10-16 February 2017 #845

Bad air

Bikram Rai

The suffocating rise in roadside dust in Kathmandu in recent months has had one important benefit: it raised public awareness about the Valley’s increasingly unbearable air pollution. The mass media’s exposure of the health hazard prompted the Supreme Court to direct the government to curb pollution, and a task force this week submitted a report to the National Planning Commission recommending urgent mitigation measures.

The dust is a result of road-digging to lay new water mains, delayed street-widening, and the practice of using the sidewalk for post-earthquake reconstruction. Although more visible, dust is less harmful to health than microscopic particles from vehicle tailpipes. Experts worry that wider roads will mean more cars, and worsening pollution.

“Widening roads without improving public transport system will increase pollution. Some roads, of course, need to be widened, not to accommodate more cars but to have bus lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians,” environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar tells us in a Guest Editorial.

Diesel soot levels in Kathmandu went down this winter because of 24-hour electricity and the drop in generator use. However, the concentration of toxic particles from vehicular emission is still several times higher than what WHO regards as safe.

Air pollution is just the symptom. The real disease is the lack of accountable local government because Nepal hasn’t had municipal and local elections for 20 years. Dirty politics makes dirty cities. 

As the special coverage in this issue of Nepali Times proves, there is a direct correlation between better public transport and improved public health.

However, our undercover investigation of bus syndicates shows that the transportation mafia has political backing and will stop at nothing to protect its monopoly.

Regulators cannot discipline operators because bus cartels are protected by the political cartel. Moral of the story: we must clean up our politics if we are to clean up our air.