Delhi can’t fight pollution with the current institutional apparatus – analysis

Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities. You would expect this to be regulated and reversed by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC). The problem is that DPCC can’t do so because its team of environmental engineers and scientists are hugely overworked and the organisation is collapsing due to decades of poor management. This is not unique to Delhi — many state pollution control boards (SPCBs) face a similar crisis.

Look at DPCC’s recruitment. Several positions were created in 1998, but environmental engineers, crucial to its working, could not be hired and confirmed because it took 16 years to frame the recruitment rules. So, Delhi lost an opportunity to nip air pollution in the bud in the late 1990s, when it was already a problem. Today, there is provision for 48 junior environmental engineers, but none have been recruited.

There’s just no sense of urgency. Nobody has the time either. Delhi’s environment secretary is also the chairperson of DPCC. That makes sense, except often, the environment secretary holds multiple charges. Two past secretaries simultaneously headed the Delhi Jal Board, a full-time job in itself. Some have had to deal with conflict of interest, with dual charge as health secretary. The board of DPCC has discussed fining government hospitals for violation of the biomedical waste rules, but the secretary found it hard to let one avatar of himself penalise another avatar.

Most often, the DPCC chairperson lacks the time to focus on full-time duties. A robust organisation might perform with an able deputy — the member secretary (MS), in this case. Unfortunately, MSs at DPCC are frequently posted out. They need to have a three to five year tenure in order to hold the organisation accountable.

Even with these changes, core institutional reforms remain non-negotiable. The legal cell is manned by a tiny team without technical expertise; so, environmental engineers and scientists also work on hundreds of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) filed against DPCC. This takes them away from their core work, the negligence of which causes the PIL to be filed in the first place.

If the terms of work are brutal, so are working conditions. Many joined in 1993 or so. They have been promoted only twice in about 27 years of service. If they are lucky, they will get one more promotion. In the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), a 1993 batch officer would have got between four to five promotions by now. Surely, with so many positions now available, existing high-performing candidates can be promoted and new ones recruited. During these hyper-polluted days, not only do officials work during the day, but the same individuals also go for night inspections. By 2025, many of these officials will have retired.

DPCC cadres have much to be demotivated about. Due to negligence, even those who could have been given a pension (those who joined before 2004), won’t be getting one. This isn’t hard to set right, as a few pollution control boards of some other states have shown. Delhi’s pollution engineers and scientists don’t even have medical facilities on par with the Central Government Health Scheme. The Delhi Government Health Scheme should be made available to them.

Delhi — and India — cannot fight pollution without technical and scientific personnel. Like most SPCBs, DPCC has also been hit by multi-decade mismanagement. It’s location in a city most notorious for its pollution should be a reason to accelerate urgent change. The Delhi government should not look at the lost decades. Reform doesn’t need funds — DPCC is a self-financing body. Within this financial year, it can complete the recruitment of the pending 48 junior environmental engineers, formalise seniorities, institutionalise health care and enhance the legal cell. For clean air, we must reinvigorate the Capital’s and the country’s pollution control apparatus. There are no short-cuts.

Bharati Chaturvedi is founder, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. She also serves on the board of DPCC
The views expressed are personal

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