Editor's note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Election on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Gaya: Lord Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, just 10 kilometres away from this Tier-Two town, but enlightenment has eluded Gaya's administrators on ways to make sure that the city is safe for its people.
A global air pollution database released by the World Health Organisation in May 2018, rated Gaya as the fourth most polluted city on the planet in terms of the concentration of fine particulate matter or PM 2.5. The report said Gaya's PM 2.5 level was 149, much higher than considerably larger and more populated cities like Patna and Delhi. When it was released, the report evoked much shock among residents. The media coverage was one which involved much outrage. And then nothing.
In the long time in which the authorities have been trying to figure out how to solve this pollution problem, Dr Faizur Ahmed of the Magadh Medical Hospital has seen the people of Gaya suffer successive bouts of whooping cough, sneezing, itching, eye problems, along with several types of allergy.
Why then, does the issue not become a major poll plank, capable of swaying elections?
Gaya's MP, the BJP leader Hari Manjhi, said he remembers "some WHO report". "Right now I can't recall the steps taken to curb pollution," he admits to this reporter. Manjhi is not alone in having pushed the pollution question to the background. This is something that the whole town has done.
People complain liberally about pollution, mostly in relation to traffic, but have never considered it an issue pressing enough to warrant mention in the election arena.
Anand Srivastava, environmental campaigner for Nav Pahchan Welfare Society says why: "While campaigning over the years, we figured pollution is not an election issue primarily because of Gaya's geographical condition. Gaya is a drought-prone area. The drought directly affects agriculture. People want that fixed first."
Srivastava says the pollution problem becomes almost non-existent in the context of national elections because for this, "people don't vote based on local issues but rather decide on their MP based on who they want for prime minister."
Pollution, says the campaigner, could well have become a major election issue in Gaya, along with rapid environmental degradation and encroachment on the Falgu river. "As part of the civil society, we try our best to convince people but our efforts all go vain," he adds.
Thanks to the diminished importance attached to the issue, administrative apathy has followed. The only action taken so far has been to ban single-use plastic. This was brought by the state government in Patna, not the local municipality. The solitary air quality monitoring station at Gaya collectorate has rated the real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) of the town between "very unhealthy" (201-300) and "unhealthy" (151-200), for the past several months. Data for the latest available week too is within the "unhealthy" frame.
The reasons why Gaya continues to be unhealthy are many.
The hills surrounding the town see rampant illegal stone quarrying, there are many small and medium industrial units in the town's populated areas, the town's private car ownership has seen a sudden increase, there is no systematic waste treatment and disposal system, and the town's ageing state buses belch exhaust. No discussions have ever taken place to convert these to CNG buses. Probably because Gaya does not even have a CNG filling station. Recommendations to impose fine on heavy vehicles that are more than 10 years old have gone nowhere.
While industrial units keep the wheels of commercial activities running, most families have been affected in some way or the other by a factory in the vicinity. Manoj Verma, 51, owns a broom company in Nutan Nagar. A two-storey building doubles up as his residence and factory. His elder son, Aadi (22) suffers from a severe allergic ailment, the cause of which can only be pinpointed as broom dust.
When asked about factories like his own adding to the pollution levels of the city, Manoj said he had made plans to shift the factory to the city outskirts in early 2017. "But the sudden demonetisation in 2016 derailed our plans," he adds.
A few kilometres from Nutan Nagar is Nai Godam, a dense concentration of wholesale retail shops and factories. According to a source at the Municipal Corporation, owners of factories located here had been served notices and even agreed to shift their factories away from the town. Here too, demonetisation dealt a blow and the process was stalled. The source alleged that now that the Bharatiya Janata Party manages the Municipal Corporation, the plan is likely to have been shelved forever as the BJP does not want to antagonise its baniya (trader) vote bank.
Illegal and indiscriminate quarrying is another major polluter. Stone mining in Kaibachak, Murgiachak, Mirzapur and Akalbigha has posed a serious threat to the green areas of the town. For instance, in the 1000-feet high Gere Hills, stone mining has left a 300 feet crater, posing a serious threat to living conditions, agriculture and the surrounding environment.
Environment activists allege that stone mining on such a scale is a clear violation of section 106 (2) (b) of Metalliferous Mines Act, 1961. And a number of FIRs have been registered on illegal stone quarrying, with the Patna High Court ordering a blanket ban on mining. However, there is no data available on the impact such mining has on pollution. Protests by locals have mainly been about the dangers posed by these craters and the loss to agriculture caused due to mining. Even in municipal elections, these seemingly more pressing worries keep pollution issues from being raised.
The town is also in dire need of a method of waste disposal. Though Dr AK Ghosh of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) says that "guidelines about good practices of waste disposal has been discussed with representatives of the Municipal Corporation, including imposing fine on waste burning," waste continues to be dumped and burnt at Aliganj, the waste dumping ground on the Gaya-Chandauti Highway. Residents complain that on the directions of the Municipal Corporation, workers burn the waste to make space for new arrivals.
Former mayor, Vibha Devi blames the Municipal Commissioner for not cooperating with municipal authorities. "During my tenure, I took ward councillors to Gujarat to study how waste is managed in that state," says Vibha Devi.
A proposed waste management plan for Gaya went nowhere due to bureaucratic hurdles, she claims. When asked to name measures taken to check pollution during her tenure, the ex-mayor falters, unable to name even one.
Ganesh Paswan, current mayor of the Gaya Municipal Corporation says "awareness teams" have been sent to all the wards of the towns. When asked how much money has been allocated for such an awareness project, Paswan is unable to answer.
"We are conducting awareness drives in various sections of the society. And, we also plan to amplify the plastic ban campaign," says Paswan. He too is unable to list concrete measures initiated by him to curb pollution.
Even the Central government's much-hyped scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which aims at cutting down the use of coal and firewood in homes for cooking, has had its roadblocks in towns like Gaya.
Malti Devi, 35, lives in a shanty and prefers coal over the scheme's gas cylinders. "We are daily wage workers and cannot afford gas cylinders. The government should give it for free or give us regular jobs," she says.
Nav Pehchan Welfare Society, a campaigner of which was quoted earlier on, has been pushing for the inclusion of Gaya in the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), which aims to cut emission levels by 30 percent by 2024. Here, a hurdle is presented by the lack of sector-wise emission data.
It is also important to mention that the NCAP programme itself was launched without any budgetary allocations or framework. Even after the huge outcry over Delhi's air pollution reaching critical levels in December-January, the interim budget had nothing to say about financial allocation for the NCAP. In fact, the interim budget has reduced the budget for pollution control to Rs 10 crore from the Rs 20-crore allocated in the last budget. Given the lack of importance to pollution control in the interim budget, that Gaya's city administrators and municipal corporators are indifferent to the city's pollution problems is perhaps not a surprise.
The author is a Gaya-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.