Perils in the air

Imagine your children or grandchildren walking on the streets of Shillong or travelling anywhere in the city with their air masks on.
It is not hard to imagine this as several citizens can be spotted with masks in a city that was once known for its salubrious weather.
True, air pollution level in the city is yet to reach the alarming level compared to neighbouring Guwahati but considering the dense traffic flow into the city everyday and vanishing trees, air quality will deteriorate in no time.
The rising number of vehicles in the city should have set the alarm bell ringing but authorities concerned feel it is not yet time to panic. This is the reason why there is no stringent implementation of laws to check vehicular emission.
Vehicles emit gases like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and other pollutants. Many among these are greenhouse gases which add to global warming. In Shillong, especially on the national and state highways where heavy vehicles are in large numbers, a veil of black smoke is a common sight.
Ashlin Mathew, a Delhi-based professional who is visiting Shillong for the first time, is appalled at the fact that trucks and other heavy vehicles emitting dense smoke are allowed to ply on roads. “It will not be correct to compare the situation in Delhi and Shillong. Yet I am surprised how lenient rules are here in Meghalaya where natural beauty and fresh air are the selling points for tourism,” she tells Sunday Shillong.
The city has only one emission checking centre in Motinagar that is run by the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB). Almost all the private, commercial and government vehicles go to the centre. The validity of a PUC certificate, which indicates that a vehicle is fit as per the standard pollution norms, is six months, which means every vehicle has to run to the emission check point to renew the certificates.
According to the data of the pollution control board, between 2015 and 2017, over 98 per cent of the petrol-driven cars and over 90 per cent of the diesel driven cars were complying with the standard levels.

“The Transport Department has authorised us under the Motor Vehicles Act to test vehicles and issue certificates. Most of the private cars in the city comply with the rules,” says an official in MSPCB.
The permanent Vehicular Emission Testing Station at MSPCB office premises in Lumpyngngad was started in 1994.
However, the official adds that the board is not authorised to take action if vehicles fail the test. “We can only alert the Transport Department, which in turn can take action.”
Asked what kind of penalty a defaulter faces, senior official in the Transport Department says more than penalising the government is concerned about spreading awareness about the various rules under the MV Act.
He says besides the checking centre in Motinagar, the government has also permitted a private centre in Mawiong to run pollution tests. Besides, two more privately run emission check points are there in Tura and Jowai.
At the 12-year-old Mawiong facility, which is located at the entrance point of the city, less than 20 vehicles come for emission check everyday. “Most of the vehicles which come here are Guwahati-bound and in Assam the rules are stricter. We charge same amount as fixed by the government,” says an employee at the station.
Asked whether police stop vehicles coming from outside which emit excessive smoke, the employee says they do but “the road here is narrow and stopping trucks and other big vehicles leads to congestion”.
But are the four centres enough to check thousands of cars within the state and hundreds coming from outside? “We need more pollution check points within the city so that people can readily go and check the emission of their vehicles,” says Nicholas Kharnami, a city-based radio jockey who was part of a World Earth Day campaign run by Young India and the PCB.
Last year, the state government prohibited registration of vehicles with older norms following a Supreme Court order on sale and registration of cars with BS-III emission norms. On-road emission tests for vehicles will be mandatory once the Bharat Stage VI norms start from 2020.
Vehicular emission is one of the anthropogenic sources of air pollution. In fact it is a major source of pollution in cities. In a land-locked state like Meghalaya, where there are no railways and poor air connectivity, the chances of air pollution are higher. A recent report puts Meghalaya in the fourth spot in terms of per capita vehicle (1 vehicle per 8 persons). Floating vehicles from other states add to the problem.

Kharnami points out the emission check points become necessary in the wake of the rising number of vehicles. “The pollution level is comparatively low here so the DTO continues to give registration to cars,” he adds.
The Transport Department says it is trying to open check points in all districts and has been issuing tenders for private entities to run such centres since 2015. “There are 160 petrol pumps in the state and we are planning check points in most of them. But no private entity has shown any interest in setting up units,” he says, adding that if no one comes forward, then the government will make it mandatory to have pollution check station at every petrol pump in the city.
The official says there is also a 10-year limit on road lifespan of commercial vehicles. However, the rule is rarely followed in letter and spirit. “The state government has also approached the Centre for an inspection and certification centre in the state for which we have already identified land,” the senior official said.
The department is planning to get updated machines for pollution check and has approached the Centre for an institute of driving and traffic research in Mawiong.
The quality of air over Shillong, which is an expanding urban pocket as well as a popular tourist destination, has deteriorated in the last decade, observes Dr Kakoli Purakayasthya, a medical practitioner and an old resident of the city.
Purakayasthya says children living in the city are more vulnerable to breathing problems and other related ailments than those living in rural areas. “Such cases have definitely increased over the years here. Besides vehicular emission, so many other factors like construction of buildings are adding to air pollution,” she adds.
When asked about air masks, the physician says these have not become a necessity so far in Shillong but some parents prefer their children wear masks as they do not want to take the risk.
A constable near IGP point says not all her colleagues use mask like her but those on duty at thoroughfares prefer to cover their faces as the pollution level is high in such areas. She informs that some of her colleagues do have breathing ailments but the problems are not serious.
In 2014, the National Green Tribunal’s eastern zone bench had issued a notice to Meghalaya over a CAG report on air, water and environmental pollution in the state.
According to the ambient air quality data of 2015-17 collected by the MSPCB, the pollutant levels are still under check with only PM10, or particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter, shooting above the permissible limit. As per the Air Quality Index, the areas rated with ‘good air quality’ are Lumpyngngad,Barik, Polo and 4 ½ Mile.

Stricter rules now

Taxi drivers in the city say road rules have become stricter now with police conducting frequent checks. Most of the drivers whom Sunday Shillong spoke to said they go for emission check every six months or else they are penalised (though the fine amount is a paltry Rs 100). Nextborn Roy Hujon, who is driving local taxi for six years now, says he has never missed a test “or else we will not get the stickers which are mandatory to avoid harassment on road”.
The SP’s office in Shillong issues stickers for taxis in Shillong after checking four important documents — registration certificate, insurance, permit documents and fitness. However, there are no stickers for other types of commercial vehicles, including trucks which are the most polluting elements.
A senior police officer says the department is contemplating extension of the stickers to other commercial vehicles too.
The police work in tandem with the Transport Department in checking pollution “but manpower is always a deterrence”.

The officer says police stop vehicles emitting too much smoke and ask the drivers to go for check. “But if a vehicle already has an updated certificate, we have nothing to say.”
A senior member of the Planning Board says though the situation is not alarming it is time to take stock of things. The board is likely to meet officials of the Transport Department in the coming week to discuss on how to reduce air pollution.
What the city needs immediately is more pollution checking points, and if possible mobile emission check teams, and manpower to monitor and penalise defaulters. The state should also be strict with heavy vehicles coming from outside Meghalaya and raise the penalty amount. Unlike the Transport Department’s idea of bringing about a change only through awareness, there should be proper implementation of rules and regulations. But the most important measure that needs to be taken to better the air over Shillong in the long run is to put a check on vehicle registration, be it private or commercial.

~ Nabamita Mitra &  Olivia Lyngdoh Mawlong

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