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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Maximum city Mumbai has become a hazy maze
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Maximum city Mumbai has become a hazy maze

The dust-ups of its construction boom are a health hazard in need of urgent mitigation. We must tie permits for developers with dust control before India’s urban development goes awry

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

For a city blessed with abundant coastal sea breeze, Mumbai has no business making people gasp for fresh air, let alone fill lungs with dust that sickens. Right now, its local hotspot for clouds of particle pollution that arise from construction is Mulund, a suburb that private trackers claim went above Air Quality Index (AQI) levels of 500, a red-alert for human safety, in some areas last week. Official AQI readings are less dire, but only relatively so. The situation warrants policy clamps on a building frenzy led by private builders that includes a major sewerage project of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Sadly, though, even minimal measures for dust mitigation are proving tardy. The BMC is reported to have fined a public-project contractor for failing pollution norms, while a proposal to get other literal movers and shakers to abide by stiffer rules of dust control winds its way up the municipal body. This laxity offers no relief to those made wheezy by what they’re forced to inhale for no fault other than their presence.

The heaviest irony of our post-covid construction spree is its contribution to respiratory ailments, our exposure to which rises sharply as the airborne particulate matter (PM) count soars beyond safety limits. Typical AQI gauges monitor PM10 and PM2.5—particles no larger than 10 and 2.5 microns across (a hair is 50-70 microns). Air full of the former causes irritation and worse within a short span, while the tinier bits sneak into our bloodstream to reveal their toxicity only after long spans of exposure. It’s a myth that dust is PM10 and smoke is PM2.5. Both have pollutants of both types, both suffocate, and construction zones are usually dense with dust of all particle sizes. What BMC and other permit issuers must do is deploy a dust-reduction mandate for dust-raising activity, with a clear set of rules to be enforced. Builders could cloak sites in cover-up material, spray surfaces with water to dampen them and use vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters, together with special polymers and other dust-control agents. The adoption of such methods would add to costs, no doubt, but these bills must be borne in accordance with the principle of ‘polluter pays’. Municipal authorities could place AQI caps on project sites, let managers pick their mix of dust-busters, and then upload data to an online dashboard for locals to access, corroborate and mount a vigil if they want.

As concrete structures emerge on a scale that makes past initiatives look tiny, with enlarged infrastructure outlays flagging further dust-ups ahead, we must get our act together to contain its fallout on public health. Without controls, people who live near activity sites would end up paying too high a price for a landscape carved up for benefits that won’t be shared in the same ratio. For elderly folks who are vulnerable to bad air, moving location is often the only way out. It is the job of public policy to minimize such unfair shake-ups of well-being. If India’s development demands a rapid pace of work, progress must literally be ‘monumental’ (skyscraper envy is real) and use of earth-movers is sure to multiply, air-quality defences must kick in urgently, lest we find ourselves with spiffy cities we can’t really live in. There was once a time when a new structure coming up close-by would arouse curiosity. Today, increasingly, it evokes groans. It also revives talk of big cities dying—choked. The pandemic was enough of a scare on that front. Let’s not let the dust of developers create more hazards.

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Published: 26 Feb 2023, 11:15 PM IST
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