Polluted politics


Along with poor quality of education, unaffordable healthcare, lack of safe drinking water, crumbling infrastructure, Nepalis have learnt not to expect anything from any government.

So, even if they are seething inside, there is no visible outrage over the toxic air we are all forced to breathe.

In 2019 alone, 42,100 people died directly of air pollution in Nepal. Residents of Kathmandu will have lifespans reduced by up to four years due to dirty air. Even unborn babies are affected by their mothers’ long-term exposure to pollutants.

Dirty air has increased chronic respiratory diseases such as COPD, asthma, cancer, and cardiac arrest. Air quality in the capital is now so bad, Nepalis are becoming ‘pollution refugees’ – those emigrating to escape the poisonous air.

Vehicular emissions, especially from diesel trucks and buses, make up 38% of pollutants in Kathmandu. There are nearly 1 million two-wheelers in Kathmandu that spew out deadly gases like carbon monoxide. Yet, the number of vehicles in the Valley is increasing at 22% a year. Nepal’s import of diesel has tripled in the past ten years.

Annual emission tests are mandatory, but a green sticker can easily be bought, and even home-delivered for the right price. There are no emission tests for vehicles like the breathalyser tests for drivers.

A police campaign against drinking and driving brought down the number of traffic accidents all over Nepal by 90% in the past years, saving hundreds of lives. If driver exhalation can be checked for alcohol, why not vehicle exhaust for pollutants? Governance failure. Corruption.

We know the causes of air pollution in Kathmandu Valley (vehicles, brick kilns, open fires, roadside dust, in that order). We know the solutions (emission checks, clean bricks, strict monitoring). It is not a lost cause to combat air pollution—all it needs is public pressure and the political will to implement known solutions.

As clean air activist, Bhusan Tuladhar recalls in an interview with this week’s Saglo Samaj, Kathmandu’s citizens rose up against diesel Vikram three-wheelers in the 1990s. The government responded by replacing them with battery-operated ones. When neighbourhoods barricaded killer kilns in Bhaktapur, the government forced them to adopt cleaner technology.

Since transportation is the main culprit, Kathmandu’s answer to clean air is an efficient and reliable mass transit system. Even better: electric public transport. The state has accumulated Rs7 billion from the prevailing Clean Air Tax on fossil fuels, use that for a clean energy transition.

But the government has been taking one step forward, two steps back. Prime Minister K P Oli announced two years ago that 20% of vehicles in Nepal would be battery-powered by 2020. But his finance minister Yubaraj Khatiwada re-imposed taxes on electric cars last year.

Polluting brick kilns are back in operation, but those will be eventually driven out by urban sprawl. Real estate prices will make land in Kathmandu Valley more valuable for housing than clay-mining to fire bricks. The other big contributor to Kathmandu’s increasing pollution is open garbage burning. In winter, about 5% of solid waste in the Valley is burnt in the open. Municipalities must have a workable solid waste management plan, and impose hefty fines for open garbage burning.

Air pollution in Kathmandu is a direct result of political failure. It shows a singular lack of accountability on the part of elected representatives to reducing it— even if they only did it to protect their own health.

Air pollution is not just an environmental problem. When the Air Quality Index (AQI) hits 300 every day in winter, it is a public health emergency. It is an economic issue because it is proof that our economy is also going up in smoke. It is a political problem, and evidence that our democracy did not elect people who care for and protect citizens.

The central government has failed miserably, it is the responsibility of mayors, metros and municipalities to step in. The Constitution has devolved decision-making to them, and they will be held responsible by the people if they fail to act.

In summary, here are tried and tested solutions that all tiers of government can implement immediately:

  • Invest in electric public transport, charging stations
  • Conduct effective emission tests, enforce compliance
  • Control open fires, manage and recycle solid waste
  • Promote cycling, clear footpaths for walking
  • Switch to clean bricks
  • Promote electric stoves

Read also: Breathing is hazardous to health