When the Water (Prevention and Pollution of Pollution) Act came up in 1974, its main objective was to “provide for the prevention and control of water pollution and the maintaining or restoring of wholesomeness of water for the establishment”.
Today — after more than 45 years — things look pretty dismal. Our water bodies — from the Ganga to the Yamuna — are anything but thriving.
The Air (Prevention And Control Of Pollution) Act, 1981 — another major piece of environmental legislation — “provides for the prevention, control and abatement of air pollution for the establishment”. In a nation, where 2.5 million premature deaths were estimated to have occurred from air pollution, according to The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, we have failed in this regard.
Both the acts were an autochthony of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972, attended by former prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Many participating nations have implemented similar legislation robustly in their respective countries. Enforcement and regulation in India, however, remain lackadaisical.
Many environmentalists blame the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for this.
The CPCB — being a statutory organization constituted under Water (Prevention and Pollution of Pollution) Act, 1974 — was established to ensure the efficient formation, execution and implementation of environmental laws and policies. Section 16 of the 1974 Water Act made uniform environmental standards for the entire nation.
The working of the CPCB leaves a lot to be desired. Media reports and popular discourse, however, completely neglect the larger malaise plaguing the system: Emasculated state pollution control boards (SPCBs).
The CPCB is in no way comparable to the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) — an independent and autonomous body that does not have to pander to the government’s whims and fancies. The EPA has a budget of around $8 billion and around 14,000 full-time employees (expert members are separate). It also reports directly to the US president.
CPCB still enjoys a decent workforce and robust laboratories. It has a structure in place where specialization is valued, incentivized and promoted. If one gets recruited as scientist B (CPCB doesn’t have an engineering cadre), for example, then he or she will work and excel in one particular arena, like bio-medical waste or hazardous waste or air quality management, etc.
In SPCBs, such a stratified system is not in place. An assistant environmental engineer or scientist B at SPCB has to look after every aspect of the EP Rules, from municipal solid waste and e-waste to battery rules and biomedical waste. This makes it virtually impossible to gain expertise and excel in one particular area.
Employees barely gain technical expertise in the working of SPCBs where paperwork, litigation, and an acute shortage of staff exacerbate the situation. Regional offices are not provided with legal assistants and when scientists and engineers have to take up the role of lawyers, things are bound to get off-track.
This workload severely disturbs the work-life balance and the mental peace of employees, while taking the focus away from working on R&D and effective implementation. Laboratories and sampling equipment across all SPCBs also leave a lot to be desired.
There are only four labs available in Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) for the entire state. Unfortunately, not a single one can be said to be qualified to use ‘state-of-the-art’ as an adjective. There is a non-availability of transportation and preservation facilities for samples, possibly resulting in a flawed analysis.
Lack of training for field officers and field assistants culminates in improper sampling that further affects the analysis. In departments like irrigation and water resource, buildings and roads, and public health engineering, there are at least three to four sub-divisional engineers (SDEs), with at least two to three junior engineers under each of them. One assistant environmental engineer (AEE) at the HSPCB— the equivalent rank of SDE — has at times looked after two full-fledged districts without subordinate technical staff.
The same is the situation at the head office, where one AEE is looking after two to three regional offices in addition to additional duties. It is not a secret that many crucial government departments are short of staff, but operating at one-fourth of the sanctioned strength does create complications.
The huge amount of responsibility on a limited staff results in a conundrum. In the process of getting a lot done, one ends up compromising quality for quantity. Matters completely unrelated to their domain are also put in their purview.
HSPCB has poultry farms under its ambit, although the consent policy of the board — dated February 26, 2018 only covers poultry farms with more than 100,000 birds (that too in the White category, where no permission or no objection certificate from the board is needed). Such complaints — because of a notification by the department of environment and climate change — on grievance portals are assigned to the board.
This results in a paradox where engineers and scientists — who do not have a degree in veterinary sciences or animal husbandry — have to look into the efficient functioning of poultry farms.
It is high time that everyone — from citizens protesting against high AQI in winter in the North to the National Green Tribunal — realises that no matter how stringent legislation is, it won’t bring meaningful change unless the agency working at ground level is empowered.
(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)