Coal extraction in Sonpur Bazari OCP. Picture: Aritra Bhattacharya
Coal extraction in Sonpur Bazari OCP. Picture: Aritra Bhattacharya

When comprehensive means cosmetic

India's pollution metrics fail to capture the complex reality of environmental degradation.

The city is fine, really. Right outside the railway station, beneath the board that says Asansol Junction, an LED panel displays the day's air quality. Mostly, it reads 'moderately polluted' or 'poor' through the summer and monsoon months, and 'very poor' through the winters, but never 'severe'. This seems like an achievement:  Asansol, West Bengal's second-largest city and my hometown, was categorised as one of the 43 'critically polluted' industrial areas in India by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest in 2009. In subsequent years, a number of efforts were put in place to curb pollution, including a brief ban on setting up new industries. All plants and factories were also required to install pollution-control devices and keep emissions within permissible limits.

Available data suggests these efforts had an impact. Asansol's score as per the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) – which measures air, water and land pollution on a scale of 0-100 and has been used since 2009 to measure environmental quality – improved significantly over the past decade. Asansol's CEPI score dropped from 70+ in 2009 and 2011 (i.e. a critically polluted area) to 55.03 in 2018, indicating less than severe levels of pollution. (Asansol's MP Babul Supriyo is also the union minister of state for environment, forest and climate change).

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Himal Southasian