Millennium Post

Closing the gap

Continuing divide between science and environmental policy in India highlights the urgent need for a new paradigm for environmental monitoring and assessment

Closing the gap

Walk around any industrial town, populated city, river or pond — one is bound to witness emission of smoke from the stack, flow of offensive-smelling wastewater through drains carrying various substances on the surface.

The Indian economy has experienced unprecedented growth in the last decade. India's gross domestic product (GDP) grew to USD 2.3 trillion in 2015, approximately a five-fold increase compared to USD 480 billion at the beginning of the century according to the International Monetary Fund, 2015. During the same period, average income nearly doubled. India was the seventh-largest economy in the world. This economic growth has imposed tremendous pressure on India's water bodies, which have already been heavily polluted. Nearly 70 per cent of the total available surface water in India is polluted and is unsuitable for human consumption, agricultural and industrial uses.

Our environmental policy is complex to control and prevent pollution. Beyond the laws, regulations, and court rulings on the subject, it is strongly affected by agency officials who are charged with implementing and enforcing environmental law. Their decisions, in turn, are influenced by a range of political and economic forces, including the policy beliefs of elected officials, the health of the economy, anticipated costs and benefits of laws and regulations, federal-state relations, public opinion, media coverage of environmental issues, and efforts by corporations, environmental groups, and scientists to influence public policy.

Concerned Governments, regulators and politicians often demonstrate their concern to make the environment pollution free by sanctioning millions of tax-payers' money towards various projects. Many of these projects are primarily to monitor the state of the environment and to formulate the action plan to promote the cleanliness of the environment that does not pose any threat to the well being of human health and ecosystem. Despite huge financial involvement in the name of cleaning the Ganga (as an example), the river is far from clean. A large volume of data has been generated, but adequacy and reliability of monitoring these data are questionable because the mere interpretation of data cannot help in augmenting the knowledge of environmental processes and resultantly monitoring has become just a data collection exercise. The main reason is that data, generated by spending crores of rupees, are often arbitrary and illogical and thereby actual behaviour of pollutants remains elusive. Several objective shreds of evidence can be cited in this respect. The necessity of harmonizing science and policy is often neglected. Lack of proper understanding among the scientists and policymakers acts as the main obstacle in the path of effective transfer of pertinent information to citizens. On one hand, policymakers often are hardly concerned of the policy-oriented scientific information because their interest lies only in focusing vastness of the projects (large water/air quality network, number of well-equipped laboratories or number of accredited laboratories) at huge financial investment. On the other hand, scientists (designated) demonstrate their potential in generating a large volume of data (may reliability go to the dogs!) by different laboratories with graphical presentation (eye-soothing and colourful!) to satisfy policymakers and to justify the financial investment. Presentation of such reports to policymakers serves as the "proof" of the government's focus and concern of maintaining the cleanliness of the rivers!

The Indian legal system is also not adequately equipped to effectively handle cases of the transgression of existing laws on river pollution, such as the Water Act (1974), the Water Cess Act (1977 and 1988), and the Environment Protection Act or EPA (1986), to name a few. These laws only cover water pollution from industrial sources, while pollution control for domestic or agricultural sectors is governed by Minimal National Standards (MINAS). There are no specific standards of monitoring for pollution resulting from runoffs from industry, mines or agricultural fields. The overlap and ambiguous responsibilities of multiple agencies involved in dealing with river pollution further complicate the problem.

Despite criticism of existing environmental policies and doubts about the capacity of the EPA and states to achieve the objectives outlined in these policies, reform has proved to be difficult. Studies continue to find fault with conventional pollution control policies and urge the adoption of new approaches. Most importantly, environmentalists and the corporate brigade usually are in substantial disagreement over most reform proposals, from greater reliance on benefit-cost analysis to increased dependence on the states for environmental enforcement.

It is pertinent to mention that pollution in the Ganga River imposes significant threats to drinking water safety as the basin is densely populated. For example, because both water intake and sewage discharge are mainly performed at river banks in the urban sections of the mainstream, the safety of drinking water sources is at risk. In fact, there are many more water intakes along the river mainstream, and all of them have been exposed to pollution to varying degrees, posing a potential threat to the safety of drinking water.

Though water quality monitoring network systems have gradually increased at the cost of public money including procurement of sophisticated instruments (necessity, rate of use and reliability of data is questionable and poor), yet interpretation of the data often remains a matter of controversy. Despite denuding the public coffers of all the money, nobody involved in the project has cared a bit to spend a small fraction of money to evaluate the effectiveness of the project! After all the case of the politicians, bureaucrats, and top management in the environment sector need to be "strengthened" by continuing with the practice of spending the money!

We all decry corruption as being the biggest obstacle to national progress. Obviously, corruption at all levels of our polity is a heavy financial burden upon the country. But the final straw that breaks the Indian elephant's back is not the graft, but sheer inefficiency — an almighty innate inability to get it done systematically with requisite technical input. As a result, we are launching multimillion projects, but failing to ensure a pollution-free environment that can change the public perception.

In India, monitoring of organic substances, nutrients, metals, pesticides and coliforms are carried out at huge expenses by CPCB but discussions are restricted only to a few parameters. This monitoring has been carried out since the last three decades but the level of contamination of nutrients, metals and pesticides in a river and their behaviour have often been assessed using restricted datasets that mask a lot of important dynamics of these pollutants in water. Be the river contaminated with/by acid mine drainage, limestone excavation, metal industries or any other factor — same monitoring methodology is being implemented! The investigation concerning metal pollution in the Hooghly river demonstrates that statistical tools for trend analysis can reveal flaws in the data. The long-term trends in measured metal ions concentrations explored that the sampling and laboratory practices significantly influenced the actual changes in the state of the environment. On questioning the reliability of the measured value through RTI, the concerned authority; instead of providing any objective evidence to ensure the reliability of the data; simply informed that since the laboratory is accredited by NABL (accreditation body), there lies no question of any error! Thus it is pertinent to mention that NABL is ensuring the protection of erratic results generated by the lab.

On a more general level, there is an emergent need for a new paradigm for environmental monitoring and assessment with special emphasis on the reliability of measured value. In India, the regulator namely Central Pollution Control Board is quite reluctant in this regard.

The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal

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