Clean up Kolkata air to make it inviting: US diplomat

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Clean up Kolkata air to make it inviting: US diplomat

A senior American diplomat has cautioned that Indian cities, including Kolkata and Delhi, may have difficulty in retaining and attracting talent if they do not clean up the air. Speaking to TOI, US embassy deputy minister counselor for economic, environment, science and technology Samuel Kotis said high levels of air pollution was a growing concern among expatriates. "Air pollution affects everyone because we all breathe the same air. Its adverse impact on health is definitely cause for concern. As a father, I am worried about my son who is 16. On days when the pollution level is very high in Delhi, I ask him to stay indoors. I am sure parents in Kolkata would be concerned as well because there are days when the air here is more polluted than Delhi," Kotis said.

Talking to media persons on Friday, State Transport Secretary Sumantra Chowdhury said: “As per the honourable High Court’s order, all buses, mini-buses, taxis, trucks and auto-rickshaws older than 15 years will be phased out from Saturday onward. If any such vehicle is found plying on the road, they will be confiscated. We have spoken to all the transport unions not to run these vehicles any more.” Assuring that the Administration would try not to harass passengers while confiscating the vehicles, Mr. Chowdhury said the Municipal Commissioner and the city’s Police Commissioner had been asked to look after the law and order situation. He pointed out that government-run buses would also come under the purview of the order, adding that fear of a strike cannot hold back the Government from implementing Court orders.

The Global Burden of Disease Report, considered the gold standard in global epidemiology, assessed that ambient air pollution was responsible for 630,000 premature deaths a year, or more than one death per minute. The World Health Organization 2014 report on air pollution lists Kolkata among polluted cities. Delhi tops the chart globally. The US embassy in Delhi and four consulates in Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai independently monitor air quality 24x7 and upload the data on its websites. Though the consulate in the city is located in a relatively traffic free zone (there is restriction on movement of cars on Ho Chi Minh Street due to security concerns) and the air monitoring station is located next to a lawn in the consulate compound, the air quality is poor except in summer when heat and rain contribute to its improvement. Kotis said many American cities were facing a similar problem in the 1960s and 1970s as high pollution made the cities polluted, dirty and unattractive.

"Just think of smog-laden Los Angeles of the 1960s and 70s and compare it to the much cleaner skies you can experience there to know what a difference concerted, well-planned and well-executed long-term action can make. Indian cities, including Kolkata, can also transform themselves into clean urban centers with growing economies and healthy populations," he pointed out. But if Kolkata fails to address the concern, it would not only have to bear the incremental cost of an ailing population, companies operating out of the city may have to pay more to executives. That is a complete reversal of the current situation where salaries in Kolkata are lower than Mumbai or Dehi.

"Despite an attractive package, many may not consider an assignment in a polluted city, particularly those who have school-going children," Kotis said, pointing out that addressing the issue of air pollution now can also mitigate climate change for future generations. The essential goods distribution system is feared to be severely affected if such a large number of trucks become non-functional.