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Maharashtra pollution board high on funds, low on staff, equipment

For two years now, Maharashtra’s pollution control agency did not use 80% of the funds given to it to reduce air, water and noise pollution, HT has found

mumbai Updated: May 14, 2017 01:23 IST
Badri Chatterjee
pollution

The overburdened Deonar dumping ground.

For two years now, Maharashtra’s pollution control agency did not use 80% of the funds given to it to reduce air, water and noise pollution, HT has found.

The agency is also grossly understaffed and poorly equipped to study the rising pollution levels and come up with solutions, responses to a Right To Information plea filed by an activist have revealed.

In 2015-16, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) got Rs393.8 crore from the government; it spent only Rs68.26 crore. In 2016-17, of the Rs350 crore it got, only Rs80 crore was spent. For 2017-18, the department has set a budget of Rs150 crore. While the MPCB has funds at its disposal, Mumbai continues to face a number of pollution problems, including overflowing dumping grounds, increasing pollution in the air we breathe, rising noise levels and heavily polluted water along our coast.

Many recent studies have pointed out just how big Mumbai’s pollution problem is.

One study found untreated sewage was being released into the sea along Mumbai, and that the water at the mouth of the Mithi river had pollution levels 13 times the safe limit laid out by the Central Pollution Control Board.

Another study said untreated industrial waste was pumped from the Taloja industrial area into the Kasadi river.

This has raised pollution levels to 13 times the safe limit.

A similar situation was observed at the Ulhas river, in which industrial waste from the Ambernath industrial area is dumped.

MPCB officials maintained that sizeable funds have been allocated for different projects in 2017.

“Earlier, money was being spent on projects such as the National Water and Air Quality Monitoring programmes. Now, we have prepared an action plan to rejuvenate 10 polluted rivers in the state, develop air quality monitoring stations and map noise in 27 cities. Money was spent on procuring equipment for all these studies. We will also carry out a state-wide pollution-related health study. Each of these projects will cost us roughly Rs60 crore,” said P Anbalagan, member secretary, MPCB.

Environmentalists, however, said the MPCB was being casual with the environment and the people’s health.

“The state has intentionally kept the department understaffed, so that illegal money from violating laws can come in. This is to encourage illegal activities, as it will generate money under the table and people in vital posts cannot refute this activity,” said Stalin D, director, NGO Vanashakti.

Pollution watchdogs from Pune also had similar views. “Despite being the top pollution abatement authority, MPCB is one of the most lethargic government departments. As far as river or air pollution is concerned, they have not understood the definition of pollution or they pretend to do so,” said Sarang Yadwadkar, an architect and environmentalist who has filed a number of applications with the National Green Tribunal, Pune.

Not only is the MPCB not using funds allotted to it, it is also struggling to fill vacant posts, especially that of scientific officers. So what is troubling the agency? A response from MPCB to a Right To Information (RTI) application filed by an activist who requested not to be named revealed

The RTI response said there were 249 vacant posts. Of a total of 840 openings, 591 were filled. Fifteen posts of regional officer across the state lay vacant, 36 of sub-regional officers and 32 of regional inspectors are also empty.

The department has few scientific officers to analyse environmental issues being faced by Mumbai and Maharashtra. While there is a principal scientific officer, the posts of the senior scientific officer, junior scientific officers and junior scientific assistants all lay vacant.

Officials said the figures released through RTI were slightly dated, as they recently approved 702 applications. “We are short of officials for technical posts. There are approvals pending with the government regarding the posts of hundreds of field officers. This work is underway and is likely to be completed soon,” said Anbalagan.

Apart from employees, the MPCB is also running short of devices. To monitor air pollution in a large city like Mumbai that plagued by very poor air quality every winter, the department has only two air quality monitoring stations – one at Sion and the other at Bandra.

All the 10 noise monitoring stations in one the loudest cities in the country were installed by the Central pollution board.

Ten laboratories to record pollution levels and test water samples are there across the state, but only five – central laboratory at Navi Mumbai, regional labs at Pune, Nagpur, Aurangabad and Nasik — are authorised by the Union environment ministry under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

“We sent proposals for all 10 labs to the Centre a long time ago, but since it is a continuous process, it takes time to receive responses. This does not mean the labs are unauthorised as work is going on there. The sanctioning process will be completed soon,” said Anbalagan.

‘We have an action plan ready’

P Anbalagan, member secretary of Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) spoke to Hindustan Times and cleared the air on the current condition of the state pollution board, the problems being faced by them and the future plans to mitigate air, noise and water pollution.

There is a large sum of money not used by MPCB every year. Where is this money being used?

Earlier money was being spent on various projects like National Water and Air Quality Monitoring programmes. Now, we have prepared an action plan for rejuvenation of 10 polluted rivers in the state, developing several air quality monitoring stations and noise mapping for 27 cities. Money was spent on procuring equipment for all these studies. Additionally, we will be carrying out a state-wide pollution related health study. Each of the projects will cost us roughly Rs 60 crore each. We have increased our efficiency over the past two years by 50%, which is why the income has been good. The cost of establishing units across the state is very high amounting to Rs 60-70 crore for each unit.

There are a lot of vacant posts in MPCB, is there a staff crunch your department is facing?

The figures released through RTI are slightly dated as we changed the approved posts for the department to 702 recently. We are short of officials for technical posts. There are approvals pending with the government regarding the posts of hundreds of field officers. This work is underway and is likely to be completed soon. We started the recruitment process for sub-regional officers (SROs) and 12 SROs will be recruited for the state. Once this is complete, other posts will be filled. The plan is to go up to 900 posts.

Why are only five MPCB labs authorised by the central government?

We have sent proposals for all 10 labs to them a long time ago but since it is a continuous process, it takes time to receive responses from the central government. But this does not mean the labs are unauthorised as work is going on there. The sanctioning process will be completed soon.

There are only two air quality monitoring stations in Mumbai. Are there plans to widen this network?

The work order has been issued for 11 air quality monitoring stations for Mumbai – all the way from Colaba to Dahisar. They will be set up over the next six months. We are also setting similar air quality monitoring stations at Pune, Navi Mumbai and we are getting additional seven air quality monitoring stations from the central government at various areas in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region including Vasai, Virar, Palghar, Dombivali etc. By next year, we will have 30 monitoring stations across the state.

What are the plans for water quality analysis in the state and why are figures not published on real-time basis?

Maharashtra is the only state which has come up with a water quality index to identify an exact figure of pollution at water bodies and a monthly bulletin is published. Yes, there is a lacuna for the data being published but we will ensure real-time data projection is done in coming months.

Overburdened landfills are plaguing the city’s air quality and residents living close to these areas are irked because of this. What steps has MPCB taken to ensure that pollution is curtailed?

While Kanjurmarg dumping ground is complying with our standards even after 3,000 metric tons is being dumped daily. For Mulund, there is the problem of stench but the civic body has already got an extension from the Bombay high court to rectify problems. When it comes to Deonar, we had told the civic body to cap the area and carry out methane venting. Our team will be visiting the site next week and taking stock of what developments have taken place. If waste is processed, garbage is crunched and there is more space, then there is no need to shut down the dumping ground.

With number of people complaining about noise pollution, including celebrities, is MPCB tightening norms to reduce noise levels?

As per noise rules, we are limited to issue directions to the police as they are the enforcement authority. We had couple of meetings with senior officials from the Mumbai police, including the commissioner. There have been logistical issues but noise is being taken as serious issue and it will be curtailed for traffic and construction in Mumbai.