Pollution regulation in India is clearly in need of renovation. As of today, environmental regulators in India rely primarily on the conventional command-and-control approach to pollution abatement. But is that enough? Can enforcing a technology or performance-based standard with severe penalties upon non-compliance be of some help? Can using low-cost, information disclosure and transparency schemes improve environmental outcomes?

To seek answers to some of these difficult questions, the Energy Policy Institute at the  University of Chicago’s India team (EPIC-India), in association with the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) hosted the National Conference on Air and Water Pollution: Innovations in Regulation, Abatement and Monitoring in New Delhi on 7th July 2017. The conference had sectoral experts come together and spend a day exchanging knowledge and best practices, to initiate policy discussions for improving environmental regulations in India.

Attended by more than 100 representatives from the government, think tanks, academia, media, among others, the conference got a kick-start from the opening keynote address of Honourable Justice Swatanter Kumar, chairperson of the National Green Tribunal, who so appropriately stressed the need of having environmental consciousness. He spoke extensively on how economic benefits should be part of environmental schemes for regularization, and in a way set the tone for the discussions.

Participated by more than 20 officials from 14 Indian states, the conference, in the words of NITI Aayog’s energy adviser Anil Kumar Jain, indeed made an effort to bridge the gap between the academia and the practitioners. The key speakers who came from different parts of the country and abroad included Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago and the director of EPIC;  V Rajagopalan, the former secretary of MoEF&CC; T.S.R Subramanian, a former cabinet secretary; Kate Logan, the Green Choice Outreach Director for the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs in China, among others.

The conference started with a session on Command and Control, which addressed the need of transitioning to Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems (CEMS) leading to reliable data for regulators, and hence better possibilities of compliance. It was followed by a session on Information and Transparency that touched upon how online monitoring can lead to better data transparency and hence trigger behaviour change among the polluting industries. The next session had speakers debate on Legal Framework and how a plethora of laws and acts that already exist in India sometimes only paralyze the system due to lack of effective implementation. The last two sessions broadly discussed challenges pertaining to Monitoring and Enforcement and Market Based Regulation.

In the questions and answers that followed each session, what emerged consistently was the need of innovative policy experiments in national and state-level pollution regulation. The reflections from this inclusive exercise could not be more relevant than now, when pollution is quietly shaping up as a giant killer. The conference was punctuated with discussions related to problems and challenges but in equal measure, it also talked about the innovative experiments, some of which has EPIC-India researchers working with policymakers across the country.