How KSPCB can get pollution monitoring right

The collection of air quality data has to be extensive, and in conditions that can genuinely assess the risks to the public. KSPCB has a chance to improve its functioning for better quality.

With rising concerns about air quality in the city, a number of private citizens have begun measuring pollutant levels in the atmosphere, and are publishing them. The Karnataka Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), which is tasked with monitoring air quality and protecting the public from the health risks of poor air, disputes these measurements, arguing that these are taken by un-certified sensors.

That’s true, but it’s also not the end of the matter. The problem is quite simple – secrecy is the weakness of pollution control efforts in the country. The government has taken the view that it will collect its own data, that this is the only reliable data, that it will itself certify the data, that no scientists other than its own can even be allowed to scrutnise it, and that the public surely will not have access to any of it. This is not a stance that breeds confidence or trust.

Especially because everyone can see, quite plainly, that the air and water are both quite contaminated, and in many places the contamination poses serious risks to human health. The evidence on water quality in particular is awful. When the lake is on fire, it’s hard to believe that anti-pollution efforts are working.

Given the huge gulf between what people can see for themselves and the official version, the public has come to a fairly simple conclusion – the pollution control authorities are not doing their jobs, and cannot be taken seriously. Instead, citizens must work with the assumption that they have to look out for themselves.

Now, let’s see what happens when a few interested persons begin to collect their own data and introduce it into this volatile mix of secrecy and distrust.

The Pollution Control Boards and the Lake Development Authority have no choice but to cry foul when someone else begins to do their job, but they’re on a weak wicket doing so. They can only claim that amateurs collecting data are not certified, but they can’t claim that they are wrong. To convince the public that the amateurs are wrong, the PCBs first need to be seen to be doing the job right. Without this, they are at a huge disadvantage. They can put out a few disclaimers and even discredit private data collection, but no one is convinced.

The way out of the maze

There’s only one way out of it. The pollution monitoring has to improve in four distinct ways. The collection of air quality data has to be extensive, and in conditions that can genuinely assess the risks to the public. Fields and terraces and towers are fine for ambient data collection, but the hazards have to be measured at street level, in busy intersections, in peak hours. Likewise in industrial areas. Likewise for water quality – it has to be regular, in every water body, and in pipes throughout the supply system, as well as in treatment plants.

Only when this happens will anyone begin to have confidence in the official measurements. But even that will not be sufficient. Second, the data has to be public and in real-time. The correct excuse that data must be ‘processed’ and ‘curated’ to ensure its accuracy sounds more like it is being distorted to hide its accuracy. Even if initially the authorities get a lot of flak, in the long run they would be better off being transparent and responding to what the data is actually telling us.

Third, there should be credible programs of intervention in response to the data, with budgetary support for them. These should have targets that are sought to be met, and public records of measurements of progress. That will allow us to also judge whether we have correctly identified the problems, and whether proposed solutions are working.

And finally, the pollution control regime will benefit from private expertise and public participation. The Boards of the regulatory agencies should include scientists, and their work should include regular meetings with members of the public. There could even be members nominated by scientific societies or federations of residents in particularly risk-prone areas. Many public problems become easier to address when we increase the number of people involved in finding solutions – a sarkar-only system is weak by definition, whereas a participatory one has many potential disadvantages.

All of this is perfectly doable, and quickly too. The only thing missing so far is the willingness to take these steps, and until the authorities change their minds about that, they cannot complain about citizens taking their own steps to do the job themselves.

The author is an atmospheric scientist who has worked in NASA.

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