KOLKATA // Farhana Akhtar looked on helplessly as her six-year-old daughter, Sarah, unable to stop coughing, turned back and forth on her bed trying to find relief, her eyes bulging from the strain.
After more than an hour, Sarah coughed up thick, dark phlegm. Her mother gave her some medicine a physician had previously prescribed for such extreme bouts of coughing - for what he suspected was a viral respiratory infection - and the child finally fell asleep. As it turned out, Sarah's respiratory problems, like those of thousands of children across Kolkata, were a result of air pollution, caused primarily, analysts say, by the city's 75,000 autorickshaws.
At the clinic the next morning, Dr Timir Garai, Sarah's physician, prescribed a vaporised medication to be dispensed through a nebuliser and suggested she not be allowed outside without a mask. "On the way to and from school she breathes polluted air. Every day at least 40 per cent of the children I meet have respiratory problems, mostly caused by pollution, and it is a growing trend among schoolchildren in Kolkata," Dr Garai said.
"Fifteen years ago, respiratory problems among children were caused by viral infections and it was mostly seasonal - during autumn and winter. But now the children are suffering from this sickness throughout the year." Scientists and doctors say adults are also increasingly suffering from respiratory problems, including lung cancer. According to a report last month by the Kolkata-based Scientific and Environmental Research Institute (Seri), it is the most polluted city in India.
Activists, supported by such scientific research, blamed the city's mechanised, three-wheel autorickshaws as the main cause of the problem. A 2007 survey by Seri found that areas in Kolkata with a high density of autorickshaws were significantly more polluted than areas where they were not permitted. Autorickshaws were first introduced in Kolkata and other Indian cities in the 1970s as a poor man's taxi.
Environmental experts first raised the pollution issue in the mid-1990s, by which time autorickshaws had become a popular mode of transport in cities throughout the country. Then in 1999, Soumendra Mohan Ghosh, a Kolkata-based auto emission expert, filed a public interest litigation seeking the regulation of auto emissions in Kolkata, noting that autorickshaws were the biggest source of pollution.
In April 2003, the High Court in Kolkata ruled that all vehicles would have to comply with standard emission norms within one year; autorickshaws were ordered to switch to cleaner fuels by April 2004. Nearly six years after the deadline expired, less than five per cent of Kolkata's autorickshaws are following the court order. Moreover, a Dec 31 deadline for a blanket ban on all two-stroke autorickshaws - which has been enforced in several Indian cities - was violently opposed by autorickshaw operators with the support of ruling communist and opposition parties, resulting in the destruction of public property. The ban had been ordered last July by Kolkata's High Court.
Experts say two-stroke petrol-run autorickshaws were the most polluting while Compressed Natural Gas- or Liquefied Petroleum Gas-run four-stroke autorickshaws were less so. The 2007 Seri survey also found that in Kolkata as many as 65 per cent of autorickshaws ran on cheaper "kaata tel" (meaning spurious oil), a blend of petrol, kerosene and naphtha - emitting the highest reported toxicity in the world.
Environmentalists say only four-stroke and CNG- or LPG-run autorickshaws should be allowed to run in Kolkata. But autorickshaw drivers complain that these machines are less powerful and cannot carry as many people as a two-stroke petrol- or kaata tel-run autorickshaw. "Although an autorickshaw is designed to carry three passengers, we have permission to carry four in Kolkata. But when policemen are not around, we often carry five or even six to earn more," said a 45-year-old Kolkata autorickshaw driver who has been using a two-stroke for 15 years.
"Gas-run autorickshaws are all right for a non-stop long ride. But in Kolkata we need to stop or slow down many times. Gas-run autorickshaws cannot bear this strain." Environmental activists say they will keep fighting autorickshaw pollution. "Kaata tel is the most dangerous source of carcinogenic pollution and drivers should not be using them at all," said Subhash Dutta, an activist who in April filed a public interest litigation in the High Court seeking the removal of all two-stroke autorickshaws from Kolkata.
"Autorickshaw operators provide a ready pool of foot-soldiers and no political parties want to antagonise them. For this simple reason no real action has been taken against them by the government. But I am sure of my victory - Kolkata will be free of polluting autorickshaws very soon." Mr Dutta may have reason to be hopeful: last week the High Court said it would consider the state's request to extend the deadline of the ban on two-stroke autorickshaws to July 31.
"In this matter, there is a conflict of two fundamental rights. One grants citizens the right to livelihood while the other gives them the right to a clean environment," S S Nijjar, the chief justice of Kolkata High Court, said in his ruling. "We are concerned about the future of Kolkata and West Bengal. We have to ask ourselves whether our children are entitled to free, unpolluted air. These autorickshaws have been banned in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. Why can't they be banned from Kolkata?"