Gasping for Air in India’s Industrial North

Air pollution kills one million Indians annually. In the northern city of Patna, the problem shaves four years, on average, off residents’ lives.

  • Traffic policewoman Sandhya Bhartj directs traffic in central Patna. Her cloth mask does little to protect her from the smallest particulate pollution.

At the Railway Hospital in Patna, India earlier this year, an old woman took a raspy breath and croaked out her name: Annapurna Devi. For five years, her son says, the 70-year-old has been unable to walk, to leave her home, or even talk for very long. Her symptoms flare up every year as the monsoon recedes and the temperature plunges. It is accepted wisdom in this city that winter brings disease.



Devi’s doctor says she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Her lungs are hyper-sensitive to irritants, which makes Patna, a rapidly growing city in the northeastern state of Bihar, a particularly difficult place to live. The air here — among the most toxic in the region — is a brew of gases and microscopic particles that can enter the lungs and lead to COPD, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.

“We keep her protected from air pollution,” said Devi’s son. “She stays at home and at most visits the terrace at times. She’s too old now and is not fit enough to go out of the house.”

In 2017, concentrations of PM2.5 — the most dangerous type of particulate pollution — in Patna’s busiest streets met Indian air quality standards only 81 out of the 311 days that were monitored. On the worst days, the city can experience astronomical levels — sometimes higher than 600 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 (see chart below). That is 60 times the World Health Organization’s recommended safe limit and 15 times the safety benchmark set by Indian government. This year, the WHO called Patna the world’s fifth-most polluted city, with Delhi following close behind.

MEASURING A TOXIC COCKTAIL   Below is a snapshot of PM2.5 readings at a single measuring point in Patna, located near the Indira Gandhi Planetarium, for a span beginning in late March of last year through mid-July 2018. As in most places around the globe, daily and seasonal fluctuations are common, as are pulses of particularly bad air.

INTERACTIVE CHART   Click, drag, or resize the box at the bottom of the chart above to zoom in or out on the data, and to change the timespan covered. Hover over individual data points to see the average one-hour PM2.5 levels at that date and time. (Note: Gaps in data indicate that no reading was taken.)

Data courtesy AirVisual

Patna is an ancient city of two million people on the floodplains of the Ganges River, and it lies in a pollution hotspot that stretches beyond Delhi in the West to Bangladesh in the East, bounded on the North by the Himalayan Mountains. In the summer, pollutants from the plains can easily rise to the upper reaches of the atmosphere and escape over the mountains. But in the winter, cold air and pollution arising from a mix of wood-burning cook stoves, smoldering garbage, brick kilns, construction, and road dust get trapped close to the ground. Emissions accrue into a smothering blanket that spreads out across the region. There are 94 Indian cities on the government’s non-attainment list for PM10, an already-dangerous particulate matter measuring 10 micrometers in diameter or below. Sixteen cities are on the list for PM2.5, particles nearly 30 times smaller than an average human hair.

The pollution exacts a high toll. Nationwide, more than a million Indians died from bad air in 2015, according to a recent Lancet study. If air quality were to improve to safe levels (40 micrograms per cubic meter by India’s standards), life expectancy would increase in Patna by four years and in Delhi by six, according to another tool.

“We cannot change the weather; we cannot change the topography,” said Sachchidanand Tripathi, an earth scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. “[But] we can make emissions standards more stringent.”

Patna’s government is aware of the dangers, but a lack of political will, monitoring, and enforcement, combined with a dearth of manpower and budget for the state’s Pollution Control Board, has stymied or slowed most efforts at reform. It’s a story repeated across India — though it is arguably worse in Patna, the capital of a state so poor in governance that it lacks even a proper garbage disposal system.

“Given the general governance challenges in Bihar, and the limitations in state capacity,” said Santosh Harish, associate director of research at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, “it may be that the Pollution Control Board in Patna may be even less equipped than some of the other cities.”

Patna has just one official real-time monitoring station capable of measuring PM2.5 concentrations. It is located in the middle of a busy intersection, and at dawn on a brisk day in February, as a gray curtain of smog hung over the city and cut visibility to about 50 meters, the device offered bad news: PM2.5 was measured at 283 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s a grim and not uncommon figure, but to get a true sense of air quality here, experts say that far more monitoring stations are needed — at least 26 of them, according to Ankita Jyoti, senior program officer at the Center for Environment and Energy Development in Patna. As it stands, the most decisive thing anyone can say about the air in Patna is that in its most high-traffic neighborhoods, it is thick and hard to breathe. Quantitative data is mostly speculative — though the problem is obvious.

As men jogged down the treeless streets here, their footfalls released puffs of dust from unpaved sidewalks. Yellow school buses filled with kids passed by amid clouds of black smoke, and migrant laborers burned coal and wood for their morning tea along the roadside. At the city’s central park, Ujjawal Verma, 59, was gossiping with his friends. “We are forced to come here every day to exercise,” he said in Hindi. “You see the dust in the air – it’s increased just like it has everywhere in India. It so far has not had an effect on our health, but we are breathing it in, so it must be bad.”

VIEW FROM THE GROUND   In the short, 360-degree videos below, three sources of intense air pollution — including PM2.5 — are profiled. Click and drag the video screen to explore the surrounding environment.


Sushil Modi, the environment minister and deputy chief minister for Bihar state, painted a far different picture. “I don’t think Patna is so badly polluted nor do I feel it,” he said. “I’ve learned that the monitoring station has been installed is in Taramandal, at the heart of the city where the most cars stop and go.

“If it were moved somewhere farther off, near the Eco Park,” he continued, “Patna would become the cleanest, least polluted city.”

Air quality experts lambasted Modi’s characterization — which they suggested is emblematic of a political class given to keeping its head in the sand. “Closing your eyes in front of the problem,” said Prashant Kumar, a professor and chair in air quality and health at the University of Surrey, “will not solve the problem.”

The state has taken some steps to combat pollution. The Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) has received funding from the government for two more real-time air pollution monitors, each of which cost about 15 lakh rupees, or about $22,000. Ashok Ghosh, the new chairman of the BSPCB, said he would solicit funding from local businesses for 16 more. Ideally, a country the size of India would need air quality monitors every 25 square kilometers, said Tripathi of IIT. In fact, the latest science suggests monitoring every square kilometer because of local variations in air quality. While Tripathi says that level of precision is not realistic, even with low-cost sensors, he and his colleagues are testing low-cost PM2.5 sensors in New Delhi that cost 15,000 rupees ($220) and could fill in some gaps.

Scientists stress, however, that policymaking and enforcement cannot wait for monitoring to improve. Pollution control boards are among the most poorly funded and toothless state agencies in India. In Bihar, Ghosh of the BSPCB would like to double his staff and improve the lab facilities. “We have labs here, but they are not in very good shape. Unless you strengthen your lab, you don’t get proper monitoring,” he said.

  • 75-year-old Charira Sahni suffers from a chronic but undiagnosed lung condition. He wheezes and coughs relentlessly and spends much of his time in a bed tucked away in a tiny room off the dirt patio where his wife cooks.
  • Like many Patna residents, 70-year-old Razia Devi doesn’t connect the coal and dung fires she uses to cook meals and boil water with illnesses — including her husband’s.
  • Studies of exposure to household air pollution have shown clear impacts, including lower respiratory infections, cardio-pulmonary diseases, cataracts, and lung cancer.
  • Rohit Pandey, a banker who lives in Los Angeles, is back home in Patna visiting his mother, Shanti Pandey, in their middle-class home. Pandey is suffering from both Parkinson’s disease and a chronic lung condition.
  • Rohit says his mother started developing restricted breathing symptoms 10 years ago. She used to go out for short walks but now that Patna is so highly polluted, she’s housebound.

The BSPCB also does not have jurisdiction over a key pollution source: vehicles. Patna’s streets are regularly filled with aging auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, cars, buses, and trucks built to emissions standards set in the early 2000s. Standards have since improved and vehicles made today emit 82 percent less particulate matter.

In theory, the Transport Department oversees emissions testing, while the traffic police enforce the law. In reality, neither does their job well in Patna. Vehicle owners, too, do not mind paying bribes to obtain fake emissions certificates, said Afroze Beg, who runs an emissions testing center in Patna. “There is no one to question,” he said. “When our children’s generation ask us, ‘Father, did you get your emissions done honestly?’ — people won’t have an answer to give.”

Patna transport officer Ajay Kumar Thakur said that his department is taking air quality seriously and will open pollution testing centers at gas stations. “We will pollution-test each and every vehicle,” he said.

The Pollution Control Board has jurisdiction mainly over industrial units. In Bihar, that translates to roughly 5,500 brick kilns with tall chimneys that spew plumes of particles, soot, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide every winter during the brick-making season. In early 2017, the BSPCB asked operators to upgrade their century-old kilns to modern specifications against the threat of closure. But the operators, being the only industry in the state, form a powerful political corpus and they successfully lobbied to delay implementation.

  • Patna has a waste-disposal issue and in many neighborhoods, trash is simply discarded on the streets and burned, contributing to the unrelenting pollution.
  • Each morning in Patna, tens of thousands of small coal fires are lit across the city. Coal burning is a major contributor to PM 2.5 pollution in Patna and such small-scale fires, used for heating and cooking, release toxic gases both inside homes and on the streets.
  • The Pollution Control Board has jurisdiction mainly over industrial units. In Bihar, that translates to thousands of tall chimneys that spew plumes of particles into the air. Here, an employee at a battery recycling facility feeds a smelter.
  • A family on a motorbike makes their way through Patna’s dense traffic during the evening commute. In theory, the state transport department oversees emissions testing, but the process is rife with bribery and lax enforcement.
  • Livestock graze amid the smoldering trash. “I don’t think Patna is so badly polluted,” the environment minister for the state of Bihar said, “nor do I feel it.”

Of course, these sorts of institutional weaknesses for controlling pollution are not unique to Patna. “In general, most states seem to have similar weaknesses and limitations in state capacity,” said Harish of the University of Chicago. Driven by the Supreme Court and the activism of nonprofits, the country’s central government is pushing for electric cars; it has mandated stringent vehicle emissions standards that will be in place by 2020; and for the first time, the government is drafting a pan-India air quality action plan.

Now, it just needs to get state governments on board with taking action on air quality.

Back at the Railway Hospital, in the bed next to Annapurna Devi, 14-year-old Anita Kumar is sitting cross-legged in a purple sweater and jeans. The girl’s voice is raspy and faint, so her mother recounts how, six days ago, Anita felt tired climbing the stairs. Her throat was irritated, her voice became hoarse, and she experienced heart palpitations. Her parents admitted her to the hospital, where the doctors diagnosed her with bronchial asthma — a condition exacerbated by irritants in the air. Her parents do not know what is triggering the attacks, but they are hopeful that it will be cured.

“She was always healthy, even as a child she was always very healthy,” her mother said. “This is the first time she has fallen ill.”

Gayathri Vaidyanathan is an independent journalist writing about the environment, science, and society. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Discover Magazine, and Nature, among other publications.

Additional reporting was provided by Manish Deepak.


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6 comments / Join the Discussion

    Goodwill Industries in America refurbishes and recycles goods no longer wanted and resell the products to others at a low price. The CEO of Goodwill was reported to have made over 1 million dollars one year for his directions and business conducts. There are other thrift stores that cropped up in the last decades as well. Though it is just a small part of earth conscience, they are up and coming and are popular with many people.


    The sad truth is that millions of people are dying every year from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, exporting their “dirty” and polluting industries “off shore”.

    The evidence is here if we look. Air pollution so thick you can’t see the sky. Water and land pollution directly impacting people’s health, and then indirectly from the food supply. Millions dying in India, China, and elsewhere from air pollution. I think it is important to ask “Why?”. I remember when there were cities across the U.S. where the air was so bad that it was equivalent to smoking 3 packs off cigarettes a day. It’s not that way now. Why? Is it the legislation that was put in place to limit the release of pollutants? Certainly that is part of the answer. Sadly, I think that something else had a bigger impact. That is the Untied States (and other Western nations) divesting themselves of industries. This was done through globalization (aka corporatization) where corporations became transnational and production was moved outside the country – to China, India, Cambodia, The Philippines, Honduras, and on. Without getting into an extended discussion of this process, let me try and create a cogent synopsis.

    We were told that producers HAD to move production outside the U.S. in order to be competitive. That it was too expensive – meaning that US workers and benefits for them cost “too much”, and that meeting regulations impacted the bottom line. So transnational companies began shopping their factories to the lowest global bidders. If once operations were up and running, and another country came in with a lower bid (or more incentives), the corporation would up and move. Trade agreements were written and rewritten to maximize the profitability and this included opening borders to production, trade, and finance, and closing them to workers. In other words, lock workers into place to be used as leverage to lower wages.

    As production moved, so did the resultant pollution. Those million people a year dying in India from unbreathable air are joined by 1.6 million (4,400 a day) in China, and 25% of the deaths in the Philippines. In fact, 92% of the global population is exposed to dangerously polluted air (WHO). While not all of 6 million deaths per year from air pollution are caused by the export of industry a good portion are. Internal air pollution and the burning of coal and charcoal for heating and cooking are top pollutants in a number of nations


    You have done very good research before writing. I am sure this will create awareness among the people and administration both.


    A very detailed article depicting the real picture of patna.A strong step is needed to be taken


    The article is a very convincing presentation of air pollution in Patna. The level of air pollution in other cities of northern India may not be much different. This article will be very useful in creating public and political awareness

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