India’s Pollution Regulators Are Ineffective Due to a Lack of Expertise, Resources: Report
India’s pollution control boards are plagued by overwork, understaffing, low accountability and motivation, as well as poor understanding of the pollution control policies they are in charge of enforcing, concludes a new report by the Centre for Chronic Disease Control, a Delhi-based non-profit, and the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to the WHO, nine out of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Moreover, 15 cities in India have also made it to Greenpeace’s list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. Globally, India also has the most infant deaths due to air pollution. And it isn’t just a matter of rankings: 16.8 lakh people in India died of long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution in 2019.
The report relied on extensive interviews with officials at state pollution control boards, bureaucrats, academics, and environmentalists across Lucknow, Patna, Ranchi, Raipur, Bhubaneswar, Vijayawada, Goa, and Mumbai for its findings.
The researchers found that despite an expansion in the scope and scale of the work that pollution control boards do, there has been no corresponding expansion in their budgets and workforce, leaving them overworked and understaffed. The study also noted a shortage of staff with subject-matter expertise compared to the number of administrative and other employees.
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Some of the shortage of expert staff is found at the highest levels. Many boards’ leadership teams comprise civil servants, who lack background in science, health, or environmental studies. Further, the study notes interviewees from the boards had little expertise in monitoring pollution data — a critical aspect of board responsibility. Board workers also had a limited understanding of the health effects of pollution, with some interviewees saying that “air pollution is not an alarm bell for us yet” and air “standards are meant for Europeans, not Indians.” This lack of purpose also played a role in diminishing the boards’ motivation and accountability.
Moreover, due to the boards not being empowered enough, their directives are often perceived as bureaucratic hurdles and often left unimplemented — with departments in other domains not perceiving them as bodies essential to the protection of human health and the environment. This informs how boards seem themselves, too: “…pollution control boards reportedly perceive themselves as technical advisors instead of regulatory bodies,” Santosh Harish, a fellow at the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Policy Research, told IndiaSpend, adding that it becomes an issue in cases where “coordinated action [between different agencies and departments] is essential to make progress.”
Even a decade after India established its own National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to establish minimum acceptable levels for ambient air quality, most regions in India have failed to meet them.
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“While interventions that strengthen the legislative framework… are welcome, they will be as ineffective like all previous efforts unless the regulatory bodies that enable their implementation are strengthened with the technical and financial resources needed,” said Bhargav Krishna, an expert with Public Health Foundation of India and co-author of the study.
To remedy the issues plaguing the boards, the report suggests mobilizing more financial and human resources to ensure smooth functioning, implementing measures to compile and monitor data more effectively, and engaging stakeholders with different areas of expertise like health to “help regulators in supplementing their own knowledge gaps regarding the health effects, and potentially lead to joint work with both epidemiological and regulatory relevance.”
“No country has achieved broad-based economic development without investing in the health and well-being of its citizens, and addressing key environmental risk factors forms part of this investment … effective and coordinated policymaking across domains, enshrined in a culture of accountability will ensure that future generations will not have to deal with the persistent threat of ambient air pollution,” the study concluded.