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Monday, July 24, 2017

Newer, not better/Down to Earth

Here's a great story on India's struggle to make dramatic changes in commercial centers to reduce pollution levels. They, like everyone else, has reams of data, but no always the resources and will to cut emissions.

Perhaps you are in the same quandary...well educated on you carbon footprint, but not equipped, for some reason, to make better choices.  Transformation takes will and investment.  Those investments are reaping huge dividends.  

Whether politics, lack of knowledge or sparse seed capital, the world is sitting on lots of potential improvements around sustainability waiting for the right time or place.

While India announces a new formula to assess pollution levels in industrial clusters, it shies away from addressing the core problem of how to prevent an area from getting polluted

A power plant in Singrauli area in Uttar Pradesh. Singrauli has been a critically polluted area since 1989 (Photo: Meeta Ahlawat)

A power plant in Singrauli area in Uttar Pradesh. Singrauli has been a critically polluted area since 1989 (Photo: Meeta Ahlawat)

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is all set to monitor over 100 polluted industrial areas in India using a new formula. A revised version of the existing comprehensive environmental pollution index (CEPI), the formula is, however, unlikely to help clean the polluting clusters. The reason: the issue was never with the formula, but with the agency’s failure to penalise the polluting industries. As a result, the polluting clusters continue to flourish.

In 1989, CPCB for the first time identified 24 critically polluting areas (CPAs). It then rolled out a slew of measures to arrest the pollution levels. In 2009, it came up with another CPA list, using the CEPI formula. By then, the number of industrial areas in the list had gone up to 43. The new list also had 18 of the CPAs identified in 1989, suggesting things had worsened in the 20 years despite the anti-pollution measures.

Similarly, it has been nearly eight years since CEPI was introduced, yet no significant improvement is seen in the pollution level of the CPAs. In 2010, CPCB put a blanket ban on expansion and new industrial setups in all the 43 CPAs. But within a year, the ban was lifted because of pressure from industry lobbies. “CEPI did not bring significant change as the ban was removed without any improvement on ground,” says Rohit Prajapati, an environmental activist from Gujarat. He adds that top CPAs such as Vapi and Ankleshwar in Gujarat are as polluted today as before. 

“The monitoring authority did not involve local stakeholders to understand the improvement on ground and just believed the action plan and reports of the industries, which are normally cooked up,” says Prajapati. His allegations are not unfounded. Currently, just four of the 43 CPAs are banned from any further expansion of industry and industrial setups and they are not even the most polluting ones in the list.

While Ankleshwar, the most polluting CPA in the 2009 list, continues to operate with a pollution score of 80.93 in 2013, Jodhpur, which has the CPA ban on expansion, had a pollution score of 78. Meanwhile, Vapi, the second-worst CPA in 2009, has today become more polluted than Ankleshwar at 85.31 per cent (see ‘It keeps on getting worse’).

Even the current revisions to the formula have been introduced because of the industry lobby, which has criticised CEPI for being “subjective” in its assessment. In the revised formula, indicators such as evidence of adverse impact on people and eco-geological features have been removed because the information on these issues was collected from media and research reports, and non-profits. Now, only adverse health effects of pollution will be monitored based on data collected from three to five hospitals every two years.

Core of the problem 

Experts say the government’s priority is misplaced. CEPI is just a post mortem approach, in which the authorities take notice only after an industrial area is critically polluted. The fundamental challenge is not how to monitor pollution levels better, but how to stop pollution arising in the first place. This can be done by strengthening the environmental clearance process for industrial projects.

The government should first undertake a zoning atlas study of the country involving the preparation of a district-level atlas based on administrative divisions, physical features, land, climate, environment and water quality, water availability and flow pattern. It will give the government a blueprint of where developmental works can be undertaken and how much is the pollution-absorbing capacity of these places. Based on the area’s available resources and sensitivity to pollution levels in air and water, possible and alternative sites for specific industries can be decided. Such a study was done by Puducherry in 1988.

In 1995, CPCB started a district-wise zoning atlas for the country. The programme was discontinued in 2008 because it failed to deliver due to lack of resources. “Even the states have failed in the zoning atlas study due to lack of adequate capacity,” says R P Sharma, former chief of environment and health at Tata Steel.

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