In a powerful ruling that could increase transparency and thus, industry compliance, India’s National Green Tribunal has directed all pollution control boards to chart and share detailed data from continuous emissions and effluents monitoring systems or OCEMS from specific polluting industrial units by April 9.

The tribunal, set up 11 years ago specifically for expeditious disposal of cases pertaining to environmental issues, was following up on a Supreme Court order from 2017 directing all Indian states to install OCEMS and make their industrial emissions data publicly available – something several states have still not done.

Last year, Indian non-profit Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment reported that of the 32 pollution control boards that were required to comply with the Supreme Court direction, half had not even created online continuous emission monitoring portals until 2020. Of the 16 states which have complied with the judgement, only 38% allow users to access and assess historical data, the initiative noted.

Subsequently, Indian environmental lawyer and LIFE founder Ritwick Dutta filed a case against four southern Indian states, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and the union territory of Puducherry, accusing them of non-compliance. This led to the March 9 ruling by the National Green Tribunal, which gave industry one month to comply with the Supreme Court’s direction.

Clean air advocates welcome ruling

The ruling was welcomed by citizen scientists and clean air advocates, who expect that making data on emission and effluents more transparent and accessible will help empower the public and drive change in the fifth most polluted country in the world.

“Brilliant directive,” tweeted Ronak Sutaria, data scientist and urban policy researcher who has been following this data – or the lack of it – since the Indian government started monitoring industrial emissions and effluents in rivers and lakes across the country in 2014.

The monitoring is done through OCEMS, which 17 categories of “highly polluting” industrial units are required by law to have. These “red” category of polluting industries include aluminium, zinc, copper plants, power and cement plants, distilleries, fertilisers, iron and steel plants, oil refineries, petrochemical and tanneries. Apart from the effluents, the emissions monitored under the OCEMS regulations include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and fluoride.

“Industrial pollution from notified high-polluting industries typically accounts for 30% to 50% of the total pollution experienced in most urban cities and towns,” said Sutaria, who runs, a low-cost real-time air quality monitoring network. “The OCEMS systems are the last checkpoints before these pollutants escape into our environment,” he explained.

The OCEMS is designed to continuously display emission levels from specific industries on the websites of the central and state pollution control boards where they are located. However, in a clear conflict of interest, it has been left to the polluting units themselves to self-monitor. Few have done it so far.

“In just the state of Maharashtra there are nearly 23,500 high pollution potential industries, while the total number of OCEMS installed in the entire country are around 4,000,” said Sutaria.

Furthermore, even the data collected by these roughly 4,000 OCEMS, said Chetan Bhattacharji, a journalist and clean air advocate, is largely inaccessible to the public. Bhattacharji trawled through “between 300 too 400” documented replies to questions asked by members of Parliament until October 2020 to come to this conclusion. In mid-March 2020, discussions in Parliament indicated that there were some 3,700 OCEMS installed in different industrial locations across the country. A month earlier, the central government had informed Parliament that the total number of targeted units was 4,245, he said.

A factory chimney billows out smoke near a bridge on the Yamuna River in New Delhi. Photo: AFP

Why real-time monitoring is important

Air pollution led to almost 1.7 million premature deaths in India in 2019 – much more than the current Covid-19 pandemic has caused. In addition to death, pollution also causes disease and disability. With long-term exposure to air pollution, tiny, lethal particulate matter is inhaled and goes deep into the lungs and on to other organs, gradually defeating the body’s defence mechanism. Exposure to toxic air causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, lung and other cancers, strokes, preterm birth, type-2 diabetes, and several other neurological and cognitive illnesses.

The breadth of health harm triggered by air pollution makes this real-time data from these OCEMS of critical importance.

Sutaria and Bhattacharji recently sought greater air pollution data transparency in a report published by an Indian research foundation. “Understanding of city-level air quality could be strengthened if residents who live in spaces where industries are present, are able to access information about industrial emissions in their areas,” the report stated.

Developed countries such as the United States and countries in the European Union make similar data freely available to the public enabling citizens to track industrial air pollution across the country, the report pointed out.

“The European Environmental Agency maintains the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) which contains industrial pollution data from more than 34,000 facilities across 33 EU countries,” the report said.

“Environmental groups have used such data to identify the air polluters in a region and have held them accountable, such as the Tata Steel plant in Netherlands...Overall, in the European countries, industrial pollution emissions have steadily gone down since 2007, when the datasets were first made available across the Union,” it added.

India can do a much better job in administering and regulating polluting industries, Sutaria and Bhattacharji argue. If the central and state pollution control boards strictly ensured data reporting integrity, the environment ministry could easily track polluters faster. Additionally, if the CPCB shared the data uploaded from industry with the public in a more accessible format, citizen vigilance could ensure better accountability.

“The data the OCEMS collect – inarguably vital for public health – remains opaque. It is either faulty, insufficient, complicated or difficult to access,” said Bhattacharji, who is on the governing board of clean air non-profit Care for Air and follows air pollution data closely. Sutaria and Bhattacharji argued that these thousands of monitors be immediately brought under a transparent regime where the data can be analysed, verified and reported.

“If 33 countries can collaborate to do this, one country, India, should easily be able do this across all its states,” said Sutaria.

Industry uses data opacity to block pollution control

In March, the Economic Times reported that the Central Pollution Control Board itself had cracked the whip on 1,631 “grossly polluting industries in the Yamuna basin,” 80% of which are non-compliant. They were asked to share their pollution data and connect to the CPCB server within three months.

But environmental policy researcher Dharmesh Shah said India’s pollution watchdogs have largely given up. “Empirically speaking, the Central and state pollution control board across India have effectively, and for all practical reasons, abandoned the notion of “controlling” pollution,” he said.

Geetanjoy Sahu of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences attributed this to the fact that political appointees who have no scientific or technical background are appointed to lead pollution control boards.

Clean air advocates argue if all the OCEMS data was publicly and transparently available, it would not just empower the populations most vulnerable to health harm from industrial pollution, but also strengthen the government’s own monitoring, helping it to geolocate where industrial pollution is coming from. In fact, if industry shared its data cleanly and ethically, it could even fill in existing gaps in ambient air pollution data, they say.

Until October 2020, the government owned just 234 continuous air pollution monitors (called Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Systems), the data from which serves as the basis for the AQI or national Air Quality Index. “By this yardstick, it is apparent that the scale of monitoring of pollutants is bigger in the country’s industrial sector,” said Bhattacharji, pointing out that this network at the source of pollution is roughly 10 times more dense than the number of CAAQMS the government owns.

CAAQMS and OCEMS differ only inasmuch as the latter is the emission at source, whereas the former is ambient, thus more dispersed and less homogenous. OCEMS can be very accurate, but it only tells us about industry sources, whereas CAAQMS tell us what citizens are actually breathing. Health advisories are made based on CAAQMS. Industry in most places contributes anywhere from 30% to 50% to ambient pollution, explain experts. By capturing emissions data at source, OCEMS could even help limit these sources.

A satellite image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed smog lingering over North India in 2019.

Inherent conflict in industry data, but still useful

There is a limitation with OCEMS data. As Bhattacharji explained, “The OCEMS network is regulated by the same regulatory body, the Central Pollution Control Board and monitors similar parameters as those covered by the CAAQMS. However, in the OCEMS, the commissioning and operations of the monitoring systems are left to the same industries which are themselves being monitored for their emissions.” This is akin to asking students to check their own exam papers.

But given that CPCB mandates which certified and standardised monitoring equipment industry can use, OCEMS data could be accurate, if uploaded with integrity as per regulations.

However, industry executives say most polluting units have a practice of maintaining double-entries for their OCEMS data. “They share one set of data to the regulator and another set of data from the OCEMS system which they use to monitor internally,” said an industry expert on the strict condition of anonymity. This makes the data subjective and challenging, despite the CPCB making random checks as part of its supervisory process.

Even this data, with all its flaws, is kept away from the public, behind locked systems. This is “because it is largely used as a tool to harass the industry. Until it is open and public, there is actually no point having more OCEMS,” said an engineer who is embedded in the air pollution ecosystem and works closely with the CPCB.

“The OCEMS is a broken system. At the core, OCEMS output needs to become answerable to the public,” the engineer added. “As it stands now, it is designed for failure. Supervisors are either bribed or beaten up.”

Building accountability

In spite of these challenges, clear air advocates say public access to OECMS data is important as it would encourage an understanding of the science behind pollution, especially by those affected by it. Communities can focus on the area where they live, become aware of the short- and long-term trends of industrial pollution in their neighbourhoods, and make certain decisions informed by the data.

Dutta’s petition seeks not just compliance of the SC directive by all units, but also public access to historic data, location coordinates of air quality monitoring stations – all of which would help create a central repository of OCEMS data, paid for by industry but owned by the public via the CPCB.

“These requests collectively embody a step towards defogging the opaque pollution reporting and management culture,” environmental policy researcher Dharmesh Shah recently wrote in The Wire. “For example, access to historic data is crucial in order to understand seasonal trends that could provide crucial information on factory emissions and help monitor the efficacy of pollution abatement measures, if any. Similarly, public knowledge on the location of pollution-monitoring infrastructure, for example air quality monitors, will help communities, who have a better and lived experience of pollution, in guiding the placement of such infrastructure.”

To combat any tinkering of the data by industry, experts say communities must be allowed to own, manage and monitor the data. There is a strong case for open data on air quality in India, they argue, especially given that India is home to 14 of the top 20 cities in the world with the worst particulate matter levels. Day-to-day monitoring of air quality is vital for people, particularly the vulnerable like the elderly and children, and those with health conditions like asthma and heart disease.

This gap in data is exactly what geospatial data intelligence startups in India seek to fill – by overlaying satellite data into incomplete or faulty ground level data provided by OCEMS at emission points such as industrial chimney stacks.

“We have been monitoring all Indian power plants and large industries. We are still developing and perfecting and refining models,” said Abhilasha Purwar, Founder and CEO, Blue Sky Analytics, a startup building environmental monitoring products.

“As of now we can only monitor industries of certain larger resolutions but that will change as new satellites go up the orbit. We still need ground data, ground monitoring, CEMS for calibration purposes for sure,” which isn’t available or accessible at present, she added. The NGT ruling may help change that.

This ground data is still essential to build accountability into the system. “Companies like ours can overlay this with satellite data and use modelling to widen the breadth of such information,” Purwar said.

With data as key, the nemesis for industry’s rampant pollution may yet be around the corner.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a journalist and author whose non-fiction memoir about the human cost of air pollution, Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health, was published by Hachette in November 2020.