A system in shambles

Weak, corrupt and ineffective implementing institutions make compliance and enforcement of environmental laws abysmally poor in India. Can economic instruments turn the polluting industry green?

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

A system in shambles

-- (Credit: GRAPHICS : ANAND/ANAND)Over 200 rules and regulations, and a large bureaucracy have failed to protect the state of India's environment. Just one look at the collapsing system of governance in the country is ample proof of this.

lAndhra Pradesh pollution control board (pcb) has just one technical personnel to monitor every 100 polluting units

lAll the eight senior members of Himachal Pradesh pcb are non-technical bureaucrats

lLess than 15 per cent of the highly polluting units have been officially recognised by the Rajasthan pcb

lFifteen states still do not have a single operational site for disposal of hazardous wastes

lIn Gujarat only around 30 per cent of the water polluting units comply with standards

lIn Bihar more than 50 per cent of the water polluting units having effluent treatment plants do not comply with standards

lNinety per cent of the cases filed between 1982 and 1998 by the Orissa pcb against polluting industries remain pending.

There are many loopholes that make monitoring and enforcement of pollution control laws very feeble in the country. From poor enforcement to loosely framed laws, and corruption among the officers makes pollution control a farce.

Even when some enforcement is there it falls way short of the desired levels. Although environment impact assessment (eia) is carried out initially for the new industries, there is almost no follow up to monitor the environmental performance once the industry starts operating. "The post clearance monitoring in India is very weak. Most of the time the eia reports are prepared only to get clearance for the projects. Once it is obtained and the plant is commissioned, the eia reports find their place in archives," says R P Sharma, senior environment manager at Tata Steel.

The annual statement, which is supposed to reflect the environment performance of an industry and which has been made mandatory, is blind reproduction of the regulatory standards, with some tinkering. Many industries 'recycle' the same statements with some changes, as was found by the Green Rating Project (grp) of the pulp and paper sector of the Centre for Science and Environment (cse), a Delhi based non-governmental organisation.

White elephants
Most of the pollution control boards, which are entrusted with the responsibility of implementing environmental regulations, have failed miserably. The central pollution control board (cpcb), the nodal agency for overseeing the environmental regulations in the country, has no bona fide powers to enforce the laws; its major function being advisory and providing technical assistance. In the us, the environment protection agency has more than 10,000 employees while cpcb in India has to make do with less than 500 personnel, and a miserly plan budget of Rs 8 crore.

The state pollution control boards (spcbs) are beset with a plethora of problems. They are often said to under perform because of inadequate staff for implementation and monitoring. That may be true but only in a limited sense. Pollution control regulation and monitoring requires a degree of technical expertise. The competency of manpower can be gauged by the fact that many a time the officers of spcbs are drawn from other services on a deputation basis. The key decision makers in the board are mostly from the administrative service and do not have the requisite technical background in pollution control.

A recent study on the performance of pollution control boards, undertaken by the Programme Evaluation Organisation on the instance of the Planning Commission reveals that out of a total of 197 members in 17 boards, 129 including 94 bureaucrats are from non-technical background. That means 65 per cent of the members are technically incompetent to do a job that requires high technical skills (see graph: Incompetent recruits).

The staff other than the board members are no better. The study shows no more than eight personnel are available per 100 polluting units. That means one person per 12 polluting units, which is adequate.

Legal wrangle
Thousands of cases filed by SPCBs
remain pending for years in lower courts
State Year of institution
of the SPCB
Number of cases
filed up to March
31, 1998
Number of cases
disposed up to
March 31, 1998
Percentage of
cases pending
Orissa 1982 109 11 90
Madhya Pradesh 1974 164 38 77
Gujarat 1974 2961 1181 60
Punjab 1975 848 299 34

But, out of this less than four are technically competent. These statistics give no credence to the justification that spcbs function poorly because they do not have adequate staff. Instead, more than half of the staff is technically incompetent to carry out any pollution regulation job.

The spcbs do not have adequate knowledge and infrastructure to carry out the regular monitoring and enforcement. Some of the boards who have well established laboratories use it only to harass the industry," says Sharma. K P Nyati, head of environment management division, Confederation of Indian Industry believes that enforcement is official centric, far too prescriptive, overly procedure oriented and susceptible to systematic leakages. "There are many laws but the enforcement is non-existent," says Ranganath Mishra, former chief justice of Supreme Court (sc). " With regard to the enforcement agencies, both the intent and infrastructure are not adequate," says Sharma.

Laws with flaws
Indian laws for pollution control are replete with flaws. They are more prescriptive and define uniform standards without taking into account the type or size of the industry or the cost of pollution abatement. "There is no flexibility in the standards, either you meet them or you don't. Even if you violate by a small or large margin, occasionally or frequently, culpability is the same," says Nyati.

There are several loopholes in the framing of laws. "Large gaps and ambiguities in the legislative framework are leaving environment at the discretion of a host of ill-informed officials who are not educated in law," avers N R Madhav Menon, vice chancellor of the National University of Judicial Sciences, Kolkata (see table: Legal wrangle).

Compliance on the part of industry has also been very poor. "One of the main reasons for this is the lack of awareness of the applicable acts and rules on the part of those who are supposed to meet the requirements. My limited research shows about 30 per cent of the people concerned know about the Water (prevention & control of pollution) Act, 1974, 10 per cent know about the Air (prevention & control of pollution) Act of 1981 and very few know about Hazardous Waste (manangement and handling) Rules, 1989. The laws are not well understood even by the enforcement agencies, says Sharma.

Problem of enforcement is even worse in the case of small-scale industries (ssis). India has more than three million ssis that contribute around 65 per cent of the total industrial pollution load in the country. "There are ways to control pollution from the larger industries, but pollution from ssi sector is too difficult to control making the ssis a serious problem to monitor," says Biswas

Only a fraction of ssis adhere to environmental norms. "ssis operate on a very small profit margin. The fear of reduced profits inhibits the ssi operators from investing in pollution control equipments," says Nyati. ssis contribute around 40 per cent to industrial production but they are responsible for 65 per cent of industrial pollution. The only solution lies in not allowing polluting industries to operate in the ssi sector. Only clean industries must be encouraged in this sector, says Nyati.

Corrupt officials
Complaints of corruption against officers of the spcbs are also rife. "People use spcb posting as a transit and this leads to corruption in the boards," says D K Biswas, chairperson of cpcb. spcbs have become more of a posting to make money. "The cost of non-compliance is lower than the cost of compliance under the present circumstances -- hence corruption is encouraged by the polluter too," says L Ramakrishnan, regional environmental coordinator, Philips India. General secretary of one of the industrial associations in the industrial town of Panipat, Haryana informed Down To Earth about a number of corrupt practices at the Panipat regional office of Haryana pcb (hpcb). "Industrialists pay the official every month to get information pertaining to a surprise raid by the hpcb team from the state office," says the general secretary asking not to be named. This works out to be cheaper than the cost of installing pollution control equipment, he adds. Another reason for corruption is the poor availability of information regarding environmental laws and long drawn procedures. "Dissemination of laws from the enforcement agencies to industries is very poor," says Sharma. Some officials use this as a way of extracting money.

The question of autonomy is another important issue that leads to corruption. On paper, spcbs are autonomous bodies, but in actual practice they work under political influence preventing them from taking independent, professional or technical decisions. "Their decisions are often coloured by conflict of interests than being fair," says Ramakrishnan.

The corporate world looks at environmental management as a compulsion, which drains out business profits. Worse, many entrepreneurs tend to believe that bribing the department of environment is more economical than managing the environment. Although there are organisations complying with the law, the command and control system does not offer them any incentive.

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