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Air That Kills

You think Goa’s air is pure? Think again.

Fresh, clean air is one of Goa’s biggest Unique Selling Propositions.  Or should that be was one of Goa’s USP’s?

The idea that Goa’s air is as pristine as a virgin beach is actually very far from the truth. While pollution here is not as bad as in the major Indian metros, air quality in Goa is not considered safe by international standards. Though there are several contributing factors, the main culprit is a single phenomenon: the burning of waste.

Without an adequate system for waste disposal, most garbage in Goa is simply collected by private ‘garbage contractors’ and dumped in fields, water bodies, nullahs, alongside roads, in any space available. Much of it is later set on fire, releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere.

According to the Goa State Pollution Control Board, Goa generates about 400 tonnes of waste every day, about half of which is non-biodegradable plastic.  As most of this is burned, we’re looking at nearly 200 tonnes of burnt plastic being released into Goa’s air every day. This is then combined with vehicle exhaust fumes and harmful emissions from industries, and you end up with a serious problem.

Pollution is often measured by something called particulate matter, or PM, which are tiny particles measuring less than 10 microns in diameter. These can penetrate deep into the respiratory tract and cause breathing and heart problems, and possibly lung cancer. Goa’s PM10 level in 2010, the last year statistics were available, was 68 micrograms/cubic metre, or 8 notches above what’s considered safe.

“Goan farmers take tremendous pleasure in burning the agricultural residues in open fields instead of composting this recyclable biomass. All over Goa agro-waste burning is heavily contributing to high levels of dangerous aerosols. These are trapped with cold air when thermal inversion takes place. Add to this smoke and the aerosol, the exhaust gases and combustion products of vehicles. We could then witness frequent episodes of smog in and around the cities. The smog carries a peculiar, faint acrid, organic smell,” explains environmentalist Nandkumar Kamat.

“I frequently come across taxi drivers who do not smoke but still have a peculiar, persistent dry cough. Obviously, there is something in the air which they breathe. This is not a healthy trend in a state which claims to be healthy,” he says.

Before I continue, let’s say a word about pollution in India in general. It’s fair to say our country has just about the worst air pollution in the world, beating China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, according to a study released during this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Of 132 countries whose environments were surveyed, India ranks dead last in the ‘Air (effects on human health)’ ranking.

Levels of so-called PM 2.5, another pollution indicator referring to the 2.5-micron size of the particulate matter, are nearly five times the threshold where they become unsafe for human beings.

Particulate matter is one of the leading causes of acute lower respiratory infections and cancer. The World Health Organization found that Acute Respiratory Infections were one of the most common causes of deaths in children under 5 in India, and contributed to 13% of in-patient deaths in paediatric wards in India. The WHO says India has the world’s highest rate of death caused by chronic respiratory diseases, and it has more deaths from asthma than any other nation. One study shows that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs.

It is not just India’s big cities which are grappling with air pollution, said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of India’s Centre for Science and Environment. Air pollution also is worsening in smaller cities, she said.

The situation in Goa may not be as bad, but it’s steadily deteriorating. In recent weeks there has been smog in various parts of Goa, like the Mapusa-Guirim area through which the NH17, Goa’s busiest road, passes.

Around 9 % of all deaths in Goa are directly due to respiratory illnesses, not counting other diseases caused indirectly like cardiac arrests or cancers, according to official figures.

Mapusa-based Dr Ashish Thakarkar, who specialises in respiratory diseases, told Streets in an interview last year that he treats four to five confirmed cases of respiratory illnesses every week. “My patients, aged between 40 and 50, typically suffer from asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD).” He cites smoking, rise in air pollution levels and dust as the main culprits.

To be sure, there are still places in Goa where the air is clean, and the stoppage of mining has improved air quality in several parts of the state.

But with the state government and mining firms clamouring for a return to mining, the short-term gains could be wiped out, with a return to pollution as usual.

I had the privilege of speaking with a professor who sits on a number of government panels dealing with pollution in Goa. Though he has succeeded in stopping a few pollution-producing activities, many of his recommendations have gone unheeded, and he finds himself disgusted with the lack of action on the part of the government. He spoke to me on condition that his name not be used in this story.

Here is what he said:

“Goans are increasing their carbon footprints. Goa generates the dreaded sub 10 micron carbon particles, which are directly linked to cancer. Between sunset and sunrise, hundreds of private vehicles can be found dumping all types of waste along roadsides under the cover of darkness. On near every highway and bypass heaps of solid waste, plastic waste can be found burning. Sometimes these fumes cover the road and passengers get choked.

“There is a secret that the Goa state pollution control board would not like to reveal – the air pollution in and around Panjim has crossed all permissible limits. Only Vasco da Gama is next to Panjim in high SPM levels. The whole island of Tiswadi is under a plume of very fine dust – aerosol particles which settle close to the ground after temperature falls at night. Four large scrap yards between Fontainhas and Ribander are engaged in burning stacks of disposed car tyres. The huge dark toxic, carcinogenic plumes, which this clandestine business creates, can be seen from Altinho Hill. Combine that with burning of plastic waste, solid waste, garden litter, agro waste and other biomass and the state of air pollution in Goa can be imagined.”


If you cough persistently when you jog, walk or drive around Goa, then take this as a warning signal. The air you are breathing has turned toxic.

The government and private sector are fast at work improving Goa’s capacity for environmentally friendly waste disposal – an initiative that includes some welcome German technology. For all those concerned about the air we breathe, the project’s completion cannot come fast enough.