On November 1, the capital of India reported the worst Air Quality Index value of 424 in 24 hours. Along with Delhi, several other cities in north India face high levels of air pollution almost every year. When the onslaught of smog begins, these states rush to take short-term measures to get immediate relief, as Delhi is doing now – banning construction activities, asking people to work from home etc. But what they have been ignoring is the human-resource crisis in pollution control bodies that are supposed to plan and execute long-term solutions for controlling air pollution.

State Pollution Control Boards in India lack expertise and function with a human resource crunch, indicates a recent report published by the Centre for Policy Research in October 2022. In this working paper, the New Delhi-based think tank highlighted the situation in State Pollution Control Boards of nine states (Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal) and the State Pollution Control Committee of the Union Territory of Delhi. All these states and Union Territory fall under the Indo-Gangetic plains that covers the region starting from Punjab to West Bengal. This region frequently faces high levels of air and water pollution.

According to documents from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, towns in North India, especially the Indo-Gangetic plains, have higher concentrations of ambient particulate matter than other parts of India.

The report reveals factors ailing pollution watchdogs in these states include staff shortage, especially the technical staff, the dominance of government officials, politicians and the like on these boards, less space for air quality management experts etc.

State Pollution Control Boards were constituted under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974. Later, their mandate expanded to air pollution, noise pollution, regulation of plastic, waste, and e-waste management, among others. These are autonomous bodies in states with the powers of giving and managing consent to industries to operate, set emissions and effluents standards, monitor compliance of standards and enforcing adherence to environmental norms.

In its report, the Centre for Policy Research analysed the constitution of the State Pollution Control Boards, the background of selecting chairpersons of these boards, strength, and qualifications of the team of these boards who collectively make decisions for the board to tackle pollution in their respective states.

Vacant technical posts

The report says that seven out of eight pollution control boards reported more than 40% of staff vacancies in the technical category. Bihar, Haryana, and Jharkhand reported the highest vacancies of technical officials, including environmental engineers and scientists. In Jharkhand, 84% of technical posts are vacant.

A polluted road in Talcher adjacent to a railway siding where truckloads of coals are loaded into trains. Credit: Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

The report claimed that most state pollution control boards lack representation of civil society, academia, and public health experts. As per the rule under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, these boards should have at least two members with special knowledge or practical experience in air quality management. However, this has not been the case in most of these states, the report highlights.

“The board members are often representatives of corporations, industry associations and municipal bodies which are potential polluters. While they are stakeholders, there is a clear possibility of conflict of interest. On the other hand, these boards lack representation of those with technical expertise who can solve complex problems,” Shibani Ghosh, a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and one of the authors of the report, told Mongabay-India. The report claimed that in states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, pollution control boards do not have members with technical expertise.

Regarding the chairman and member secretary, the report claimed that most of these posts were filled with persons who have served in government departments. Many of those in the leadership posts were given the job as additional charges.

As per the report’s finding, the tenure of the chairpersons of these bodies varies. Many of these officials did not get sufficient time to conceptualise and deliver long-term plans. The data collected by the Centre for Policy Research team claimed that the regional offices of the boards also suffer from staff crunch. It said that some regional offices have only one or two executive engineers. In this human resource situation, the boards have tasks well beyond their capacity such as, they are bound to issue as many as 800 consents to operate (given to industry) annually.

The Centre for Policy Research used Right to Information applications to collect this information about the strength of staff at these institutions. Shibani Ghosh told Mongabay-India, “We used several tools to gather information on the functioning of these.”

“We filed RTIs in these State Pollution Control Boards to find out information on the sanctioned strength of the staff, the vacancy numbers, qualifications of board leadership and members, and other issues. We relied on the publicly available data on these bodies and conducted interviews with several people in senior leadership positions in the boards. We also referred to earlier reports on the issue including by government agencies and the Parliamentary Standing Committee,” she said.

Data on the composition of state pollution control boards. Credit: The State of India’s Pollution Control Boards report by Center for Policy Research.

Long-term solutions

The air quality index reaching dangerous levels has become a yearly phenomenon in India. During winter, many cities in North India face the problem of smog which impacts health. Around 17.8% of India’s annual deaths are due to air pollution. The pollution also impacts women and children.

A study published this year on the impact of air pollution in India claimed that with higher exposure to Particulate Matter 2.5, the chances of infant mortality increases. Another analysis by Greenpeace, last year, found that in Delhi alone, due to increased exposure to air pollutants, there were 54,000 premature deaths in 2020. A recent study also found a relationship between air pollution and increased anaemia among women of reproductive age.

Experts on air pollution say that it is time for different State Pollution Control Boards to come together and tackle air pollution, which needs a more regional collaborative approach.

The Executive Director at the Centre for Science and Environment, Anumita Roy Choudhury, said that the Centre for Policy Research report highlighted the fault lines in the functioning of the pollution boards and suggested the areas where reforms are needed.

She also talked about the need for regional collaborations of multiple pollution boards. “Usually, we have city-based action plans, but conditions like air pollution do not get confined to any specific cities alone. So, we need broader city action plans where the contribution of air pollutants coming from other neighbouring states gets factored in. In many cases, the boards must come together to counter the regional pollution issues and shun the habit of working in silos.”

Ajay Deshpande is the adjunct professor from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He said that while many of these boards suffer from several other problems, some of the mandated works, like setting standards on many environmental issues, are often not taken care of by them.

The Centre for Policy Research report is not the only one which highlights fault lines in the functioning of the . There is also a parliamentary standing committee report claiming that under the air pollution monitoring programmes, 332 monitoring stations were mandated to monitor emissions of several air pollutants. The report found that many of these centres are not working properly or updating data. It also raised several other fault lines of these State Pollution Control Boards.

Strength of technical experts (engineers and scientists) in Pollution Control Boards of different states. Credit: The State of India’s Pollution Control Boards report by Center for Policy Research

Experts opine that without tackling these issues, the country cannot deal with these yearly air pollution phenomena. India aims to reduce the hazardous air pollutant PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 20% by 2024. To achieve this, the federal government launched the National Clean Air Programme in 2018.

When asked how this human resource crisis will affect India’s target of reducing air pollutants by 2024, Anumita Roy Choudhury from Centre for Policy Research told Mongabay-India, “We need strong institutions given the challenge of air pollution and the kind of actions we want to take. We need strong institutions with strong technical capabilities and overall strengthening. This is the main takeaway of theCentre for Policy Research report too.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.