Safety in numbers

For any action on climate-change front, we need accurate and actionable data

Bhargavi Nagendra | November 2, 2018


#CPCB   #Central Pollution Control Board   #environment   #climate change   #IPCC  
Photo: Ashish Mehta
Photo: Ashish Mehta

A building comes up based on a plan, which is based on discussions among the client, the architect and the builder. Can they draw a blueprint without basic information like measurements of land, location, market price of materials required and so on? Something like that is happening in the climate sector, as 175 nations pledge to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2OC (compared to the 1800s levels) as per the Paris Agreement – without involving the vulnerable communities who find no way to voice their views. 
 
Change in temperature and precipitation levels, manifesting in the form of floods, droughts, heat waves, raising sea levels, is already on the upward trend. These are discussed by key officials at national and international levels when the impacts are actually felt by the most vulnerable communities. Those lower down the ladder of hierarchy are often left out of the conversation. 
 
A new report, released during the 48th Session of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at Incheon in South Korea in early October, reveals that the countries are nowhere on track in keeping up to the 1.5OC limit which was aimed at earlier. India has already witnessed extreme climate events: floods in Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Kodagu (Karnataka) and severe drought in at least 140 districts in the same year. We are at a higher risk because of mismanagement of natural resources, large population depending on agriculture, unsustainable resource consumption and unplanned development. To make the country resilient, we need action plans at local level and these action plans require its important building block which is actionable data at local level. 
 
The 2018 Public Affairs Index (PAI), which ranks states on various governance parameters, also has environment as an important theme among 10 other key themes. Data for all the 100 indicators including 14 of the environment theme relied completely on secondary data (government) data to capture various factors impacting resilience of the state. The indicators cover areas like pollution and environmental violations, forest cover, renewable energy, waste management, sustainable agriculture, water resource management, and institutional framework for environmental conservation.
 
Studies like these, which aim to bring out deeper meanings behind the numbers, often hit roadblocks owing to unavailability, inconsistency, irregularity of data both at the local level and state level. Even with the deteriorating air quality levels trends witnessed in urban areas, the only available state-wise datasets date back to 2011-12! Another example would be that of solid waste management in cities. Information on the extent of waste generated by the cities, waste generated per capita, percentage of waste processed or recycled at ward level and at city levels is absent. Little importance is attached to systematic collection, analysis and monitoring of data. 
 
Where does this data in the environment theme come from? If you want to check the air quality of a particular city, you have to go back to the data generated from the air quality monitors that are situated strategically in busy traffic junctions, residential areas, industrial areas, etc. Ideally, the periodically collected data is compiled weekly, monthly and annually for cities, towns, overall for the state and finally compiled for the country. But Indian cities lack the necessary infrastructure to capture all aspects of diverse data. For example, Kanpur is dubbed by WHO as the most polluted city in the world – based on the data that a single analyser of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) collects for a city with an area of 403 sq km and a population of 27.3 lakh! WHO mandates an air quality analyser for every 10 lakh population but upcoming cities in India which are yet to reach the 10 lakh benchmark lack any air quality monitoring mechanism.
 
Data is sparse in the environment domain and therefore requires efforts from across various spheres which also means breaking the silos. These numbers are indicators carrying meaning and therefore direct policy decisions and implementation. In a global phenomenon like climate change and its impact felt by everyone, data should start dialogues and discussions among stakeholders across diverse verticals including- governments, markets, donor agencies, NGOs, you and me. A community, locality or a city wanting to draw up a resilience plan requires interactions from various departments like disaster management and state pollution control board, among many others, to talk to each other. It cannot be handled by just the municipalities. Regularly collected data helps formulate effective policies and action plans in a dynamic and growing country like ours. 
 
Timely, updated, rigorous, transparent and localised data becomes a tool for policy makers to plan better, reduce hazards (example: reduce exposure to dangerous chemicals through pollution control and occupational health and safety), adapt better and take strong mitigation steps. There are many mobile applications now that tell you what the air quality level is before you step out. But ensuring easy accessibility of data for important parameters to the most affected and vulnerable people requires going beyond mere protocols on collecting data. Actionable data is an enabler towards taking up adaptive measures and for that to happen the government needs to invest in developing data collection and monitoring systems and focus on building capacities on analysis of data within the system. 
 
Nagendra is programme officer with Public Affairs Centre, a not-for-profit think tank.

(The article appears in November 15, 2018 edition)

 

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