have seen a clear sky now. In 2019, we would only see smoke billowing out from all directions at noon. Dust covered all vehicles, and ash settled on the face," he said.

Kurdia is the nodal officer for the national programme on climate change and human health at ESIC and maintains a monthly chart of acute respiratory illness cases reported at the hospital to be shared with the Central Pollution Control Board and other bodies. With the usual suspects—stubble burning, festive season and onset of winter—set to collude with existing factors to worsen the air quality in Bhiwadi, at least 50% of the outpatient department patients over the next few months are bound to manifest respiratory illnesses, he noted.

The clear mid-afternoon October sky Kurdia mentioned is at once hope and consolation for Bhiwadi residents—the first sign of marginal improvement. Over 10 months ago, its coal-powered industries—about 650 of them—went through a stuttering and drawn-out process to substitute coal for cleaner energy sources. An industrial hub at the tail end of the National Capital Region and 70km from Delhi, Bhiwadi has wrestled with plummeting air quality for years; a particular low being 2021 when it was rated the most polluted city in the world for its PM2.5 concentration levels by IQAir, the Swiss company. PM is short for particulate matter, which is a mix of microscopic solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. They can be inhaled and PM2.5, particularly, can pose serious respiratory risks.

Bhiwadi dropped two places on the global ranking a year later, but continued to be the country’s most polluted city. On the Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index, it is classified a critically polluted area.

It is not hard to see why. A part of the desert state Rajasthan, Bhiwadi has been striving to live up to its promise of a modern, industrial city for decades. Massive tracts of barren land transformed into an industrial area in 1974 and today hosts around 2,500 factories, some large but mostly medium, small and micro-enterprises (MSMEs). Industrial expansion is a continuing story, while being a neighbour to Manesar and Gurugram makes urbanization organic. Consequently, Bhiwadi remains a perpetual work-in-progress. Its dug-up-and-hastily-filled roads are lined by bulldozers and plied upon by tractors and commercial trucks; smoke stacks and high-tension power lines mark its skyline, while dust attains ubiquity.

“Three-four factors are responsible for the high pollution levels in Bhiwadi, but the predominant reason is the dusty roads," said Amit Sharma, regional officer, Rajasthan State Pollution Control Board (RSPCB), Bhiwadi. A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur (IIT-K) for the RSPCB in 2020 attributed 47% of Bhiwadi’s pollution to road dust, he noted. “The condition of the roads and the density of vehicles are both factors. Vehicular pollution is another. Bhiwadi being a business centre, the density of commercial vehicles tends to be high. Mining of masonry stones in the nearby region also contributes to pollution. And then, of course, the industries," Sharma added. Air pollution levels, both PM2.5 and PM10, Sharma noted, have remained high, an exception being the pandemic year when factories shut down and vehicles went off the roads.

Continuous and long-term exposure to pollutants takes its toll on Bhiwadi residents. At the ESIC in the evenings, there is often an influx of patients complaining of respiratory discomfort, said Kurdia. “On examination, we would find their SPO2 (the percentage of oxygen in blood) levels have fallen. Exposure to pollutants over a period of time impacts the lungs," he added.

Asthmatic symptoms are common among children born and raised in Bhiwadi, he noted. Patients walk in regularly with breathing difficulties, watery eyes and skin allergies, symptoms associated with exposure to pollution, said Kurdia. The ESIC has no pulmonologist and cases requiring specialized care are referred to Faridabad and Alwar hospitals. In Kurdia’s monthly chart for August, on an average, acute respiratory illnesses made up for nearly one-third of the emergency department cases and more than half of them needed nebulization.

Under the lens

Over the past five years, multiple research organizations have studied industrial pollution in Bhiwadi and suggested ways out of it, including abandoning coal. Unlike say, Pali or Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s other manufacturing hubs known for their specialized industries, Bhiwadi forms a miscellaneous cluster spread across nine industrial areas hosting a mix of engineering, chemical, pharmaceutical, food processing, rubber and other assorted industries. Studies reportedly peg pollution from industrial sources at about 30%. Coal, highlighted the 2020 Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) ‘Report on the Assessment of Air Pollution in Delhi-NCR’, was used in about 24% of Bhiwadi’s industries, and at about 273,000 tonnes per year, its annual consumption was the highest among all fuels. Industries related to metal fabrication, forging, galvanizing, and chemical and pharmaceutical units were marked out as major polluters by the study. Researchers at the School of Environmental Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, conducted a health-risk assessment of metals in the surface dust of Bhiwadi and found industrial emissions resulting in ‘high contamination factors and high pollution load index for metals’ and warned of children being at a higher health risk than adults.

The policy push towards cleaner fuels and air in the NCR meant bringing Bhiwadi’s polluting industries to commit to a transition. Started three years ago, it was not until deadline-bound regulations came into force in 2022 that the process acquired momentum. Fuel conversion in 2020 was rather ‘slow and lax’, admitted Sharma. “About 350 industries converted to gas, largely Piped Natural Gas (PNG). However, there were limitations, including infrastructure, availability of gas and increasing rates," he observed.

In 2022, the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) brought out directions mandating the use of cleaner fuels such as PNG or biomass in the NCR. It imposed stricter emission standards which called for technological upgrade and installation of pollution control devices. New industries were not granted permission to operate without access to gas; in the meanwhile, PNG infrastructure spread across Bhiwadi. Coal was to have little place in Bhiwadi’s new industrial ecosystem.

Sharma recounted that multiple representations were made by industries to the CAQM, including those in Bhiwadi, for conversion options other than PNG. The CAQM direction permitting the use of PNG or biomass and a few other industry-specific alternate fuels eventually set the ball rolling. “The alternatives were readily available and economical and that had a profound impact in Bhiwadi," he said.

A cleaner run

In the dust swirl of Bhiwadi, the manicured campus of Gulshan Chemicals Pvt. Ltd appears an aberration. Almost a year ago, the industry transitioned its fuel source from coal to biomass, agri-residue in the form of paddy husk, to manufacture sodium hydrosulphite, a chemical used extensively in textile, pharmaceuticals, food processing and paper industry. On its immaculately maintained campus, inside a covered storage shed quarter the size of a soccer field, paddy husk is being unloaded from two trucks. Mounds of husk have replaced coal blocks on which the factory was run not long ago. The husk is taken to the boiler on a conveyor belt. The installed electrostatic precipitator (ESP) keeps the PM emissions from the biomass-fuelled boiler in check, while a meter monitors the suspended particulate matter emissions. “Our daily use of coal was around 40 tonnes a day, now we use around 65 tonnes of biomass. We have a storage capacity for around 1,000 tonnes of paddy husk," said Giruvar Singh Yadav, the plant manager. Storage capacity being critical for a seasonal fuel source such as biomass, the factory took up extra land to park the agri-residue.The biomass is sourced from near and far, ranging from Haryana to Bihar.

The fuel conversion from one solid source to another did come at a cost since biomass use mandated effective emission controlling mechanisms. “The transition cost was around 3 crore as we had to install an ESP, fuel handling systems, conveyor, storage mechanisms and other civil work," said Yadav.

In February, two months after the CAQM deadline for the transition elapsed, the CSE studied the challenges faced by the Bhiwadi industries in making the switch. ‘Refuelling Delhi-NCR’ surveyed 30 diverse industries in the Bhiwadi Industrial Area to understand the dynamics of the shift. The cost of transition from coal to PNG in industries ranged from 55 lakh to 12 crore, it found, depending upon the required boiler capacities. Conversion into biomass worked out a little cheaper. “Shifting from any solid fuel to biomass is not that expensive. Initial capex for the minor changes in the boiler to convert it to biomass firing is as less as 5 lakh," said the study. It flagged the challenges posed by rising PNG prices and supply-related constraints, as well as the absence of or poorly maintained air pollution control devices (APCDs) in biomass-run units.

Adherence and monitoring

Easy availability of PNG infrastructure and biomass in Bhiwadi are definite plusses in the transition, said Nivit Kumar Yadav, programme director, Industrial Pollution, CSE. However, the bigger challenge, he added, would be ensuring complete conversion and monitoring the installation and working of proper APCDs in biomass-powered units.

“Bhiwadi has moved largely to PNG and biomass. PM emission is high when biomass is burned, which makes proper APCDs essential. Proper implementation of CAQM guidelines will be the key," he asserted.

Though the CAQM has allowed alternate fuels, stricter emission standards, especially for biomass-fuelled boilers to bring down PM emissions to the applicable 80 mg/Nm3 and the targeted 50 mg/Nm3 is a fresh challenge entailing continuous monitoring.

The ask of the energy transition, acknowledged experts and industry sources, is tough on small and micro enterprises which make up Bhiwadi’s industrial identity. Surendra Singh Chouhan, president, Bhiwadi Manufacturers Association, is vocal about the difficulties of MSMEs. “Conversion to gas demands a certain infrastructure and an investment of at least 8-10 lakh. The small and micro units do not have that kind of gas requirement yet they will be charged the minimum amount for the connection, while biomass does not really align with diesel generator sets," he said.

Large industries will make the transition, agreed Yadav, but MSMEs might struggle. The policy is a welcome step, he asserted, but emphasized the importance of an inclusive, time-bound approach taking all stakeholders along. “MSMEs moving out of NCR is not good for the economy," he added.

Sharma of RSPCB observed that MSME owners look out for technical and economic feasibility while running their units. “You find owners handling everything from factory establishment, raw material procurement and marketing to money recovery in Bhiwadi. Industry is their livelihood," he said and added the focus will be on monitoring adherence to emission standards.

Fuel conversion in industries is Bhiwadi’s first firm step towards combating a critical source of air pollution. While the challenge shifts to compliance, the chief cause of the city’s poor air quality—road dust—appears way off from a solution. Chouhan pointed out that most of the road infrastructure was laid out in the 1970s and upkeep has been abysmal. Yadav highlighted the incongruity between Bhiwadi’s industrial expansion and its road and infrastructure management.

On the other hand, Bhiwadi residents speak in comparative terms and count the incremental changes—a patch of smokeless blue sky, for instance. Dropping coal is bound to better the air they breathe, but whether it will be enough to knock Bhiwadi off the five most polluted cities in the world remains to be seen.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.