The Missing Piece In India's Fight Against The World's Most Toxic Air

A series of papers highlight how state pollution control bodies remain ill-equipped to tackle the toxic air crisis.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>(Source: Unsplash)</p></div>
(Source: Unsplash)

Pollution control boards in the Indo-Gangetic region, which has cities with some of the worst air quality in the world, remain poorly equipped to manage a crisis of this scale, according to a new series of papers.

An analysis released by the Centre for Policy Research about nine state PCBs and one pollution control committee found that most remain understaffed, lack experts with environmental background, and feature personnel with potential conflict of interest.

The findings, encapsulated in three papers, show how India's frontline regulators for tackling pollution are failing to effectively deliver their mandate. That is despite the country dominating lists for the world's most toxic air, which is estimated to claim over a million lives every year.

"If our SPCBs (state pollution control boards) are challenged in executing routine tasks even now, how can we expect them to rapidly evolve to meet new challenges?" Bhargav Krishna, fellow and co-author of the study at CPR, said. "This is not to point fingers at SPCBs but to highlight that substantially greater support and investment is required to help them act as they were intended to."

CPR's research evaluated pollution control bodies from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. It sought information through Right To Information filings from the respective bodies, publicly available data and interviews with current and former members.

The study found that most boards were dominated by government and industry officials having over 50% of the composition. Academics, scientists, medical practitioners and researchers were a tiny fraction comprising just 7% of the boards. Civil society members have nearly no representation.

"This could give way to questions around conflict of interest," Arunesh Karkun, research associate and one of the authors at CPR, said. "Those representing polluting entities have way more representation on the boards than those who are getting affected by it."

The boards also had almost no experts with the technical know-how of dealing with air pollution and its impact. Most seats were occupied by people who hold ex-officio position and did not have a background in environmental issues.

"Technical expertise is sorely lacking across the board," Karkun said.

None of the boards were also able to substantiate that they had at least two air quality experts on the board, as is mandated in the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, he said.

This underrepresentation of technical expertise on the pollution control bodies isn't new. The issue had also been raised over two decades ago by the erstwhile Planning Commission.

The study said that the lack of expertise on boards raises questions about whether there should be a minimum criteria for the appointment of members similar to those prescribed for the chairperson and secretary.

As a result of this, most boards largely engage only on procedural matters that are related to administration, finance and staff.

Discussion on technical issues are limited to approval of new guidelines, external research, setting up monitoring stations and aspects around industrial pollution. Very little, if any, discussion happens around substantive issues of pollution control outside industrial sources.

SPCBs' failure to address the air pollution menace is also due to lack of manpower. At least 40% of the posts remain vacant in nine SPCBs. Vacancy levels are higher than 75% in states like Bihar, Haryana and Jharkhand.

BQ Prime had earlier reported on how India's national programme for clean air has remained ineffective due to similar problems.

Most experts had pointed out that the bodies tasked with implementing policies to improve air quality lack the capacity to enforce them. Besides, officials at civic bodies also lack the expertise to approach the problem from a scientific perspective.

​Copy-Paste Policies Underscore What's Choking India's Clean Air Programme

CPR's research once again brings to light weak institutional capacity across the country for environmental matters.

Despite air pollution being an ongoing public health emergency, the lack of progress is a symptom of "executive apathy", it said.

Things could get even more tricky with India trying to introduce complex emissions trading mechanisms and develop a carbon market.

"In a context where SPCBs are flailing in their attempts to fulfil their basic mandate, how can we expect them to upskill and empower themselves sufficiently to convene and facilitate far more complex regulatory processes such as market-based mechanisms?"

Unless these gaps are addressed, India's fight to clean its air will mostly remain only on paper, the researchers said.