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The weak link in the fight against air pollution

As key environmental indicators deteriorate across India, it is clear that state pollution control boards and pollution control committees are failing to fulfill their statutory mandate.

As key environmental indicators deteriorate across India, it is clear that state pollution control boards and pollution control committees are failing to fulfill their statutory mandate.

In the fight against air pollution in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, there are several important players, including India’s frontline environmental regulators, State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) and Pollution Control Committees ( CCP) in Union Territories. Their main role is to regulate emissions from point sources such as industries and power plants which contribute significantly to ambient air pollution in urban and rural areas. More recently, they have also been tasked with guiding cities in meeting National Air Quality Program targets and spending Finance Commission grants for air quality improvements. In short, there is no future with clean air in which SPCBs do not perform at the highest possible level.

A strengthened mandate

SPCBs were originally incorporated under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974. Under the Air (Pollution Prevention and Control) Act 1981, the SPCB’s mandate was extended to include air quality management. Subsequently, several new environmental regulations added to their roles and functions. Unfortunately, this expanded mandate has not been accompanied by increased capacity and potential within the boards. As environmental indicators such as air quality and water quality deteriorate in many parts of the country, councils are clearly failing to effectively fulfill their statutory mandate.

Over the years, several published reports, including those of the parliamentary standing committee and government committees, have identified the reasons for the poor performance of SPCBs. In a series of articles recently published by the Center for Policy Research, we find that many of these reasons continue to plague BCPS. This article unpacks three key institutional constraints under which SPCBs operate in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and discusses their implications for air quality governance in India.

Board composition as a conflict of interest

First, the composition of BCPS is a matter of grave concern as important stakeholders and people with crucial expertise are lacking in most states. The boards of directors are bodies composed of several members headed by a president and a member-secretary. Their decisions and policies guide the daily operation of the organization. More than 50% of the members of the Board of the 10 SPCBs and PCCs studied represent potential polluters: local authorities, industries and public sector companies. They are subject to the regulatory measures of the SPCB, and their overwhelming presence raises fundamental questions around conflicts of interest.

At the same time, scientists, doctors and academics make up only 7% of Council members. What is even more worrying is that most boards do not meet the legal requirement of having at least two board members who have knowledge and experience in quality management. ‘air. Considering the scale and causes of air pollution in India, multidisciplinary expertise is needed to tackle it; there must also be an explicit focus on health when designing air pollution control policy. Lack of expertise and biased stakeholder representation on councils can only be an obstacle to effective policy making.

Second, the leaders of the SPCB — the president and the member secretary — do not enjoy a long, stable, full-time tenure. In many states, people in these two positions hold additional office in other departments. The data also shows that several member presidents and secretaries have been in office for less than a year. For example, the shortest term for a president was 18 days (Chhattisgarh) and 15 days for a member secretary (Haryana and Uttar Pradesh). With the focus of SPCB management scattered across multiple roles and their tenures being short, they often do not even have time to fully understand their mandate before being moved. In such a scenario, long-term policy planning, strategic interventions and effective execution aimed at drastically reducing air pollution are extremely difficult.

The staff is running idle

Third, SPCBs are severely understaffed. At least 40% of all sanctioned positions are vacant in nine SPCBs/PCCs for which there is data. Vacancy rates in technical positions reach 84% in Jharkhand and over 75% in Bihar and Haryana. Insufficient staffing forces boards to reprioritize among their various functions. This has significant implications for pollution regulation, as vital functions such as monitoring industrial compliance, initiating enforcement action in the event of violations and setting standards are often not prioritized. Fewer staff also means weaker regulatory scrutiny and poor impact assessment. For example, given their workload, engineers in Bihar, Jharkhand, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh have less than a day to inspect, assess and decide on each consent request. With Commission staff operating in a vacuum, this is clearly an unsustainable situation.

The institutional picture we paint is rather bleak. Unfortunately, the situation worsens when one considers the boards’ massive mandate on environmental issues beyond air quality. Without the essential capacity, capability, expertise and vision of our frontline regulators, sustained and substantial gains in air quality are virtually impossible.

Shibani Ghosh is a Fellow, Center for Policy Research, New Delhi. Bhargav Krishna is a Fellow, Center for Policy Research, New Delhi