India's Cleanest City

India’s cleanest city

The small city of Tezpur in east India has traditionally had little to brag about. The holy Brahmaputra river roars at its edges and the mighty Himalayan mountains adorn its skyline, but couched between these geographical marvels, Tezpur itself is little more than a layover stop for travellers in the state of Assam.
But while many of India’s industrial towns have reached peak pollution levels, Tezpur’s air is getting cleaner. Since the last WHO air-quality report in 2014, Tezpur’s PM10 pollution, caused by dust particles, has reduced more than any other Indian city to close to 15% of the level it was.
Tezpur’s PM10 levels now stand at 11mg per cubic metre. According to WHO guidelines, the permissible limit for PM10s is 20mg per cubic metre.
Tezpur’s air-quality improvement stands out in India, where focus on industrial development and rapid urbanisation in recent years has driven pollution levels up in most other cities. According to the WHO report, six of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in India, putting millions of people at serious risk of cardiac and respiratory infections.
M Nath, senior environmental engineer at the Pollution Control Board, says Tezpur’s clean air is noticeable to travellers from other cities. “When we have visitors from other cities like Delhi or Guwahati, they immediately feel the difference in the air quality here,” Nath says. “But we’re a small city, we don’t have any major industries that cause a lot of pollution and people are conscious [about the environment]. It may not be so easy in other places.”
It is difficult to single out one reason for Tezpur’s improvement , but Nath explains that heightened awareness means people are making conscious efforts to go green. “People in Tezpur are very conscious about the environment,” Nath says.
In recent years, rising incomes and greater awareness about the environment means people have started buying cars that meet the latest emission standards, and discarded older, polluting vehicles. 
Last year, more than 800 trees were planted by students in the city, as part of a massive environmental campaign at Tezpur University. 
Activists such as Jadav Payeng, nicknamed “India’s forest man”, have also made significant efforts to improve the environment in regions near Tezpur. For the last 30 years, Payeng has planted a forest’s worth of trees, covering 550 hectares (2.1 sq miles) of land.
Industrial efforts to cut back on coal-powered machines have also helped significantly. “The supply of liquefied petroleum gas [LPG] has improved a lot, and so many tea plantations are using it now,” he says. LPG is produced from fossil fuels, but produces virtually no particulate pollution compared with burning coal.
Assam’s hundreds of plantations produce nearly 700,000kg of tea a year, mostly exported around the world. Until recently, many of them depended solely on coal to fuel their machines.
Nath says LPG has now reached even more remote village areas near Tezpur. Access to LPG and subsidies from the government have prompted many villagers to use cleaner fuel for cooking and burning waste. “People don’t need to use wood fires any more; most of them have access to LPG.”
Sanjiv Eastment, a manager for McLeod Russel, the world’s biggest tea producer, says he can feel the improvement in air quality since the company started using LPG in their incinerators. “Not just outside, you can feel it in the factory itself,” he says. “There’s no more dust, no more breathing problems.” 
Eastment estimates that better technology and more easily available LPG have saved thousands of tonnes of coal in recent years. “We make around 100m kilos of tea a year, and for each kilo of tea we burn around 1kg of coal. But it used to be much more – 1.6, 1.8 kilos a few years ago. Now we have new boilers that are more energy efficient and our incinerators are fuelled by LPG,” he says. “We still need to use coal for our tea dryers though.” 
According to Eastment, the company switched from coal to LPG because it was cheaper. “After all we’re in the business of tea to make money,” he says.
Strong regulation and demands from foreign countries to meet production standards have also contributed to the change. Foreign countries have become less willing to accept tea imports unless they are certified by the Rainforest Alliance. “It means that all open fires have stopped – even in the workers’ quarters, to cook or burn waste,” Eastment says. “That makes a really big difference.”
For Nath though, it is adopting the right attitude to the problem that is key. The Pollution Control Board has run campaigns in schools and villages to encourage people to adopt greener lifestyles. “People have been very enthusiastic,” Nath says. “They are really proud about the environment here … We look after our city.”
  • This article has been amended to correct air pollution measurements of PM10 and PM2.5 particles mistakenly given in terms of square metres rather than cubic metres