Poison Air

By: Staff Reporter
With an estimated 620,000 deaths in a year and a six fold increase in premature deaths since 2000, India has the worst air pollution in the world.
Pollution

The year 2012 was of pollution extremes in the country’s capital, Delhi, according to scientists with the System for Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) project under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES). SAFAR is India’s sole project for forecasting the quality of air. Launched by the MoES during the Commonwealth Games in 2010, it has recently been introduced in Pune too, as published in a January 7, 2013 news brief in the Indian Express. The brief adds that three extreme polluting events— a) a dust storm in March 19-20, 2012 peaking with average levels of coarser particles (size 10 microns or less) suddenly increasing by more than 300 per cent, from 200 micrograms per cubic metre to 830 (the permissible limit is 100 micrograms per cubic metre); b) a dangerously high emergency level air pollution assigned for human health between October 27 and November 8, 2012 triggered thousands of hospital admissions with respiratory ailments as levels of two categories of particulate matter, PM10 and PM2.5, touched 800 and 500 micrograms per cubic metre respectively, more than double the level assigned for the emergency or critical category and unexpected under normal conditions; and, c) Diwali festivities with its fireworks, elevated the pollution level again by more than 100 per cent, with a significant contribution of black carbon.

The World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Assessment—a rigorous scientific process involving over 450 global experts and partner institutions, throws up some key findings pertaining to India. The GBD marks a shocking increase in Indian death toll with air pollution being the fifth leading cause of death. India has lost 620,000 lives prematurely in 2010, which is up from 100,000 in 2000, a six-fold increase. Air pollution-induced premature deaths includes stroke (25.48 per cent), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (17.32 per cent), ischemic heart disease (48.6 per cent), lower respiratory infections (6.4 per cent), and trachea, bronchus and lung cancer (2.02 per cent).  The main causes are growing emissions of particulate emissions from transport and power plants. The GBD Assessment also adds that across the G-20 economies, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India and over 50 per cent of the sites studied across India had critical levels of PM10 pollution.

India has the worst air pollution in the entire world, beating China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, according to a study released during February 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos. Of the 132 countries surveyed, India ranks last in the ‘Air (effects on human health)’ ranking. The annual study, the Environmental Performance Index, is conducted and written by environmental research centers at Yale and Columbia Universities with assistance from dozens of external scientists, using satellite data to measure air pollution concentrations.

The apathy towards cleanliness

Despite repeated alerts, reports and deaths the authorities turn a blind eye to the predicament of our people. Pollution is a byproduct of development, true—however it is preventable if enforcements are in order. But the issue of pollution is tackled by a huge number of committees and authorities that present varied records and proposals at myriad locations, as pollution in the country continues unabated and uncontrolled.

To begin with, the master chef—Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), a 100 per cent grants-in-aid institution of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), in coordination with State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB)/ Pollution Control Committees (PCCs) is supposedly mandated to implement nation wide programmes related to abatement of pollution, which includes air pollution. But according to the 241st Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, Rajya Sabha the institution of CPCB, although, autonomous on paper, finds its autonomy compromised in practice. The post of Chairman in the organisation has been lying vacant over a year with additional charge being assigned to MoEF. This is not the isolated incident of additional charge and has often happened in the past. The reasons ascribed for not filling the vacancy on a regular basis by the MoEF pointed towards a High Court order for abeyance; long drawn selection procedures of professionally qualified personnel; and, non-committal attitude of the parent organisation towards placing the senior most officer of CPCB in the Chairman’s chair in the interim period—all leading to a headless chicken squawking about without direction. Added to this is the acute shortage of scientific and technical manpower which had been coming in the way of effective functioning of the Board, cites the Report. An IIM, Lucknow Report (2010) calling for strengthening of CPCB recommended 550 additional posts; upgradation of laboratories; computerisation; infrastructural development; provision of monitoring vehicles to enhance environmental surveillance, etc. On specific queries by the Parliament of India about the follow up action and the extent to which strengthening has been undertaken in pursuance with the above recommendations, the MoEF conveniently wrapped up the matter by saying that the proposals are still under examination. As per a later IIM Report on strengthening the zonal offices to enhance their functioning through adequate staffing and infrastructure, submitted in August 2012 the minimum requirement of one zonal office of CPCB was assessed to be of 49 scientific/ technical and 25 administrative manpower, where as the ideal requirement was assessed to be 62 and 39 respectively.

As per the 241st Rajya Sabha Report the CPCB has not been making optimum utilisation of its budgetary resources in the last 2 years. In 2011-12 as against the plan allocation of Rs 40 crores, CPCB could utilise Rs 38.81 crores while in 2012-13, out of Rs 42 crores, which after reallocation was brought down to Rs 34 crores, the expenditure went down to even a lower figure of Rs 25.5 crores, achieved by 31st March, 2013.  It is fairly astounding that such a minimalistic fund is allocated to the only Board that is mandated to work towards pollution control in an indeed sullied country such as India —and then to find that even that small pittance is underutilised is a sad revelation!

CPCB and SPCBs are autonomous of each other. While CPCB is under the administrative control of the MoEF and responsible for overall policy, planning and coordination, the SPCBs are under their respective state governments and are expected to work under the overall policy framework of CPCB, MoEF and responsible for implementation of provisions of various environmental acts relating to water pollution at the ground level. This dichotomy of control finds its source in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, which further entrusts the SPCB with the critical functions of compliance to and enforcement of pollution control related activities, whereas CPCB is given an advisory and coordination role. SPCBs are not empowered to generate adequate financial resources of its own to effectively discharge its mandate and are dependent on the central government and state government for grants even for expenditure on normal monitoring of pollution levels. Moreover, CPCB and SPCBs have no functional correlation between them at the input stage and the dichotomy of control results in no single agency taking charge of pollution control on a nationwide basis. Repeated attempts by G’nY correspondents to procure current records of vacant posts and synergy of interaction between states and the centre were thwarted on various grounds. With a website that is not even updated with environmental statistics beyond 2005, the very existence of a scientific organisation such as CPCB is questionable. Air pollution is the fifth  largest killer in India with close to half our cities reeling under severe suspended particulate  material pollution with newer pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, ozone and a gamut of other toxins worsening the public health challenge.

Infringement of right to life

Air pollution is caused by emissions from vehicles, thermal power plants, industries and refineries. In fact fine particles or microscopic dust from coal or wood fires and unfiltered diesel engines are rated as one of the most lethal forms of air pollution. In a report titled Environmental Management in India by Western Australia Trade Office-India, Government of Australia, January 2012 it was conclusively found that components of diesel exhaust including particulate matter can cause biologic responses that are related to asthma. Thus air pollution is not only known to cause a spectrum of aliments but also considered the primemost suspect of respiratory ailment related deaths.

In June 2011, MoEF stated that its National Environment Policy 2006 was developed with a view to review and implement its strategic theme mechanisms. It outlines a significant number of new and continuing initiatives for enhancing environmental conservation and proposes a formal, periodic high level review of implementation of its different elements—at least once a year. The findings of the review was proposed to be publicly disclosed, so that stakeholders are assured of the seriousness of the government in ensuring implementation of the Policy. However, as per the the 241st Rajya Sabha Report no such review has taken place till date.
In June 2011, MoEF stated that its National Environment Policy 2006 was developed with a view to review and implement its strategic theme mechanisms. It outlines a significant number of new and continuing initiatives for enhancing environmental conservation and proposes a formal, periodic high level review of implementation of its different elements—at least once a year. The findings of the review was proposed to be publicly disclosed, so that stakeholders are assured of the seriousness of the government in ensuring implementation of the Policy. However, as per the the 241st Rajya Sabha Report no such review has taken place till date.

In a backdrop where air pollution is rising uncompromisingly coupled with a palpable disregard amongst the policy makers and implementers—the life giving fresh air is slowly turning into poison. Where then lies the difference between the Hitler of the yesteryears who ‘gassed’ their victims to death and our elected government? They too are guilty of practicing genocide—killing thousands exposed  to the noxious fumes. As citizens of this country, our basic right to life is under a serious threat.

If the government is at all interested in setting things right, it needs to adopt a two pronged approach. At one end municipalities should provide residents living in cities with high levels of air pollution (as per independent third-party surveys) for over 10 years, free respiratory ailment related medical services in all private and governmental hospitals. Also it should provide a compensation package for ‘victims’ who may lose their lives in such a scenario. On the other end of the spectrum, the government should compulsorily introduce battery operated zero pollution vehicles in select critically polluted areas of cities to begin with and seal registration of all new cars (apart from electric ones) for a cleanup period of 10 years. The traffic should be regulated with GPS and carrying capacity of each section determined so that vehicular air pollution is brought down to a minimal. As far as the industry is concerned, every small and large unit should be compliant with air and water pollution abatement norms. In case of small manufacturing units the government may provide heavy subsidies to help put treatment plants in place, with long term pay-back periods to facilitate the Mission Cleanup. Organisations such as CPCB should be scaled up for a fitter outfit on the lines of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), and have a scientific and non-scientific amalgam, handpicked from the most reputed government, industry and not-for-profit organisations so that time bound targets are set and achieved. Stringent action and quick redressal is the key to blue skies once again…

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