Reforms needed in SPCB to reduce pollution
The footsoldiers of India’s battle against polluters are its officials at the state pollution control boards. While our discourse often is focussed on legislation, legal battles and politics of air pollution, the ones quietly toiling away behind the scenes are pollution control board professionals who don’t have adequate resources, necessary specialisation, skills, tools or focus to do their job efficiently.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) based in Delhi is generally well funded and resourced, unlike the state pollution control boards (SPCBs) that are in charge of implementation of the rules that CPCB writes. In this theatre, CPCB is akin to a scriptwriter, while the various state pollution control boards are the actors who execute it.
Take the role of a field officer at a SPCB. These officers are in charge of inspections of a wide range of infrastructure and activities. They also have additional duties of conducting awareness programmes, such as those directed at farmers in the case of stubble-burning.
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With chronic problems at the SPCBs, these officers and others like them are unable to fulfil their duties and implement pollution rules effectively. There are at least five structural and inter-related issues that these institutions face. First, there is a critical shortage of staff in most SPCBs. As an illustration, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board has been operating with a 70 per cent staff shortage. What this means practically is that a single officer is tasked to handle the demands of pollution control for an entire district without any subordinate technical staff. To illustrate this better, consider the NGT-appointed Special Environment Surveillance Task Force, for which a single officer who is otherwise in charge of field duties, has to run around various offices, haggle with bureaucrats to finalise monthly meeting dates, prepare the agenda, conduct the meetings, and then write the minutes-of-the-meeting themselves without any administrative help. This comes at the cost of not being able to do inspections and other core pollution control work.
Secondly, officers at the SPCBs do not get to develop any specialisation. The CPCB has a decent workforce and robust laboratories, where scientists once recruited get to work and excel in a particular area such as biomedical waste or hazardous waste or air quality management. They are incentivised to specialise and are even promoted on the basis of it. On the other hand, SPCBs don’t have such a stratified system, and the same officer is in charge of all these pollution categories, making it impossible to gain expertise and excel in any one area.
Thirdly, SPCBs lack the necessary legal skills to take on polluters. While a legal cell may exist at the head office of a SPCB, they have few full-time public prosecutors there. In contrast, most other major government departments have a handful of public prosecutors posted in every district-level office. As a result, engineering graduates in district SPCB offices — with no training in law — have to don the hat of lawyers and develop legal paperwork that often falls short of holding polluters to account. Clerks and superintendents at courts often refuse to file cases, pointing at flaws that someone not trained in law would naturally make.
Fourthly, SPCBs are chronically underfunded. For instance, the funds of several SPCBs such as Haryana’s largely come from “No Objection Certificates” and “Consent to Operate” that the boards grant to industries and projects, rather than budgetary allocations by the government. Owing to this, SPCB officials are unable to spend on critical functions.
Finally, SPCB officials are at times given additional responsibilities that are unrelated to pollution control. Haryana’s SPCB, for instance, has poultry farms under its ambit.
Our fight on air pollution rests on the shoulders of these overworked, underfunded, multitasking professionals, who would be successful only if they were given a chance. India must empower SPCBs to act by giving them the necessary funds, human resources, tools and technologies. more