India’s apex pollution watchdog has finally come out with new norms to help authorities decide whether an industrial cluster is “critically polluted".

Announcing the norms, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) also ordered strict air and water quality monitoring.

But in the process of updating the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI), the board has done away with criteria such as the potential impact on the health of people as it felt that these cannot be measured objectively, are time consuming and cost too much.

These factors figured in the previous CEPI, which was based on the effect of industrial clusters on air, water, land, health and ecology. They also served as a yardstick to assess progress in tackling pollution in such areas.

Authorities have long sought to regulate environmental standards at industrial clusters, the definition of which varies from state to state.

In 2009, CPCB, in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, carried out environmental assessments of 88 industrial clusters across India.

Of the 88 clusters, 43 whose CEPI scores were 70 or higher were declared as critically polluted areas (CPAs) while 32 were described as seriously polluted areas (SPAs). (A higher score, on a scale of 0 to 100, indicates a greater degree of pollution.)

In January 2010, during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the environment ministry imposed a moratorium on building any development projects in those areas.

So far, the pollution control board has undertaken monitoring activity in the 43 critically polluted areas in 2009, 2011 and 2013. But in June 2014, the environment ministry under the newly elected National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government asked the board to “reassess" the index within a year.

The pollution board claimed that several state governments, industrial associations and other entities had repeatedly requested the board to reassess the index. The order to reassess the index followed moves by both the UPA and NDA government to lift the moratorium from several critically polluted areas to facilitate industry.

In September 2015, the board came out with a watered down version of the index, proposing to do away consideration of factors such as the impact on people and eco-geological features, citing the absence of reliable data (mintne.ws/1ISaqo7).

With CEPI 2016—released in the last week of April—the index will be calculated on the basis of factors such as the scale of industrial activity, status of ambient environment (air, surface water and groundwater) quality, health related statistics (drawn from major hospitals of the area being studied) and compliance status of industries.

Experts say doing away with the criteria of “potentially affected populations in a cluster" and replacing it with health data drawn from major hospitals will not give a complete picture.

As part of the new norms, the central board has written to all State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) asking them to install continuous ambient air quality and real time water monitoring stations.

States have also been asked to put the CEPI scores of critically polluted areas in the public domain and implement action plans—short-, medium- and long-term—that would restore the environmental quality of those industrial clusters and bring down their CEPI score. The action plan, the central board said, should be reviewed periodically to monitor the progress of implementation.

The board also asked state governments to issue public advisories declaring that such critically polluted industrial clusters are only meant for industrial activity. It also said that the new norms can now be applied to locations other than industrial clusters in order to calculate pollution levels.

The pollution watchdog has asked SPCBs to inform it about the action they have taken by the end of June.

The new norms mean factors like potentially affected populations in a cluster and the assessment of health impact will not now be considered.

The central board felt that measuring them objectively will need reliable health impact studies on humans, flora and fauna, which in turn will be expensive, time consuming and complex in the absence of representative data.

Environmentalists warned the new norms are merely a dilution of the present environmental norms and designed to clear more industrial projects. They expressed concern that the new norms could affect millions of people living in and around industrial clusters. CPCB is under the environment ministry and is headed by one of its joint secretaries.

“If CPCB is unable to assess the parameters it does not mean the impact doesn’t exist or affect people. It would be instead better for CPCB to collaborate with organizations who have the methodologies to assess such impacts. Otherwise what is the point of understanding and calculating pollution if you can’t relate it to the impact on both living and non-living beings?" said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Namati Environmental Justice Programme of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization working on a range of policies, including environmental issues.

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