CSE started its urban air quality programme in 1996 to protect public health in Indian cities. The programme elicited tremendous response from the government, the public and the judiciary. In the past ten years, CSE’s programme, supported by judicial action and the media, has successfully catalysed significant changes to lower air pollution levels in the city.
Some of the key developments include advancement of Euro II emissions standards for new vehicles in 2000, lowering of sulphur content in diesel and petrol to 500, lowering of benzene to 1 percent, implementation of the largest ever CNG programme for the public transportation systems, and phasing out of the 15 year old commercial vehicles.
Simultaneously, certain important cross cutting measures including the inspection and maintenance programme for in-use vehicles, strengthening of air quality monitoring and checking of fuel adulteration were brought to focus. These first generation reforms have made significant impact on the city’s air. Rapid increase in vehicle numbers and the transportation challenge has emerged as the key area of this programme largely because it is felt that only technology solutions cannot help India to address the challenge of the mobility crisis, energy crisis, climate and pollution impacts of motorisation. It has therefore broadened the scope of its advocacy to promote public transport strategy and car restraint policies.
It is currently working towards augmentation of public transport, multi-modal integration, fiscal strategies and key levers like parking policy in cities to control the total number of vehicles. It is working closely working with selected city governments to promote these measures. Its presence in the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority that is monitoring pollution control efforts in 8 cities of India has also been an opportunity to address and shape of these policy strategies.
CSE set up a pollution monitoring laboratory to monitor chemical toxins so that information about the health threats from chemical toxins can be made available in the public domain. The first study undertaken by the laboratory was a scientific testing of endosulphan residues in the environment and human blood in Padre village in Kasargode district of Kerala. The study was in response to letters received from groups working in the district detailing high incidences of neurological diseases.
The result of the study was that endosulphan levels were extremely high. CSE organised a public meeting to disseminate the results. The study had a huge media impact and the issue was covered by major national newspapers and Television channels. Within a span of a year from the publication and dissemination of the study, the state government of Kerala banned the further aerial spraying of endosulphan in the state. Similarly, the court also stayed the further spraying of endosulphan in Kasaragod district.
CSE’s studies on pesticide residues in packaged drinking water and soft drinks set a milestone in environmental advocacy. The two studies that exposed the presence of pesticide in bottled drinking water and soft drinks generated front-page headlines in national newspapers and were covered extensively by television channels.
The tremendous media response forced the government to act. The ministries of food and civil supplies, consumer affairs and health and family welfare announced draft norms revising the testing methodology and standards for pesticide residues in bottled water. A high level committee was constituted to finalise the new norms after a due review process. A Joint Parliamentary Committee, the first ever on a public health issue, was set up by the government to look into the issue of pesticide residue in beverages and recommend standards.
The report of the fourth Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to investigate the presence of pesticide residues in soft drinks was tabled in February 2004. The JPC report not only endorsed CSE’s findings on pesticide residues in soft drinks but it also endorsed the demand for a strong public health agenda for food and water. CSE filed a filed a public interest litigation case in the Supreme Court of India and continues to work on this issue. As a result of CSE’s campaign, the government has agreed to set final product standards for pesticide residues in soft drinks and has drafted a new Food Safety Bill. Under the proposed bill, the use of food additives, processing aid, contaminants, heavy metals, insecticides, pesticides, veterinary drugs residue, antibiotic residues, or solvent residues will be prohibited unless they are in accordance with specified regulations.
The CSE exposé generated tremendous media and public interest. Several institutions like schools, airlines and government canteens banned the sale of cold drinks. Media reports said that sales had fallen 30 per cent as an effect of the CSE report. Different state governments also took action. Some state governments undertook voluntary test of these soft drinks in their respective states. The Orissa, West Bengal and Gujarat governments ordered test of soft drinks samples. The Union Health minister Sushma Swaraj announced in Parliament that the government would independently test samples of the soft drinks.
In January 2004 CSE filed a public interest litigation to revamp the regulatory framework for pesticides in the Supreme Court. CSE demanded rationalising the registration and regulation of pesticides and to incorporate health considerations into standard setting process and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare responded to this by filing an affidavit accepting CSE’s demands.