As the richest and most industrialized state in India, Maharashtra’s political challenges are often a vision of the future for other states looking to catch up. In the same vein, many solutions developed by Maharashtra provide a roadmap for other governments.
Today, the state faces several serious environmental challenges. With 17 cities, including Mumbai, Maharashtra tops the environment ministry’s list of 102 “non-achievement cities” where pollution levels do not meet required air quality protocols. Reducing Maharashtra’s particulate concentrations to the WHO guideline would increase the average life expectancy of its citizens by 2.9 years, according to the air quality of life index.
That said, steps have been taken to address the problem. A couple of years ago, the state started Maharashtra Star Rating Program, which involves the mandatory public rating of several large industrial plants, with a growing number of factories entering the fold. Under the scheme, factory pollution data was made public for the first time, which has then been followed by the states of Odisha and Jharkhand. Both states are now developing their own rating programs. Similarly, a series of action plans have been drawn up for river water quality, although the jury still does not know how effective they have been.
However, it is clear that much remains to be done.
Furthermore, the challenge ahead is finding ways to meet environmental goals, while fostering rapid economic growth. Environmental regulation in India has had a history of heavy handedness and inflexibility, based primarily on a command and control policy enforced with criminal penalties.
On the surface, these are strong laws. In practice, they have led to widespread non-compliance and a view of environmental goals as inherently incompatible with growth. One way out of this is to adopt market-based instruments: the use of civil charges and cap-and-trade schemes. The state of Gujarat has already started an emissions trading pilot and Maharashtra is in a good position to initiate and expand these methods.
It was unfortunate that environmental challenges, including air and water pollution, found little room on campaign trails in recent assembly elections. But with a new government now, there is hope. Cleaning the environment is not an optional goal, as pollution also has a direct impact on health, growth and the economy. A subsequent study has pointed to the widespread health risks of such severe air pollution with additional new research suggesting that the effects of pollution may extend to mechanisms such as reduced crop yields, reduced labor productivity. industrial and reduced cognitive abilities and educational outcomes. In other words, the apparent trade-off between protecting the environment and economic growth is Hobson’s choice. Maharashtra cannot get richer without cleaning its air and water, but doing so successfully will require new innovative policy instruments.
Once we recognize these facts, it also becomes urgent that Maharashtra usher in a culture of experimentation and innovation. This is generally not how pollution control boards work, with one notable exception being the Star Rating Program. This project is being implemented as a pilot, based on a randomized control trial design, so we will soon know exactly how successful the project was and how to improve it. That said, this pilot cannot be an outlier.
Embracing experimentation is the only reliable way governments can create a culture that encourages bold new ideas. It is therefore to be hoped that, before and during the elections, due attention will be paid to the reform of environmental regulation. While various aspects of industrial regulation were transformed in 1991, liberalization may have left the environmental sector behind. Maharashtra now, with a new government has a golden opportunity to change this state of affairs.
The author is the Executive Director (South Asia) of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Anant works at the intersection of economics and environmental engineering, with ongoing research in a variety of areas including environmental regulation, air pollution, climate change, energy efficiency, electricity, and renewable energy.
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