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- Monika Prasad
What Contributes To The Pollution
At the very basic level, the explosive population causes above-average pollution of air, water, land, and even noise.
The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests has identified 64 industries that are considered to be under the “Red Category” which include tanneries, firecrackers, smelting plants of various metals, and even animal slaughterhouses and oil refineries.
India is being exposed to polluted air daily and surviving it. We breathe in air with pollutants worth 25 micrograms/cubic meters of air averaging a 24-hour cycle. Maybe the generation that was responsible for the current scenario did not even realize how much trouble we are in.
All of the above factors eventually boil down to one very important aspect, which is the population.
Since there are more people utilizing water, clean water is scarce, more people are bursting crackers every year on any occasion, making the air we breathe more polluted, and more plants and animals are killed to feed more of the human population. The curve is entirely dependent on the mere number of our existences.
India Has Environment Protection Laws
Well, India has had laws protecting the environment since 1986. A few of the laws are “The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986” which was amended in 1991, and “The Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986”. These laws form a framework for the protection of the environment.
Besides these laws, the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) have been ordered by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to take into account the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) which allocates weightage to various pollutants, ambient pollutant concentrations, receptors, and additional high-risk elements.
As of today, the Supreme Court, High Courts, and NGT work together to closely monitor the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws. A National Action Plan on Climate Change enforces the plans for a cleaner and safer environment for all while reducing pollution and making India sustainable.
Learning from Best Practices
In the United States (US), the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) makes industrial emissions data from all CEMS-regulated monitoring locations freely available to the public. In the countries of the European Union (EU), the European Environmental Agency maintains the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) which contains industrial pollution data from more than 34,000 facilities across 33 EU countries. The data from the E-PRTR register enables citizens to track industrial air pollution data across Europe, including who the top polluters are and the spatial and temporal trends of the emissions for each of those industrial locations. Data made available to citizens allow them to focus on the area where they live; they are made aware of the short- and long-term trends of industrial pollution in their neighborhoods, and thereby make certain decisions informed by the data. Environmental groups have used such data to identify the air polluters in a region and have held them accountable, such as the Tata Steel plant in the Netherlands. Overall, in European countries, industrial pollution emissions have steadily gone down since 2007, when the datasets were first made available across the Union.
These examples of best practices from the US and EU highlight the importance of having a public that is aware of the pollution emissions around them from stationary sources such as stacks and boiler plants. Tracking emissions from industrial sources help build accountability among people who run the industries and allows citizens to understand the potential sources of pollutants in their vicinity. Tracking OCEMS data is a way to address this part of the air pollution challenge, but the system needs to be made transparent and usable by the affected population.
India’s pollution control officials have the power to shut down industrial plants for polluting the air or water even if they have valid consent to operate. If any plant has caused “grave injury” to the environment, it can be shut down without a show-cause notice under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
Transparency will also go far in reducing corruption. In mid-October 2020 in Tamil Nadu, the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption conducted raids on the rented premises of an environmental engineer of the pollution control board. The authorities seized over INR 3.3 million. The first information to the police mentions that the case was in connection with a meeting of the ZLCCC (zonal level consent clearance committee) for factories in Vellore and other districts in the zone. The ZLCCC meets regularly to grant Consent to Operate permissions to industrial units. The allegation is that the environmental engineer received this money as bribes, in exchange for granting permissions to operate. The investigations are ongoing at the time of writing this brief.
The acute lack of transparency in industrial pollution emission means that whatever little data or information is released will remain shrouded in a cloud of questions. Take for instance, what government refers to as “Grossly Polluting Industries”—those which are monitored through OCEMS primarily for the waste they dump into rivers, especially in the Ganga basin. As of July 2019, according to government records, of almost 2,500 GPIs, as many as 89 percent were complying with environmental standards. The state of Uttar Pradesh, with almost 1,100 GPIs, has reported that 88 percent of these industries are complying with environmental norms; Bihar, with 50, has 100 percent compliance; and Haryana, where the Ganga’s tributary of the Yamuna flows, has 98 percent compliance amongst 638 industries. The question thus is, if indeed the compliance rate is this high, why then has there only been a marginal improvement in the Ganga pollution levels?
Indeed, there is a strong case for open data on air quality in India. After all, in 2019, India was the 5th most polluted country across the world; it is home to 14 of the top 20 cities with the worst PM 2.5 air pollution levels. Day-to-day monitoring is vital for people especially the vulnerable like the elderly and children, and those with health conditions like asthma and heart disease.
To be sure, there are certain individual, micro-level responses. Some schools, for example, have taken it upon themselves to track air quality more closely. There are schools in the capital that have mandated that all outdoor activities for students will be conducted only if the AQI levels were favorable. Still, sustainable, large-scale responses have remained lacking.
It has become even more urgent as the number of deaths due to air pollution in India has sharply risen by over 500,000 since 2017. A report by the Boston-based Health Effects Institute estimates that the number of deaths in India related to toxic air is somewhere at 1.67 million in 2019 or three deaths per minute. This is higher than the 1.15 million estimated in 2017 by the government’s Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
All views are expressed by the author. The pictures are from the website unsplash.com