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An air quality rating system is launched in the state on World Environment Day to make data from 20,000 samples publicly available

Maharashtra that has over 75,000 polluting industrial units gets an air quality rating system to tackle air pollution.

Maharashtra that has over 75,000 industrial units gets an air quality rating system to tackle air pollution. (Image by Ravikant Sharma/J Pal, South Asia)

In January this year, a report estimated that air pollution kills 1.2 million Indians each year and takes 3% off the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The levels of the most dangerous airborne pollutants grew by 13% in India between 2010 and 2015, the report by environmental NGO Greenpeace added.

“Even though pollution levels are increasing across the country, the emphasis so far has been on Delhi. There has been a growing realisation that the majority of Delhi’s pollution is coming from outside its borders and that pollution levels in other states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are also increasing,” it further said.

The fact that air pollution is now a real threat has also been corroborated by industry bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). At a recent conference in New Delhi, it stated that 10 Indian cities are among the top 20 most polluted cities in the world and these include Ludhiana and nearby Khanna in Punjab. Rapid urbanisation has been cited as one of the key drivers of air pollution.

With air pollution worsening in India, there has been a sharp rise in the number of chest and throat disease. Together, they caused around 1.1 million premature deaths in 2015 and now the country rivals China for the highest air pollution health burden in the world.

To address this growing threat, researchers from the University of Chicago, Harvard University and Yale University worked with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) to launch the first-of-its-kind five-star rating system in India to measure pollution. The initiative will make data from approximately 20,000 stack samples over multiple years publicly available.

The aim is to give government and the people the ability to see exactly where pollution is coming from, with the hope that this increased transparency leads to decreased pollution. Depending upon their performance on the pollution front, all factories will be given a rating of between one and five stars.

The new section of the MPCB website that provides this data was launched by Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on June 5, World Environment Day. “We are working on finding new solutions to confronting the issue of air pollution. People must be aware of the air quality in their area and must have easy access to air pollution data collected by state regulators. This exemplary effort by MPCB will engage civil society,” Fadnavis said at the launch.

“MPCB’s programme is path-breaking by providing the public with critical information and rigorously testing its impact on pollution emissions,” said Michael Greenstone, one of the project leaders and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “We are excited to partner with MPCB, a global leader, to measure the benefits of this programme for the people of Maharashtra.”

“This is an opportunity for Maharashtra — which is one of the fastest-growing industrialised states in India and also one that has in recent years been extremely keen on good governance — to take the lead on defining how a star-ratings scheme can function, and to show how just providing information and possibly positive role models in terms of 5-star industries can lead to better performance,” said Rohini Pande, another project leader and director of Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard University.

Earlier, MPCB conducted workshops with industries to introduce them to the programme, and their response was encouraging. “The industry stakeholders were keen to learn more about their rating and requested guidance on how to decrease their pollution emissions,” said Satish Gavai, head of MPCB. “We think this will also improve the ease of doing business, as information on industry environmental performance will be more easily available.”

“We look forward to initiating more creative ways of environmental stewardship, and are working with academic partners to test the effectiveness of programmes like this one,” said P. Anbalagan, Member Secretary, MPCB.

The programme has been developed in collaboration with Tata Trusts, the International Growth Centre, Private Enterprise Development in Low-Income Countries and USAID.

Explaining what prompted this initiative, Anant Sudarshan, Director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC-India), told that the star-rating programme deals specifically with industrial air pollution, so it is appropriate to start with Maharashtra, the country’s most industrialised state.

India’s most polluted city

Although Delhi’s air pollution has hit alarming rates in the recent past, the capital is not the most polluted city in India, according to real time data tabulated by Worldwide Air Quality index in November 2016. In fact, the most polluted city in the country is Chandrapur in Maharashtra with its Air Quality Index (AQI) at 824, followed by Varanasi at 771 and Lucknow at 651. Delhi is currently the fourth in the list to have the poor air quality with an AQI of 475. This is followed by Agra with 466. See: India’s smaller cities more polluted than Delhi

Maharashtra has over 75,000 industries. Out of these, 12,500 industries have been identified as those with high pollution potential. The star rating programme has begun as a pilot among some of these industries, with the intention to expand if found successful.

Collating and compiling data from 20,000 samples over multiple years was extremely challenging, recounts Sudarshan. While the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) had collated about half the data, the rest was either in hard or soft copies distributed across MPCB regional offices. All that had to be collected and placed in one format.

Usefulness of the scheme

Making pollution data publicly available is an effective way to control emissions, says Sudarshan. This has been the experience in the United States Toxic Release Inventory initiative, the Programme for Pollution Control, Evaluation and Rating (PROPER) in Indonesia, as well as schemes in China, Philippines and Vietnam.

Disclosure and rating schemes work by making industries aware of their own performance relative to peers. Informing the public and workers about the environmental performance of industries in their neighbourhoods helps a great deal. This is the rationale behind creating a system that encourages continuous and timely data flow to the regulator. It has been found that factories that have reduced pollution will actively seek out the opportunity to be audited so that their ratings may be updated.

Currently, the star rating scheme is designed to be implemented across a large number of industries and has therefore been conceived as a state level scheme. Modified versions could also be implemented in some heavily industrialised cities. Sudarshan says the current focus is only on the launch in Maharashtra. “We want to ensure that the programme is set up for success in one state. Most importantly, this scheme has been designed for rigorous evaluation of outcomes including detailed plant surveys. Based on this information and on the initial response, we would certainly encourage other state pollution control boards to implement such a programme.”

Sudarshan believes market based environmental regulation is the most effective way to reduce industrial pollution while minimising the cost to industry. But transparent and reliable data is essential if the emissions trading market is to work, and this is a step in that direction.

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