Piece­meal poli­cies can’t tackle pol­lu­tion


IT IS the time of the year when air pol­lu­tion be­comes a topic of pub­lic dis­course. It is now al­most an an­nual rit­ual — smog, stub­ble burn­ing, blame game, talk of tough mea­sures, civil so­ci­ety de­mand­ing dec­la­ra­tion of health emer­gency and so on. Courts pass stric­tures and some in­cre­men­tal, half-hearted mea­sures are taken. In­ter­na­tional agen­cies like the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion re­lease new re­ports on air pol­lu­tion im­pacts. A few months later, we are back to nor­mal and go into slum­ber till the next smog.

If we are se­ri­ous about tack­ling air pol­lu­tion, we need to break this cy­cle. Busi­ness-as-usual will not do. At present, mul­ti­ple agen­cies are sup­posed to be han­dling the prob­lem of air pol­lu­tion — Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests, In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Depart­ment, Min­istry of Earth Sci­ences, state en­vi­ron­ment de­part­ments, cen­tral and state pol­lu­tion con­trol boards, trans­port de­part­ments, state agri­cul­ture de­part­ments, agen­cies like the En­vi­ron­ment Pol­lu­tion (Pre­ven­tion and Con­trol) Au­thor­ity (EPCA), na­tional re­search lab­o­ra­to­ries and In­dian In­sti­tutes of Tech­nol­ogy. All these agen­cies and in­sti­tu­tions are ex­pected to co­op­er­ate and work in tan­dem. But, it is the op­po­site in prac­tice. Take for in­stance, the meet­ing of state en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ters con­vened by the cen­tral en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter last week. It is said that only one state en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter — from Delhi — at­tended the meet­ing while those from neigh­bour­ing states did not show up. What­ever lit­tle ac­tion by states we are see­ing, is purely be­cause of the Supreme Court in­ter­ven­tion.

OVER the years, we have de­vel­oped air qual­ity stan­dards which are fairly strin­gent but we have no mech­a­nism to en­force them fully. Air qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing net­works are weak and en­force­ment is abysmal. The en­vi­ron­ment min­istry has de­vel­oped a frame­work called Na­tional Clean Air Pro­gramme (NCAP), but it has done lit­tle to im­ple­ment it. This apart, the am­bi­tion set in this ini­tia­tive is very low. NCAP’s goal is to “meet the pre­scribed an­nual av­er­age am­bi­ent air qual­ity stan­dards at all lo­ca­tions in the coun­try in a stip­u­lated time­frame”. This is as vague and am­bigu­ous as it can get. Merely pre­scrib­ing stan­dards won’t help. The goal of NCAP should be to re­duce ill­ness and deaths caused due to air pol­lu­tion. Air qual­ity should im­prove to a level where it is not harm­ful to health.

The piece­meal ap­proach to pol­icy and pro­grammes to ad­dress poor air qual­ity will not take us any­where. We need na­tional and re­gional mech­a­nisms — man­dated by law— to pro­tect ci­ti­zens from ill ef­fects of air pol­lu­tion in­clud­ing in­door air pol­lu­tion. Bad air is not just a prob­lem of the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Re­gion. A study by In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Delhi a few years back had shown that 50 per cent pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in 45 per cent dis­tricts of In­dia is ex­posed at par­tic­u­late mat­ter ex­ceed­ing the In­dian air qual­ity stan­dards. We need an em­pow­ered body, some­thing like the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board, which is not just an en­force­ment agency but is charged with pro­tect­ing the pub­lic from the harm­ful ef­fects of air pol­lu­tion. The end goal of all air qual­ity con­trol poli­cies and pro­grammes should be fo­cused on res­pi­ra­tory tracts and lungs of a nd not just tailpipes of cars and chim­neys of power plants or brick kilns.

Over the years, we have de­vel­oped air qual­ity stan­dards which are fairly strin­gent but we have no mech­a­nism to en­force them fully.

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