"We have set up a toothless pollution control board"

Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB): one would expect an organisation with a name like that to penalise polluters and care about the quality of air inhaled by the urbanites of India. But this dialogue between Anju Sharma and the CPCB chairperson D K Biswas shows that the organisation is a mere lapdog of the ministry of environment and forests. All that it can do about the deteriorating air quality of the country's metros, is whine. Whether such a role has been deliberately opted for or is one that has been thrust upon the CPCB, is a matter of opinion. A senior academician -- who wishes to remain anonymous -- called the organisation a post box. Biswas himself does not seem to feel very differently on the issue. He admits that all he can do is write letters

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

What has the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) been doing about the increasing air pollution caused by vehicles in Indian cities?
There are a few things I would like to point out in this context. Firstly, we cannot better air quality without improving fuel quality. Secondly, we must improve the design of vehicles to make them more fuel-efficient and less polluting. We have set standards for two different periods, one for 1996 and another for 2000 ad , so that they get progressively stringent. The other steps that need to be taken are associated measures. For example, road conditions and traffic signalling systems have to be improved. God knows who is going to do all this.

We assume that to meet the 2000 ad standards, the automobile industry will abandon the age-old technology based on carburettors. One also hopes that the auto industry will discontinue the production of two-stroke engines. In any case, they are selling their products abroad, where they are meeting the standards required by those countries. So why is it that they cannot do it here?

Is it not because you are letting them get away with lax standards?
No. It is because we have provided a sheltered market for our industries in which consumers have no choice. The industry is under no pressure to change.

But why has the government not insisted on better cars?
Before liberalisation occurred, it was believed that the Indian industry should be shielded from international competition and quality was of little concern. It is only recently that such quality consciousness has emerged. Why, even today, both consumers and producers are not quality conscious unless something pinches them. This is why the government's ecomark is not gaining ground. There has to be pressure like the time when the Germans refused to buy Indian leather goods that contained azodyes and the leather industry immediately changed to cleaner dyes.

But why is such pressure not coming from the government?
The government alone cannot do it. You need public pressure.

But you are the people who set regulations.
We cannot set regulations without public support.

Why should these regulations require public encouragement when they need to be based purely on technical findings?
'Technical' does not mean anything. I can suggest many things but if pressure does not build-up to implement them, nothing will happen. If you ask me, I would like to set a zero-emission standard.

What prevents you from doing so?
When we talk about emission standards, automobile manufacturers say the government's standards are not implementable.

But do you think the automobile industry is doing its bit in terms of r & d ?
Not just the industry, but the public which lacks consciousness, should be blamed for this. We talk about the environment but when it comes to paying for it, we are not ready to shell out even an extra paisa.

How many people in India have access to information about the air they breathe? Afterall, your organisation is responsible for making public the reports on the research you conduct.
That is precisely what we have been doing. Over the years we have generated data, prepared reports and launched public awareness programmes.

When we wanted basic data on air pollution levels in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, we could not get it all from the CPCB.
You have to understand that India is a huge country .

But I am only referring to the three major met ros.
Suppose you ask me to give you data on Calcutta or a source-wise inventory of Delhi, it is almost impossible for me to do so. Even the us has not done it.

I wanted just basic data not a source-wise inventory.
Basic data is not lacking.

As for your National Ambient Air Quality Statistics of India publication, the document confuses the reader more than it informs.
That is the problem with technical people. I tell my colleagues that they do not know how to write reports in a language that people will under-stand. That is why I bring out the newsletter Parivesh. Its language is completely different from what is used in our other documents.

Has the cpcb done any work to identify the causes of air pollution?
Yes, many such studies have been done.

What has the follow-up on them been like?
The cpcb has been made responsible for generating data but not implementation.

Does the Environment Protection Act (epa) not give you enforcement powers?
No, it does not. At the most, I pass on requests to state pollution control boards under section 18 of the epa. So, it is a toothless provision. This is why I have asked the ministry to give me powers so that I can deal with defaulters. At the moment, the cpcb is only a central advisory body producing technical informa tion.

But is it not a pity that the Supreme Court passes orders on subjects that the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) should be tak ing a strong stand on?
That is because the executive system of this country is not powerful enough. We have set up a pollution control board without any teeth. All I can do is write 50 to 60 letters of complaints every day. I require powers under Section five of the epa. I have suggested that the cpcb be modelled along the lines of the Environmental Protection Agency of the us . I had suggested this to Kamal Nath, the earlier minister of state for environment and forests. He agreed, but did noth ing.

Why do we have trouble with policy decisions that do get taken? For instance, why could we not foresee the problem of the availability of unleaded fuel?
This is because agencies in this country deal with a multiplicity of responsibilities. If the cpcb 's words were to be directly binding on offenders, it would be more effective.

Do you have a list of priority issues that need to be addressed first?
We have presented a list of points on the environ mental action that needs to be taken to the new minis ter.

Where does air pollution figure?
With regard to air pollution we have stated that fuel quality should be improved first after which emission levels should be controlled.

Is there any study to show that improving fuel quality should be the prime target?
Our purpose is not to conduct academic exercises. We are told to identify priorities but what does one mean by priority? Why should I prioritise and spend a few lakh rupees on doing so?

But is it not important to prioritise your actions when funds are limited?
No, it is not necessary.

So are you looking at traffic planning?

What have you done about it?
That is the problem with you people. You expect the cpcb to do traffic planning too. We can continue writing letters but neither can I shout at the mef nor can I go to court against it.

In that case you should have an organisation that is totally detached from the MEF.
Mind you, I am in the mef and this is an organisation that is part of it. Beyond a certain limit I cannot say that the mef is not doing anything.

Have there been any studies on the health effects of air pollution?
How much do you expect an organisation like cpcb to do?

But this concerns pollution that is adversely affecting people's health.
Why then should I not take care of the hospitals? When we set standards we do not do it randomly. We do a study, though not in the sense of a rigorous epidemiological survey. Looking at the kind of humanpower and facilities we have, if we got into epidemiological surveys, we would be doing just that for years together and not get anything out of it in the end. Health studies are not that easy.

But is it not shocking that we are facing pollution-related health hazards and there are no studies to tell us how bad the situation is?
No, it is not shocking. Anyway, who says there are no studies?

There is not a single study done in recent years.
Our medical scientists are failing. If it is a health issue, the ministry of health should come forward and say we will do a study.

Even you could go and tell them that such a study needs to be done.
Who says we have not?

Have the fuel quality standards proposed by a committee chaired by you been notified under the EPA to make them compulsory for all refineries?
Not yet.

Why not?
Because the ministry of petroleum has some problems with it.

About air quality monitoring, why are ben zene and ozone levels not measured by you?
We are barely able to monitor the key pollutants. And that is more important than measuring benzene and all that.

There is a WHO study which says that tropospheric ozone could be a major problem in Delhi.
Unfortunately, that is not correct.

What modifications would be needed to vest the CPCB with more powers?
For one, modify the epa . Secondly, our instructions should be binding on others as a directive. In fact, there should be an appellate authority to make the cpcb itself transparent and accountable. And there should be a division of tasks between the ministry and the cpcb .

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.