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Pollution control boards are the weak link

The ridiculoussmog towerat Connaught Place, New Delhi has finally been dumped. Built at the cost of Rs. 22.9 crore, the 24-meter-tall structure was supposed to purify 1,000 cubic meters of air per second within a radius of around one kilometre. It did nothing of that kind; the smog tower was a giant exhaust fan that dispersed air in a50-meter radius, a colossal waste of public funds and an insult to one’s common sense. Instead of dismantling the smog tower, the Delhi government should preserve it as a monument to false solutions; a memorial to the many failures of its pollution control measures.

Meanwhile, last week, Mumbai,Pune, Chennai, and Ahmedabadreported air quality worse than Delhi as a thick blanket of filthy smog engulfed the majority of Indian citiesbeyond the Indian capital,nine of which fall on the ‘list of the world’s top 15 most polluted cities’.Agra, Lucknow, Varanasi, Patna, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Srinagar, Faridabad, and, of course, Kanpur, which tops the list. Even Tier-2 cities like Karnataka’s Davangere, Kalaburagi, and Hubbali-Dharwad are staring at a nearly40 per cent increase in air pollutionby 2030, according to a study by the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP).

Nowhere is safe. According to the World Health Organization, more than 90 per cent of the global population is breathing in high levels of pollutants.It is estimatedthat 4.5 million people died prematurely as a result of outdoor air pollutionin 2019, 300,000 more than in 2015, and 1.6 million more than in 2000. One recent study published by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago warned that the lives of residents in India’s capital arebeing cut short by up to 11.9 yearscompared to if air pollution were reduced to levels recommended by the WHO.

But before you order an expensive but mostly useless air purifier, let’s look at why cities in most high-income countries have relativelylow levels of local air pollution. This, we know, hasn’t always been the case. London, for instance, was notorious for its pollution during much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.In 1952, the infamous Great Smog covered London with a thick toxic layer of pollution, killing nearly 12,000 people, and bringing the city almost to a standstill for days — not unlike the situation in Delhi recently.

In fact, Delhi’s air pollution levels have followed, and continue to followa similar pathway to that of Londonin the 19th century. However, last week, London’s air quality was almost 10 times better than Delhi’s, thanks to almost two decades of ambitious policies, from taxing emissions to innovative approaches like theUltra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), and most importantly, effective and strict implementation of the policies overseen by successive city councils.

Effective and strict implementation is the Achilles heel in India’s battle against air pollution, and the pollution control boards are its weakest link. India’s perennially short-staffed, underfunded, and toothless state pollution control boards (SPCBs) and their counterparts in union territories, the pollution control committees (PCCs) have failed miserably to effectively deliver on their mandate of curbing air pollution. Things are so bad that despite declining air quality and rising health concerns in the national capital, air pollutionwas not even on the agenda of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee(DPCC) board meeting this week.

The PCBs across India are in a state of a shambles. Originally set up under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 (the water Act), over time their mandate has expanded significantly beyond water-related issues. They are responsible for regulating air and noise pollution, waste management (including municipal, biomedical, electronic, and hazardous wastes), and regulating the use of plastic, among other tasks.

A working paper from the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think-tank, has revealed that theSPCBs do not have the resources and capacityto perform the functions assigned to them under various laws due to inadequate sanctioned strength of personnel, high numbers of vacancies especially in technical positions, absence of proper training, lack of pollution monitoring and abatement equipment, absence of technically competent leadership, protracted enforcement mechanisms, insufficient funds, and ineffectual spending. These problems have persisted for many years, yet they remain unresolved.

Strong and effective pollution control boards and committees are central to India’s battle against air pollution. India has set ambitious targets for improvement in air quality through the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) but without competent regulators with sufficient capacity and financial autonomy, they may well just remain just on paper.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior adviser to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). X: @shaibaba.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 24 October 2023, 05:38 IST)

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