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Monday, November 23, 2020

Without empowered footsoldiers, India cannot beat back air emergency

India must empower state pollution control boards to act by giving them the necessary funds, human resources, tools and technologies.

Written by Siddharth Singh , Hardik Siroha | Updated: November 11, 2020 8:41:04 am
A man is seen on a skywalk near Delhi - Meerut Expressway on a smoggy day in New Delhi. (AP)

In a typical rickety government building in the heart of Faridabad, there was a shortage of A4 sized printer papers. A shortage of stationery wasn’t exactly new to the building: In the past, employees had struggled to get basic office supplies as these costs had not been approved by their head office. It was routine to find workarounds — in this case, cutting legal sized papers to make A4 ones. Thirty kilometres away at an elite luxury hotel in Delhi’s central district, researchers and public policy professionals from consultancies, think-tanks and international institutions were taking notes while ideating on how to address one of India’s key developmental challenges. There was no shortage of funds, intent, scholarship, scientific tools, satellite imagery, presentation equipment — and certainly not paper.

The two groups of professionals — one at the state pollution control board office in Faridabad and the other at an air pollution conference in New Delhi — had the same problem in mind: Addressing India’s air pollution crisis. The country’s fight against air pollution contains the very same inequities that is characteristic of its various other realities.

There is now a growing appreciation of this public health emergency that kills well over a million Indians every year, and triggers various health ailments, including asthma, diabetes and cancer. While public focus is often on stubble burning, the crisis is a highly complex, multi-disciplinary issue with several contributory factors, including industry, power generation, construction, stubble-burning and transport.

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To address this crisis, India has a plethora of rules, laws and specialised agencies which, at least on paper, seem very impressive. But our fight is only as good as the implementation of these rules. And this has been our Achilles’ heel.

The footsoldiers of India’s battle against polluters are its officials at the state pollution control boards. While our discourse often is focussed on legislation, legal battles and politics of air pollution, the ones quietly toiling away behind the scenes are pollution control board professionals who don’t have adequate resources, necessary specialisation, skills, tools or focus to do their job efficiently.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) based in Delhi is generally well funded and resourced, unlike the state pollution control boards (SPCBs) that are in charge of implementation of the rules that CPCB writes. In this theatre, CPCB is akin to a scriptwriter, while the various state pollution control boards are the actors who execute it.

Take the role of a field officer at a SPCB. These officers are in charge of inspections of a wide range of infrastructure and activities. They also have additional duties of conducting awareness programmes, such as those directed at farmers in the case of stubble-burning.

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With chronic problems at the SPCBs, these officers and others like them are unable to fulfil their duties and implement pollution rules effectively. There are at least five structural and inter-related issues that these institutions face. First, there is a critical shortage of staff in most SPCBs. As an illustration, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board has been operating with a 70 per cent staff shortage. What this means practically is that a single officer is tasked to handle the demands of pollution control for an entire district without any subordinate technical staff. To illustrate this better, consider the NGT-appointed Special Environment Surveillance Task Force, for which a single officer who is otherwise in charge of field duties, has to run around various offices, haggle with bureaucrats to finalise monthly meeting dates, prepare the agenda, conduct the meetings, and then write the minutes-of-the-meeting themselves without any administrative help. This comes at the cost of not being able to do inspections and other core pollution control work.

Secondly, officers at the SPCBs do not get to develop any specialisation. The CPCB has a decent workforce and robust laboratories, where scientists once recruited get to work and excel in a particular area such as biomedical waste or hazardous waste or air quality management. They are incentivised to specialise and are even promoted on the basis of it. On the other hand, SPCBs don’t have such a stratified system, and the same officer is in charge of all these pollution categories, making it impossible to gain expertise and excel in any one area.

Thirdly, SPCBs lack the necessary legal skills to take on polluters. While a legal cell may exist at the head office of a SPCB, they have few full-time public prosecutors there. In contrast, most other major government departments have a handful of public prosecutors posted in every district-level office. As a result, engineering graduates in district SPCB offices — with no training in law — have to don the hat of lawyers and develop legal paperwork that often falls short of holding polluters to account. Clerks and superintendents at courts often refuse to file cases, pointing at flaws that someone not trained in law would naturally make.

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Fourthly, SPCBs are chronically underfunded. For instance, the funds of several SPCBs such as Haryana’s largely come from “No Objection Certificates” and “Consent to Operate” that the boards grant to industries and projects, rather than budgetary allocations by the government. Owing to this, SPCB officials are unable to spend on critical functions.

Finally, SPCB officials are at times given additional responsibilities that are unrelated to pollution control. Haryana’s SPCB, for instance, has poultry farms under its ambit.

Our fight on air pollution rests on the shoulders of these overworked, underfunded, multitasking professionals, who would be successful only if they were given a chance. India must empower SPCBs to act by giving them the necessary funds, human resources, tools and technologies.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 10, 2020 under the title ‘Not ready for smog battle’. Singh is an energy and climate policy professional and Siroha currently works with Haryana State Pollution Control Board

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