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Chennai’s Air, Water and Noise Pollution Level is Critical

The World Health Organization report reveals that 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Among them Delhi is the reigning king of polluted cities and the situation in the southern metropolis Chennai is equally worse.

Chennai formerly known as Madras is the capital of Tamil Nadu and with 4.68 million residents is the fourth largest city and sixth most populous city in the country.

The pollution level of Air, Noise and water is alarming in Chennai and people are forced to live in the conditions far below the standards prescribed by the World Health Organization.

Air Pollution

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has confirmed that air pollution is rapidly increasing in both residential and commercial areas of Chennai.

The ‘Reparable Suspended Particulate Matter’ (RSPM) that measures air pollution is far beyond the permissible limit in the city. In comparison to the 60 micrograms per cubic meter of RSPM that is permitted, some parts of Chennai has about 121 microgram of RSPM, which is quite alarming.

In the first week of December 2015, Chennai had the highest proportion of ‘severe’ days (17.7 per cent), and a third of all days were either of severe, very poor or poor air quality, averaging across Chennai’s three monitoring stations in the city.

The main reason of high air pollution is due to exhaust from different kind of vehicles plying on the city roads. The ever-increasing number of vehicles is choking the roads and the delay leads to traffic congestion and wastage of fuel, resulting in higher emission and thus contributing to air pollution.

The state government is trying to address the problem of air pollution through better public transport systems, increasing the number of city buses, constructing metro railways etc, but the air pollution continues to increase as there is no sign in reduction in private cars and two wheelers.

It has been globally found that cities are combining good public transport system with direct restraints on cars to reduce traffic congestion and pollution. This is being done so by effective travel demand management that reduces car usage and addresses the problems of congestion, air emissions and excess fuel use. However, this is not done in Chennai; even though Delhi is implementing Odd- Even plan to reduce car usage.

Secondly, air pollution is also triggered due to ongoing construction activities in the ever expanding city. Chennai city’s landscape is changing fast with concrete jungle occupying green cover, adding to the air pollution.

The government is desperately trying to have green cover but trees have to be felled for the expansion of the roads. For every tree that is being planted, twice the number is cut to make civic amenities better.

Air pollution is also caused due to the uncontrolled use of fire crackers in the city. It is an integral part of all the bohemianism taking place in the city. Any celebrations, be it festivals, birth, marriage, even death, fire crackers is used indispensably to express emotions. There is little realization that it is causing enormous air pollution.

The media and the NGO’s are doing their bit to create awareness about the harm to the city’s environment but such source of air pollution remains uncontrolled, and as a result the city suffers cumulatively.

Air pollution is already taking heavy toll on the life of the city residents. Long term exposure to high levels of air pollution is making many people suffer from increased respiratory diseases. Its long term impact on is inevitable if sincere effort is not made to check air pollution in Chennai.

Noise Pollution

As far as the noise pollution is concerned, the World Health Organization has fixed 85 decibels as permissible limit. However, as per the estimates of the National Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the noise level in Chennai is more than 129 decibels. This is another alarming feature and many reasons are attributed to it.

Noise level in Chennai is increasing due to addition of different kinds of vehicles on the city roads. The honking of vehicles, the burling sound of generators and motors all add to the noise pollution in Chennai. The generous use of microphones during festivities is another source of noise pollution.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had initiated a drive against noise pollution, having stringent checks on street microphones and car horns and use of noise making power generators. The state government has also taken the initiative of planting trees to control the noise pollution level in the city. However, these measures are just knee jerk approach and could hardly make any real impact on the ground.

Water pollution

According to a WHO classification, about 40 per cent of all diseases are water borne and in case of Chennai, bacterial contamination in the water is affecting more than half of the city.

A nation-wide survey “Kya Aapka Paani Beemar hai” reveals that levels of water contamination is a serious issue in Chennai. 80% diseases in Chennai are caused by unhealthy drinking water: Despite this, nearly one tenth of city households still drink water directly through taps that are unsafe for drinking.

Broken pipes, leaking sewer lines and inadequate maintenance of old pipe networks are the primary causes of water contamination.

Packaged water provides some people with a relatively safe option to tap water. But tests by the Chennai Corporation show that most brands of packaged water contain harmful bacteria and some companies are repeat offenders.

The problem of water condemnation is begging attention and the recent Chennai rains have totally exposed this aspect of civic amenities of the city. There was water everywhere but not a single drop to drink.


Unlike other mega cities, Chennai represents a different pollution challenge. Its annual average pollution levels, though lower than other mega cities, still vary between moderate to critical.

Analysis by CSE exposes rapid increase in pollution levels, high local impacts and high traces of toxics making its air and water dangerous to breathe and drink.

Chennai needs to quickly scale up public transport, integrated multi-modal transport options, car restraint policies and walking for clean air.

Chennai Corporation needs to regularly monitor the quality of drinking water, but at the same time make extra effort to solve the problem that remains at the supply level of water.

Further, mere passing of laws and creating institutional structures are necessary but not sufficient to address the problems of air water and noise pollution. Policies should be implemented in their right perspective. Institutions should be strong enough, with more autonomy and powers to deal with the issues affecting the environment.

Syed Ali Mujtaba