Waving off pollution inspection not right for ease of doing business

NGT noted large-scale violations of environmental norms by industries, which went unchecked

By Sanjeev Kumar Kanchan
Published: Wednesday 04 March 2020

Environmental regulation in India requires industries to control pollution in order to comply with norms and send reports to respective state pollution control boards (SPCB) periodically. Industries hire laboratories on a monthly basis to monitor pollution monitored and submit quarterly data to respective SPCBs.

Some of these boards own XGN software systems, which enable industries to report pollution data on a monthly basis. These reports — which many allege are cooked-up — rarely show non-compliance.

However, public complaints and incidental regulatory inspections often uncover incidences of non-compliance. SPCB inspections are thus considered a cross-check on pollution control practices by industry.

Resource and crunches in manpower result in rare SPCB inspections. Such inspections are carried out around once a year, when ‘consent to operate’ (CTO) is due to be renewed or when a public complaint is filed. Until then, there is no way to verify compliance. Gaps between inspections provide opportunities for reckless industries to defy pollution norms.

A system of online pollution monitoring in major industries was introduced in February 2014, requiring industries to report pollution data online in real-time to state and central pollution control boards. However, this system has not yet stabilised and has not been used for legal compliance checks.

A new direction for revising inspection policies issued by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to SPCBs is a corrective measure. The direction — issued December 12, 2019 — reset inspection frequencies for industries to once in three months for highly polluting industries and once in two years for lesser-polluting industries.

Before this, the frequency of inspection was once in three years for highly polluting industries and as long as seven years for less-polluting ones. This initiative came only after a direction from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) after it heard a case of ground water pollution in Haryana (OA No.639 of 2018, Shailesh Singh vs State of Haryana & others).

The NGT noted large-scale violations of environmental norms by industries, which went unchecked because of a lack of inspections by SPCBs.

Inspection frequency of industries


Existing frequency

Revised frequency

17 highly polluting categories (Red category)

          3 years

         3 months

Other Red category

          3 years

         6 months

Orange category

          5 years

         1 year

Green category

          7 years

         2 years

Common waste / pollution treatment facilities

          3 years

         3 months

Business / environment 

The frequency of industry inspections for compliance checks and renewal of CTOs is decided on the basis of industry categories.

An industry categorisation — indicated by red, orange and green colour codes — was introduced in June 2012 on the basis of size and resource consumption. Pollution potential of industries — a crucial indicator — was not included in the criteria.

Every state earlier had its own categorisation, creating confusion.

This national-level categorisation was revised in March 2016; pollution index was included as an important criterion and a new ‘white’ code was included. Now the codes are:

  • Red - highly polluting
  • Orange - moderately polluting
  • Green - less polluting  
  • White - non-polluting 

Revised industry categorisation 


No. of sectors (old categorisation)

No. of sectors (new categorisation)













This new categorisation shifted many highly polluting industries into less-polluting groups and considerably reduced the frequency of CTO renewal and industry inspection.

Under the Union government’s ease-of-doing business policy, the validity of CTOs was revised to five years, 10 years, 15 years and no CTO requirement for red, orange, green and white category industries, respectively.

This reduced the frequency of industry inspections, led to weakened environment vigilance and was criticised by environmental think tanks and activists for being pro-industry and sidelining environmental concerns.

Weaker vigilance led to more pollution cases going unnoticed except for those raised by public complaints or legal interventions. Most legal cases in the Supreme Court or the NGT were found true, for which courts issued remedial orders for action.

Unfortunately, the implementation of state-level court orders came under resource-strained SPCBs. Follow-ups of such court orders went into the back-burner until the issues were discussed again.

Speedy CTO renewal

The deadline for renewing CTOs was fixed at 30, 60, 90 and — at most — 120 days for green, orange, small and medium-sized red and large-sized red category industries, respectively.

A serious challenge for SPCBs was to carry out inspections, prepare reports and issue approvals at different authority levels with existing timelines.

SPCBs end up compromising with the quality of their vigilance. The policy of ease of doing business was a welcome step, but not at the cost of side-lining environmental priorities.

How effective is the revision 

The new revision of inspection frequency was appreciated. However, its effectiveness depends on actual implementation by SPCBs.

Efficient and timely inspections demand sufficient skilled manpower, transport infrastructure facility, availability of good monitoring equipment, digital documentation, reporting systems and trained staff.

Some SPCB regional offices don’t even have their own office buildings, transport vehicles and pollution monitoring equipment. Nearly one-fourth of the skilled manpower posts granted to SPCBs remain vacant.

A majority of regional office staff — except for SPCB head-office staff — don’t get a chance to get trained for years and become incompetent.

No government took enough initiatives to strengthen SPCBs — the real environmental regulators in the states — since their inception.

A study carried by the Centre for Science and Environment indicates that an SPCB official gets less than a day in a year on an average to visit industries, inspect them and prepare reports. This meant that a majority of the industries were not inspected properly even once a year.

Strengthen regulatory infrastructure

Developing policies are just one part of environmental governance. Their implementation is the most crucial aspect.

Such policies will remain irrelevant if implementers are not capable. Strengthening SPCBs is crucial and must be prioritised.

This would mean filling of vacant positions, providing monitoring equipment, automated documentation and reporting systems, transport facilities and imparting training to SPCBs.

Performance-based promotions and encouragement will be another morale-boosting approach in order to make this system work efficiently.

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