Occupational hazardStanding under a traffic light at Thapathali, Diwani Chaudhary is directing the office-hour traffic, manually. The Thapathali traffic light systems is one of the 365 placed at various junctions in the Capital. It is not one of the five that are still operational.
Standing under a traffic light at Thapathali, Diwani Chaudhary is directing the office-hour traffic, manually. The Thapathali traffic light system is one of the 365 placed at various junctions in the Capital. It is not one of the five that are still operational.
As a result, the Valley’s 800,000 vehicles are physically managed by 1,085 traffic police personnel like Chaudhary.
Three years ago, when she was appointed a traffic police constable after completing her basic training, Chaudhary had been upbeat about the prospects. It is a zeal that has long dissipated. Being a traffic police in Kathmandu is not easy. The hours are long, the workload is demanding, and the health hazards are as real as they are severe.
“I had always had 20/20 vision,” says the 22-year-old Chaudhary, “but after being stationed in Kathmandu, I now need +2.5 glasses. My eyes become sore and bloodshot if I don’t wear them while on duty.” In the last three years, she has also been treated for kidney stones. She attributes this to the long shifts without regular restroom breaks and until recently, the lack of accessible drinking water while stationed on the roads.
“For the male traffic personnel, it is not as big a problem as they use restrooms in nearby buildings or businesses. For the women it’s not as straightforward, more so when they have their periods.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Rupa Lubung, who leads the Thapathali Traffic Police Unit, where she is stationed with 40 other personnel, including 29 women. She confirms that a majority of her unit have frequent health complaints, including fatigue, back and neck problems, arthritis, dryness of nose and eyes, forgetfulness, headache, irritation, indigestion, and stress. But she remains most concerned about the dust and pollution that her charges are breathing into their systems. “The masks provided to traffic personnel are not anti-pollution masks. The simple cloth masks are of little use. Besides, because we have to constantly blow on our whistles, it is not practical that we keep masks on all the time,” she says.
Kathmandu is consistently ranked as one the most polluted cities in the world and time spent out in the dust and pollution can add up quickly. The latest Environment Performance Index (EPI) 2016 puts Nepal 177 among 180 countries in terms of air quality. India, China and Bangladesh are the only countries performing worse than Nepal in the effort to improve the dramatic decline in air quality—a leading cause of premature deaths worldwide—accounting for 5.5 million deaths in 2013. In March last year, a Pollution Index published by Serbia-based research website Numbeo.com ranked Kathmandu as the third most polluted city in the world. Another report published in ELSEVIER journal in 2015 pegged Kathmandu’s toxic airborne particles to be up to 80 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.
Under air quality, one of the nine assessment areas that determine the overall EPI ranking is the exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Particulate matter (PM 2.5) is considered to be one of the most harmful air pollutants that lodge into human lungs and blood tissues, increasing the chances of lung cancer and other life-threatening respiratory diseases. Last week, the Air Quality Monitoring Bureau of the Department of Environment (DoE), recorded the level of PM 2.5 at a monitoring station in Pulchowk to be 125 µg/m3. The international safe upper-limit standard stands at 25 µg/m3.
Dr Sanjeet Krishna Shrestha, a DM in pulmonary critical care, confirms that traffic police personnel in Kathmandu Valley are vulnerable to pulmonary diseases because of their continuous exposure to pollution. “Due to the constant contact with dust and fumes they are susceptible to cough, chest infection or chronic bronchitis and emphysema (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, COPD),” he says. Dr Shrestha believes that the problem is further exacerbated by the lack of proper anti-pollution masks but does not think that masks themselves are the long-term solution. “The government should instead tackle the root cause of the problem: pollution levels,” he says.
According to psychologist Subash Chandra Sharma, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Kathmandu Medical College, though physical ailments and complaints are usually registered, traffic personnel also go through tremendous mental duress that seldom see the light of day. “With the long hours and the sheer volume of vehicles that need to be managed, traffic police work under extreme pressure and stress every day,” he says, “This type of working environment quickly leads to negativity, leaving them anxious, jittery and unable to focus. It also can cause depression, high blood pressure, insomnia and even substance abuse.” He advises that stress management—including exercise, meditation and recreational activities—be introduced as a means to tackle the “silent” epidemic.
It is a problem that Deputy Inspector General of Police Prakash Aryal, the chief of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division (MTPD), is well aware of. “The morale among the Valley’s traffic police personnel is admittedly very low. They work long hours, often with infrequent breaks that depend on the level of traffic congestion. It is a problem that we are trying to fix. We are working towards reducing the duty hours and reinstituting traffic light systems.” As for the health concerns, DIG Aryal says that his department is making health camps more frequent, where traffic police are screened for pulmonary function and other complaints related to their heart, lungs, skin, throat and eyes. But regardless, “No one is happy to be assigned as a traffic police,” he says, “Almost all personnel, excluding ranking officers, want transfers into other departments.”
For now though, members of the force like Assistant Sub-inspector Ramita Munikar have little options but to report to two shifts a day, as assigned by their officers. She muses if her colleagues would walk into work more willingly if they were provided with better safety nets. “Just last week a colleague was hit by a motorcycle at Thapathali. And while physical accidents are taken care of, it is the long-term health hazards that are the most worrying. We are consciously being sent out into the streets despite the dust and the pollution, shouldn’t some form of health insurance be a minimum?” she asks.