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New Pollution Plan: WILL IT MEET TARGET?, By Dhurjati Mukherjee, 21 September 2018 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 21 September 2018

New Pollution Plan


By Dhurjati Mukherjee


The Environment Ministry’s ambitious draft plan, proposing multiple strategies to monitor and curb air pollution nationwide, is being viewed by experts as a difficult proposition to implement. It lacks infrastructure to slash its earlier target by 35 per cent in three years and 50 per cent in five years.


The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in mid-April has proposed enhancing the air pollution monitoring network from 691 to 1000 towns and add 50 more stations in rural areas. The document notes that rural areas maybe badly polluted, contrary to popular belief that these are free from air pollution. The plan also discusses the need for strengthening the network of real-time and continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations especially in cities in the heavily polluted Indo-Gangetic plains and for setting up a 10-city super network to capture the overall air quality dynamics of the nation.


The programme would expand monitoring stations for particulate matter seized 2.5 microns or less – the deadliest form of air pollutants that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. The NCAP comes amid concerns from studies indicating that about 1.8 million people across India die every year prematurely from health impacts of air pollution.   


The document states that large cities will be expected to implement 42 measures curb air pollution that include multiple steps to reduce vehicular pollution, road and construction dust, industrial emissions and soot from burning of biomass and garbage. The mechanisms proposed for monitoring, assessment and inspection of the implementation of the activities need to be strictly adhered to, if pollution has to be checked.    


However, according to experts, the draft programme plan lacks clear pollution reduction targets and city-wise or region-wise milestones, relies heavily on State governments to lead the battle against air pollution and lacks the teeth to ensure compliance. The programme plan was unveiled by the Ministry after views, comments and suggestions from all stakeholders were received. The move comes close on the heels of MoEFCC and the country’s top pollution watchdog, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), relaxing the December 2017 deadline for thermal power plants to meet emission standards till 2022.


India has a large number of laws, rules and guidelines to control air pollution. The problem is that these are not implemented anywhere near the level of stringency that is required. The only significant idea that the draft NCAP has on implementation is the need to expand and train officials of the CPCB and State Pollution Control Boards for this purpose. This obviously is clearly necessary but it is bound to be a long-term process, unable to handle the air pollution problem with the required urgency. Even the 42-point action plan for the CPCB in the draft fails to show this sense of urgency.


This apart, the sections on implementation in the draft NCAP are essentially about measures already in place, with little sign of understanding the extent to which these measures work or do not work, and why. An example is the Graded Response Action Plan for Delhi and the National Capital Region.


This plan is controlled by a highly dedicated group of experts. But every time they try to implement it, they are confronted by various lobbies such as that of factory owners, realtors, transporters, vehicle manufacturers, farmers and even sundry Ministries in both Central and State governments. The result is that the implementation is at best partial. The draft NCAP is silent on how such a situation can be improved in the short term.


It is widely recognised that air pollution has disastrous consequences on human health, specially the section of the population residing in slums, squatter settlements, railway colonies etc. A recent study by Yale and Peking Universities and published in Proceedings of National Academy of Science journal pointed out that air pollution not only harms the heart and lungs but also affects the brain so much so that people, specially the elderly could struggle for words or complete simple math sums. Worse, long term exposure to air pollution severely affects cognition skills.


Regarding the deterioration in cognitive skills, one may mention that an American study last year showed a correlation between the brain size of elderly women and the levels of pollution in their area. More the pollution, higher and faster is the shrinkage of the brain, the study found. 


As regards India, exposure to air pollution is normally over a long period, the effect is more pronounced. Thus, the study’s findings hold true for our nation as well where roughly 23 lakh people died in 2015 due to causes arising out of air pollution. The trajectory of development in both China and India are somewhat similar and hence are the levels and sources of pollution.    


Oncologists too have found that long term exposure to air pollution may extend to cancer. Lungs of children exposed to pollution become shrunken and damaged with some of these children suffering from diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or asthma.    


Other than political will, the draft plan should have dealt with the need for more active citizen participation. In many Indian cities, especially in the northern parts of the country, there is now a situation in which residents talk about the terrible air pollution, then jump into their diesel SUVs and drive off to buy air purifiers for their homes! Delhi is perhaps the only city in the world where a Bus Rapid Transport corridor project failed because motorists refused to abide by the rules. There is an urgent need to take on such behaviour.


Just as urgently, there is a need for bureaucrats and technocrats to accept citizen science on air pollution. In Beijing, air pollution was brought under some sort of control only after the average resident downloaded a simple pollution monitor on to his or her smartphone and started sending the results to all and sundry all the time. In India, incipient attempts to do the same have elicited sharply hostile reactions from the ministry and the CPCB, whose officials keep talking about how inaccurate those monitors may be, how they are not calibrated properly and so on.


It is no surprise, that plans and programmes in India rarely attain their targets. This should not be allowed to happen in the case of NCAP as the problem of pollution has severe consequences on human health. As such, serious action is called for by the Centre and State governments with both financial and technical support as also strict monitoring of pollution rules and regulations. They must remember that a stitch in time saves nine. --- INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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