Polluted India needs an Erin Brockovich The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), set up in 1974, is the premier government agency for providing technical services to improve the environment and control or abate its degradation. Amongst the various tasks of the CPCB have been the setting up of effluent and emission standards , preparation of guidelines, maintaining a national monitoring network, surveillance of selected industries, and construction of treatment plants. Perhaps it is a measure of its efficacy â€“ and an index of the development of the nation â€“ that it took 35 years to recognize that there were certain areas that were "critically polluted" and required immediate attention. To identify these critical areas, the CPCB designed a tool called the comprehensive environmental pollution index (CEPI), a mathematical formula that tries to capture how polluted an area is based on the relation of measured data for air, water, soil etc., in a certain region to a value considered acceptable from a health-related point of view. In other words, this index is itself (or should be) based on previous research on whether a particular substance is injurious to health and at what dosages â€“ and this is what the standards set by the CPCB are supposed to be all about. Thus, the CPCB applied CEPI calculations to about 88 industrial clusters and then declared 43 of them to be "critically" polluted. For example, Ankleshwar and Vapi in Gujarat scored a high of 88.5 and 88.09, Chandrapur in Maharashtra stood at 83.88, Ludhiana in Punjab at 81.66, the Najafgarh drain in Delhi scoring a lower 79.54, and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh only 78.09. The Maharashtra and Gujarat areas are essentially high industrial concentrations , Kanpur is polluted primarily by tanneries, the Najafgarh drain carries a cocktail of domestic, industrial, and agricultural effluents, and Punjab is sandwiched in between with indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilizers. But what is interesting is the action plans that have been submitted by the state pollution control boards (SPCBs) this year to control the pollutants. All these "action" plans propose that the critical parameters of pollution will once again be monitored in these areas by the CPCB jointly with the SPCBs and "local stakeholders" (i.e. the polluting industries). In addition, health impact data would be collected by engaging study groups. And then a software would be developed for re-calculating the CEPI. A total amount of Rs 24 crore has been earmarked for this enterprise, of which as much as Rs 20 crore is for continuous air and water quality monitoring equipment. This should be rather curious for any layperson. Why have areas been declared as critically polluted through a mathematical calculation, merely in order to collect more data in order to re-do the mathematics? Theoretically , these limits are supposed to be determined on a health basis. But that is where the dilemma begins. Whose health is being measured â€“ that of 'normal' test animals? Then what about the vulnerableâ€”the old, infants, the pregnant? Do they get short bursts at higher concentrations or long exposures at lower concentrations? Since the answers to these questions are difficult to research , the limits are eventually set on a techno-economic basis that the polluter can cheaply and readily achieve. Which is why the action plans are basically an instrument for collecting the health data of an exposed (but unsuspecting) population and relating it to sampled pollutant data , in order that a more viable relationship can be established between cause and effect . The health data will not be collected through a detailed scientific survey, but by collecting records from local hospitals, private nursing homes, and 'public consultations'-most of which will not be able to capture the impacts on the poor. And here too the methodology will run up against the heady mix of pollutants. Is the human body responding to one pollutant or a deadly mix of many, and how many of these will be monitored by the CPCB? In essence, this points the way to the kinds of public action that are possible. Firstly, there is no reason why concerned citizens cannot undertake health monitoring on their own. The techniques for collecting data on menstrual disorders, fruiting trees, water-dwelling insects, etc (reproductive mechanisms are the most vulnerable) are fairly easy to apply. Such data can be related to the possible sources of pollution, which can be used to strengthen tort law to claim compensation from the polluters. And it is through this that the sources of environmental degradation-pesticides in "green revolution" Punjab, or chemical complexes in "vibrant" Gujarat , or sewerage in "world class" Delhican be eventually challenged and controlled . And for those who think this is not possible , they have to only watch 'Erin Brockovich' once again to realize that this is precisely what happened in the United States of America, the paragon of all 'development' .