Yagya in Meerut against polluted air: Pollution control boards need empowering, selective disdain won't clean up environment
The yagna in Meerut against air pollution has evoked strong reactions. However, for a lasting solution, a structural framework and implementation of laws is needed.
Is it still possible to look at a religious activity without either fanatic love or complete disdain? To understand what’s going on inside a large tent on Bhainsali ground in Meerut Cantt, one has to revisit moderation and push both love and hate to the margins.
Here’s the story: Shri Ayutchandi Mahayagna Samiti, a Hindu organisation from the Indian heartland, has summoned 350 priests from across the country to offer one crore aahutis or oblations of cow ghee dropped over 50,000 logs of mango wood in 108 holy pits. Why? The alchemists at work from 7 am to 6 pm everyday believe that the ozone layer above India is the thickest because of the Hindu yagyas or sacrificial fires that fumigate and purify the tropical air.
Rupak Agarwal, a member of the organising committee and a resident of Meerut, told us that the group had taken a letter of permission from the ADM and paid a fee of Rs 1.30 lakh to the local authorities. Along with this, he said that an NOC had also been obtained from the fire department. Ask him if this will in fact leave the air more polluted at the end and he answered with a question, “What about holika dahan (sacred pyre lit a night before Holi) which takes place every year? What about the thousands of weddings that take place across the country? Sacred fires have been a part of our sanatan dharam (Hindi code of conduct) and the cow ghee, sesame and oil are not harmful.” Agarwal asked why a religious event like this one is attracting such intrigue about air pollution when a kilometre long stretch near his house in Meerut is a permanent cremation ground for stolen and discarded automobiles. In bulk, dead vehicles are burnt so they can be reduced to metal and be of some use.
If anything needs to be contested, it is the lack of an unwavering law that prohibits action that may pose a threat to clean air and a body to enforce it. Right now, there seems to be a problem on both fronts. The first part of the problem is centered on the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. A unit discharging air pollution, like a hotel or an industry, requires consent to operate under the Act. However, the law cannot deal with leaf or wood burning on the street.
Ritwick Dutta, who is an environmental lawyer and the managing trustee for the organisation Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, told Firstpost that the state pollution boards need to issue notifications on activities like leaf burning under the said Act. Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPCCB) has also issued notifications on ban on leaf and garbage burning. “Now, the grey area is that burning dry leaf may have been prohibited but burning wood isn’t because people use wood for cooking. There is no limit set on the quantity of wood,” said Dutta, explaining that the sensitive link to tradition makes it harder for alternate measures to be legally imposed. After Odisha’s Rath Yatra, wooden carts are burnt and remade each year. However, unless green alternatives are devised, there can be no resolution.
Dutta pointed out that the serious lacuna in the law is that for action to be taken against somebody under the Air Act, a complaint has to be filed and the person has to appear before a judicial magistrate and face a trial. Think about air for a second. Its disposition changes every hour, every day. How will evidence be recorded? “Virtually nobody has been convicted in the Air Act until now. Just like the traffic police issues a chalaan on skipping a red light, punishment should be instant.”
Rahul Chaudhary, another environmental lawyer, shared Ritwick’s concerns. He said that from the pollution control board’s perspective, the process of taking permission from the pollution control boards should be strengthened. Regarding the yagya going on in Meerut, he has a question not for the organisers but for the pollution board: “The entire state of Uttar Pradesh is considered an air-pollution-controlled area, which means whatever activity happens comes under the Act. If straw and garbage burning is prohibited then how can they allow wood burning on a massive scale?”
Now to the second aspect of the problem: Are the pollution control boards empowered enough to take punitive action? The Ganga judgment (MC Mehta vs Union of India, pronounced on 13 July 2017) made these shocking revelations about the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board:
"UPPCB’s organizational strengths have not kept pace with its mandate. The UPPCB could not present any inventory of polluting sources, and rather just relied on the consent data. The inaccuracy of such data was evident from the level of non-compliances observed at various industries and also, identification of several polluting industries at Moradabad during the proceedings. Significantly, data validation among different state government agencies like UPSSIDC, industries department and Electricity authorities is missing. e. Lack of research and technology appraisal activities. The UPPCB has no specialized cell or group or trained manpower for research, technology appraisal or standard development activities. There is no broad environmental quality 362 monitoring network which has been scientifically designed. Similarly there was no proper recording and compilation of the available environmental quality data besides analysis and interpretation thereof."
Air monitoring too is a complicated issue. Ravi Shekhar runs The Climate Agenda, an NGO working on the impact of pollution on health in north India, which is installing air monitoring devices in 43 districts of Uttar Pradesh. These are tied to the android app AirVeda. “The idea was to share with people a live feed of the pollution levels in their neighborhood and instill in them the idea that awareness about the quality of air they are breathing is both a right and a duty,” he said. Some of the areas the NGO runs its devices from include the chief minister’s district Gorakhpur along with forest minister Dara Singh Chauhan’s Azamgarh. “The Central Pollution Control Board should be doing live monitoring. Unfortunately, government-backed monitoring of PM2.5 levels hasn’t happened,” Shekhar alleged.
The UPPCB’s website flashes ambient air quality records from 24 cities but these cities are covered under the old Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations CAAQM system of testing. This system uses a small device with filter paper whose reports are sent to labs. “These need to be converted into National Air Quality Monitoring NAAQM which is live. As of now, live air quality is monitored in Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi and Agra and implementation is going on in the industry heavy Noida, Ghaziabad and Moradabad,” said Shekhar, alleging that in Varanasi, where he is based, the pollution control board’s office is understaffed. He added that a staff of four works from nine districts. With so much talk on data collection and protection, it seems data on clean air doesn’t top the government’s list of priorities.
According to a Greenpeace India 2015 report, out of India’s 89 cities with more than 5 lakh people, only 17 are covered by the continuous air quality monitoring system. Among the most polluted cities and without continuous data on live air quality index were Durgapur, Gorakhpur, Asansol, Shiliguri, Bareilly and Ludhiana. Overall, India’s National Air Quality network, with only 39 operating stations, compares poorly with China’s 1500 stations.
In 2016, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published a report proposing a clean air action plan after the Capital choked on black smog in the winter months. The report concluded that there is no clear framework to meet the national ambient air quality standards. ‘There is still no clear assessment of the contribution of pollution from sources outside Delhi. The seasonal incidents of farm fires in Punjab and Haryana have brought the matter of trans-boundary movement of pollution to the forefront, catalysing inter-state coordination. But this demands a regional action plan to address more dispersed pollution sources.’
Instead of criticising the belief system that seeks solace in smoke, it would be more effective to strengthen the law and the enforcement agencies who scan put check on the creation of smoke.
Air is not where the battle of ideologies is to be fought!
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