A two-day conference on environmental compliance and enforcement that concluded recently in Kolkata gave me a rare chance to listen to environmental regulators from around the world—the US, Sweden, Kenya, Australia and Norway.
The choice of the city for the international conference seemed very appropriate. B K Dutta, chairperson of West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB), who welcomed the delegates, informed that Kolkata was the first city ever to have an environmental law—the Smoke Nuisance law—as far back as in 1906.
Non-compliance: serious problem in the US, too
One of the major problems faced by Indian State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) is non-compliance of statutory norms by industries, whether large, small or medium. I was surprised when I heard that the situation is pretty much the same in the US. “Two-thirds of corporate counsels admit that their companies have violated the environmental laws in the recent past in the US. It is just not possible to achieve full compliance,” said Robert Percival from University of Maryland. In order to strengthen the compliance percentage, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has taken a number of steps, such as adopting a whistle blower policy wherein workers can report non-compliance, and they are protected under law.
SPCBs in India have taken some initiatives to improve compliance by industries. The pollution control board of West Bengal, for instance, has started “an Environment Compliance Assistance Centre with an objective of assisting small and medium scale industries meet national and international regulatory requirements and going beyond the voluntary measures,” said Dutta. But all SPCBs have a long way to go before they can achieve better compliance. To begin with, their documentation is poor.
USEPA also maintains a website where the list of wanted environmental criminals are posted . Compliance history of industry is published by USEPA which can be accessed by everyone. Even regional level industry compliance history is available. Indian regulators could take a cue from the US on this. As of now, there is no such database available in our country.
Like USEPA, the Victoria Environmental Protection Agency also prepares an annual compliance plan, elaborating what they will focus on and what they will check during inspection. This document is available online and can be accessed by public. The other innovative step by EPA Victoria is training officers who are involved with compliance and enforcement. The authorised officers are trained on regulatory aspects, inter-personal skills and technical details before they are sent for inspection and monitoring.
Training and protocol for inspection is something which is missing in India. Some SPCBs, such as the Maharasthra Pollution Control Board, do appoint field officers for inspection and monitoring. But these officers are from diverse educational backgrounds and no inspection protocol or training provided to them.
The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has adopted a self-monitoring programme where industry has to develop self-monitoring programme in consultation with SEPA. The industry is obliged to report to SEPA immediately if there is any deviation from monitoring programme or statutory norms. Penalties are imposed if violation is not reported by industry.
Framing environmental objectives
In India, the functions of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and SPCBs are well defined in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981. But there is no time frame under which the regulators have to complete certain tasks. The result is more severe deterioration of quality of water (surface or ground) and air quality since the formation of CPCB and SPCBs.
Developed countries have gone a step ahead in this regard. Besides the functions defined in their law, they have also set up environmental objectives for subsequent five years and annual action plans for regulatory bodies are finalised in keeping with the environmental objectives. “The job of SEPA revolves around environmental objectives set by the ministry of environment of Sweden which provides a clear roadmap to SEPA and its subordinate offices to undertake activities in a set time frame for fulfilling the objective set by ministry,” said Ylva Reinhard, programme coordinator with SEPA.
How frequent should be inspections?
Another important topic discussed during the conference was frequency of inspection of industries. In India, CPCB has issued guidelines for inspection and monitoring of industries based on their pollution potential. “Because of manpower shortage, we are never able to meet the guidelines proposed by CPCB,” admitted D K Behera, senior environmental scientist with Odisha State Pollution Control Board, who appeared to ruffle the feathers of other government officials by his candid observations on Indian SPCBs.
Norway has adopted risk-based approach for effective enforcement of environmental laws in the country. “The inspection frequency in Norway is based upon risk factor of industry—higher the risk factor, higher the frequency of inspection. Another criterion to decide inspection frequency is compliance history of the industry. In case an industry has bad compliance history, the frequency of inspection is higher compared to an industry with good compliance history,” said Anne Marie Mo Ravik, senior advisor, Klif, the Climate and Pollution Control Agency under Norway's environment ministry.
What ails Indian SPCBs
Behera, during his tell-all talk, highlighted the inherent grey areas in SPCBs: inadequate technical manpower; few technical members as compared to non-technical members; absence of criteria to calculate the minimum staff required by a board. What’s more, most SPCBs do not have full-time chairperson which hampers decision-making. On the other hand, there has been exponential increase in number of industries and environmental regulations. “That is why environmental monitoring has taken a back seat,” said Behera.
Many speakers in the conference referred to the WBPCB as the best SPCB in the country. WBPCB could, therefore, set a benchmark by ushering in changes in the wake of lessons learnt from the conference.