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New Delhi: Citing the absence of reliable qualitative data, the central pollution watchdog is proposing to do away with consideration of factors such as the impact on people and eco-geological features while deciding whether an industrial cluster is critically polluted or not.

The move by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is likely to be welcomed by industries who have been seeking environmental clearance for their projects in industrial clusters that have been classed as critically-polluted areas.

Their projects were denied the nod, as the environment ministry does not clear any new developmental projects that could increase pollution in critically-polluted areas.

Environmentalists said the move, aimed at making it easy to do business in India, dilutes environmental norms and could affect the lives of millions living in such industrial clusters. They also criticised the fact that the pollution board is headed by a joint secretary in the environment ministry, as the post of CPCB chairman has been lying vacant for nearly three-and-a-half years.

The National Democratic Alliance government has promised to simplify green norms for the ease of business. Since assuming power in May 2014, the environment ministry, headed by minister Prakash Javadekar, has lifted a moratorium on industrial units in nine critically-polluted industrial clusters. Importantly, it also asked CPCB in June 2014 to “reassess" the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) within a year.

Dating back to 2009, the CEPI was based on the effect of industrial clusters on air, water, land, health and ecology. It was used as a measure for a pan-India environmental assessment of 88 prominent industrial clusters conducted by the pollution board. As a result of the exercise, 43 industrial clusters with a CEPI score of 70 and higher (on a scale of 0 to 100) were identified as critically-polluted areas. In January 2010 during the United Progressive Alliance’s tenure, the environment ministry imposed a moratorium on consideration of any developmental project in those areas.

The CPCB is proposing to overhaul the factors on which the CEPI score is calculated and critically-polluted areas are decided. “The present methodology on evaluation of CEPI score has been a matter of discussion on various occasions including during the national-level conferences as well as regular meetings of State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) and other stakeholders," said the draft of the revised CEPI version, drawn up this year.

The draft said calculation of factors such as a proposed project’s impact on people, on eco-geological features and potentially affected population —all part of the existing CEPI— needs reliable health impact studies on humans, flora and fauna.

The CPCB is now proposing a revision of the CEPI norms, saying health studies require huge funds, are time consuming and complex due to difficulties in finding truly representative data.

“After careful examination and consideration of the suggestions of stakeholders concerned, it is decided to prepare the revised concept of CEPI by eliminating the subjective factors but retaining the factors which can be measured precisely," the draft proposal added.

Eco-geological features include water bodies (rivers, lakes, ponds), ecological parks, sanctuaries, any ecologically sensitive zones and buildings or monuments of historical, archaeological or religious significance.

The CPCB has sought the views and suggestions of all SPCBs, state governments where the 43 critically polluted clusters are located, concerned central ministries, academic institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technology and other stakeholders on the draft of the revised CEPI.

The revised CEPI will be based on sources of pollution, real-time observed values of the pollutants in the ambient air, surface water and ground water in and around the industrial cluster and health-related statistics. The health component will be evaluated based on health data drawn from major hospitals in the area.

This would mean, for instance, that for measuring air pollution, experts will consider the total number of hospital cases related to asthma, bronchitis, respiratory cancer, and acute respiratory infections. Similarly, for surface water and ground water pollution, cases related to gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, kidney malfunction, and cancer would be considered. Officials studying a project will take into account the previous five years’ medical records drawn from 3-5 major hospitals in the area.

Environmentalists criticized the draft proposals, saying authorities should not rely upon quantitative data alone.

“On the one hand, green regulatory bodies like the National Green Tribunal are trying to expand the air pollution monitoring norms and on the other side we have such cases. It is unfortunate that CPCB is trying to dilute the CEPI parameters. In my view both qualitative and quantitative criteria are equally important," said Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental advocate in the Supreme Court of India and managing partner of the Enviro Legal Defence Firm, an environmental law firm that also takes up training, education, publishing and outreach work.

“Just because CPCB does not have the necessary human resource to measure them, it is no case for diluting the norms. They should instead try to increase their capacity, as there is enough human resource competence in India to measure the qualitative criteria. It also shows the kind of priority of CPCB, which is supposed to be the guiding institution of the country against pollution," Upadhyay added.

However, a senior CPCB official, who did not wish to be named, said a final decision has not been taken on the proposals. The official added, “How can you score an industrial cluster on the basis of factors which are subjective and cannot be measured in absolute terms? How can one stall industrial projects on such basis? It is an effort only to correct anomalies in the present system."

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