“Did you know that your city is often referred to as a ‘gas chamber’?” asks the speaker. The students start giggling. Then as they are told about the health impacts of air pollution, a worrying silence dawns on their faces. For these environment science students from Chandrapur’s Bajaj Polytechnic College, breathing in toxic air has become the ‘new’ normal. “But if we get together, we can drive change”, responds a student who is participating in an awareness workshop on the Maharashtra Star Rating program, a first-of-its-kind in India to rate large industrial plants based on their emission.

With more than 75000 industries, Maharashtra is the second largest industrial state and air pollution is an obvious menace.  With an emphasis placed on information disclosure, the Star Rating initiative gives out one star to those polluting most and five stars to those who pollute the least. Dr. P. Anbalagan, Member Secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board says, “Common people had no platform up until now to raise their voice or register complaints against air pollution. Though we have regional offices in every district, this platform gives a dynamic overview of an industry’s emission status to the people. They can check all industries who have a potential to cause air pollution. If people participate pro-actively in this program, we can ensure a Maharashtra with clean air.”

This MPCB Program, being carried out with support from researchers of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago’s India team (EPIC-India), Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and Tata Centre for Development at UChicago (TCD), currently covers over 250 industries across 30 districts. The program aims to expand to include hundreds of more industries across all 36 districts in the coming months.

Dr Anant Sudarshan, South Asia Director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and a principal investigator for the project says, “Transparency initiatives like the Maharashtra Star Rating scheme allow citizens to engage with environmental governance in an informed manner. Ratings allow residents to check how plants in their vicinity are doing, but just as importantly they allow industry management to benchmark their performance and learn when they are falling behind the cleanest of their peers.”

A year, since Honorable Chief Minister of Maharashtra Shri Devendra Fadnavis launched the program; citizens across the state are beginning to get actively involved with the initiative. “In partnership with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, in last few months, the Star Ratings scheme has been disseminated widely to all stakeholders – from industry management to grassroots organizations in different cities such as Chandrapur, Nagpur, Kolhapur, Pune,” adds Sudarshan.

The dissemination workshops in different cities of Maharashtra across last months has meant that participants specially the youth have started frequenting the Star Rating website and spreading the word through social media. “I now have something concrete to count on. When I talk about air pollution in my area, I can be more articulate and refer to the data on the Star Rating website. Now people, especially the local industries and administration, will take me seriously”, says Vaibhav Deshpande, a resident of Nashik, who lives amongst a cluster of industries which he claims to be highly polluting.

Can the Star Rating program be a real game changer and set an example for environmental governance in the country?  Manka Bahl, an environment journalist with the Times of India newspaper who has been tracking the Star Rating program closely says, “Despite policies in place, a disconnect between the people and government exists because the policies are never publicized as much as they should be. Public disclosure of information is not common, so if the data from polluting industries are updated regularly, the Star Rating program can definitely make a difference in plugging this information void.”

A slow change is already beginning to show up with increased traffic on Star Rating website and its social media handles. “It’s a long drawn process but now that there is a tool, I am sure that the citizens will use it to clean up their air,” says Prof. Suresh Chopane, a member of Chandrapur’s local empowerment committee of the Union Ministry of Forests and Environment. He adds, “And yes, I am hopeful that one day, we can shrug off the gas chamber tag for my city.”

EPIC India’s engagement on this project is supported by USAID and Tata Trusts.