‘“Trees absorb pollutants, and when planted strategically, act like a protective curtain’

Navigating Madurai’s peak hour traffic is a daily nightmare.

Apart from the vehicles, there are the dust and the fumes to contend with. All of which have put Madurai on the Central Pollution Control Board’s list of cities violating the National Ambient Air Quality standards.

Madurai is one of four cities in Tamil Nadu identified with high levels of Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM). The list identifies the main cause of pollution in the city as being from vehicular emissions.

“While many new vehicles manufactured and sold in the market come with green tags which signify lower emissions, most vehicles are expected to adhere to the emission control measures that have been specified,” says K Muthuchelian, School of Energy Sciences, Madurai Kamaraj University and Former Vice-Chancellor, Periyar University.

“However, most heavy vehicles such as lorries and buses, as well as autorickshaws, which have been plying for many years, as well as old models of vehicles which are still in use, are the main culprits” he points out.

More than 14,000 autorickshaws, including share-autorickshaws, ply on the roads and more than 800 public transport buses are registered with the regional transport offices in the city. With rapid urbanisation, the number of vehicles has steadily increased over the years.

Approximately 50,000 vehicles ply the city’s roads every day.

According to information culled from the records of the Regional Transport Office (RTO) — North, an average of 16,000 vehicles, which include two-wheelers, four-wheelers, and permit vehicles that include lorries, tourist cabs, private and public buses, are registered every year.

With the number of vehicles seeing a rapid increase every year, areas that are thickly congested with traffic bear the brunt. Traffic policemen and officials from the RTO have been cracking down on passenger vehicles and insist that a Fitness Certificate (FC) be renewed every year.

“Vehicles that are more than 15-years-old and are owned privately should be disposed of or serviced. Most manufacturers offer the FC for such vehicles at the time of purchase which is valid for a certain period of time,” a senior RTO official said.

According to a study carried out in February 2013 by Enviro Care India, an environmental organisation working in the city, levels of PM 10 and PM 2.5 which make up particulate matter smaller in size than SPM are beyond the permissible limits.

“The increased presence of PM 10 and PM 2.5 indicates higher levels of pollution and pose a higher risk to the public since this can cause a host of respiratory problems,” says Rajmohan S, Managing Director of the organisation.

While vehicles are a direct cause of the unclean air with their emission of particulates, the dust and sand on the roadside add to the pollution as they carry the particulate matter which are suspended in the air.

“It is a common sight to see heaps of sand accumulating on the roadside. The more the vehicles that zip through these roads, the more the suspended particles that settle in the atmosphere” T. Velrajan from the Department of Civil Engineering of Thiagarajar College of Engineering, points out.

“This matter, which is suspended in the atmosphere, is constantly inhaled by most motorists and pedestrians. This causes problems such as irritation in the eyes and throat, as well as breathing problems,” he says.

The problem is magnified during the monsoon, says Mr. Rajmohan. “While the roads are slushy during the rains, the mud dries up and adds to the dust released into the air,” he says.

The best way to keep the air in residential and commercial areas clean is to plant more trees.

“People should take to planting trees and this should be enforced along highways and places which record high levels of particulate matter,” Dr Muthuchelian points out.

“Trees absorb pollutants, and when planted strategically, act like a protective curtain around houses and institutions, as well as highways which witness increased vehicular movement and dust,” he adds.

Echoing his point, Dr Velraj emphasises the need to increase and implement afforestation measures. “While the increase in vehicles is a part of urbanisation and can’t be prevented, we should seek to redress this by increasing the green cover rather than curbing lifestyle choices,” he says.

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