Zero tolerance to Pollution across the length and breadth of the country

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Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

Subject: Mission to achieve zero tolerance to pollution 

It is highly distressing these days to find Delhi choking in smog, haze and pollution, with its residents wearing masks and its schools shut down frequently. It is equally distressing to find the governments at the center and in Delhi working at cross purposes, feeling helpless about tackling the problem. That such an unacceptable situation should develop in the capital city is all the more tragic.

 We wish to remind you that Delhi is not alone in the midst of such a serious environmental crisis. Many more cities and towns in India and the rural areas are fast becoming hubs of toxic pollution, endangering the lives of the people.

 The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) monitors pollution levels in different cities on an hourly basis. From the information available from CPCB's website out of the 40 cities monitored, the pollution levels in at least 18 cities are critically dangerous, mostly on account of high levels of particulate matter of size less than 2.5 µm, which are deleterious to the health of the people.

Air pollution is not confined to the urban areas alone. Coal burning in thermal power plants and the fly ash generated from it are releasing thousands of tonnes of toxic pollutants that include heavy metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, etc. and even radioactive isotopes of uranium and thorium. Such pollutants constantly spread into the environment and cause debilitating diseases among those residing in the vicinity.

It is not just the air that is getting polluted in India. A performance audit conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 2011-12 observed as follows.

“India's 14 major, 55 minor and several hundred small rivers receive millions of liters of sewage, industrial and agricultural wastes. The most polluting source for rivers is the city sewage and industrial waste discharge. Presently, only about 10 per cent of the waste water generated is treated; the rest is discharged as it is into our water bodies. Due to this, pollutants enter rivers, lakes and groundwater. Such water, which ultimately ends up in our households, is often highly contaminated and carries disease-causing microbes. Agricultural run-off, or the water from the fields that drains into rivers, is another major water pollutant as it contains fertilizers and pesticides.”

A study carried out by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (Union Ministry of Health and Family Planning) showed significant presence of carcinogenic chemical pollutants in vegetables commonly consumed in India. In other words, toxic pollutants released from industry, and through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture, have already entered the food chain, affecting the health of the people and, to a considerable extent, more than neutralizing the expenditure incurred on public health. Many of those consuming such food items may not even know that they are consuming harmful chemical contaminants.

Pollution is known to impact the health of the people in multifarious ways including causing a perceptible increase in the mortality levels and an overall decrease in life expectancy.

A Commission set up by The Lancet one of the oldest medical journals in the world, recently observed that, “among the world’s ten most populous countries in 2015, the largest increases in numbers of pollution-related deaths were seen in India and Bangladesh, Several cities in India and China record average annual concentrations of PM 2.5 pollution of greater than 100 μg/m., and more than 50% of global deaths due to ambient air pollution in 2015 occurred in India and China”.

“Right to Life” is a fundamental right conferred on every citizen under Article 21 of the Constitution. Article 48A requires the government to protect the environment. Article 47 lays down that the State shall regard, among others, the improvement of public health as among its primary duties. It is therefore obligatory for the government to contain the levels of pollution in air and water within safe levels and ensure that the health of the people is fully safeguarded.

The laws that exist today to prevent and regulate pollution of air and water are inadequate and the penalties provided in them are not deterrent enough. The institutions that are in place to enforce those laws are far too weak and fragile to permit the regulatory bodies to enforce measures to preempt pollution and punish those who infringe the statutes.

Of late, in the name of enhancing “ease of business”, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MEFCC) is reported to have been working on amendments to the existing environment laws and regulations that will have the effect of diluting rather than strengthening them. While the government's efforts to score credit in terms of global ratings in business friendliness are indeed commendable and it is desirable to cut the red tape and minimize avoidable harassment, such efforts should not be at the cost of the health of the people, as business investment can never make good the losses caused by pollution in terms of the value of the vast human resources we have. No business will also want to set up new entities in areas that are highly polluted and which will adversely impact the health of their work force. Some global airlines companies suspending flights to Delhi is a disturbing pointer to this.

May we appeal to you to ensure that urgent steps are taken to make Delhi a pollution-free city within the shortest possible time. A similar strategy needs to be put in place for freeing from pollution all the other urban agglomerations in the country. In the rural areas, there is urgent need to contain contamination of water bodies and farm land on a war footing. India has a long coastline and there is a similar need to protect the coastal and the marine resources from pollution.

In order to realize the above goals, it is necessary to strengthen the existing environment laws and regulations and impart functional autonomy to the Central and the State pollution control authorities.They need to be developed into professionally competent bodies capable of tackling the problem of pollution. The environment laws also need to be strengthened to provide greater authority to institutions such as the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the CPCB, the State Pollution Control Boards and the other related regulatory authorities and agencies. The Union Environment Ministry, instead of trying to dilute the Coastal Regulated Zone (CRZ) norms, should strengthen them to enable the regulators to conserve the valuable coastal and marine resources.

Your Swach Bharat Mission to promote cleanliness must include a mission of “Zero Tolerance to Pollution” across the length and the breadth of the country.

I appeal to you to act fast in this direction as every day’s delay in combating pollution is eroding the  health of the people and we cannot afford to wait any longer.

E.A.S. Sarma

Former Secretary to Government of India








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