New systems, old habits
India's pollution monitoring and enforcement systems are in a shambles. As the number of industries is growing by the day, the regulatory system is failing to keep pace. At present, the existing pollution monitoring for most industries is done manually and irregularly. Industries flout norms with impunity, as they know that the regulators have poor capacity to check and enforce the norms. Even if they are caught, the system of penalising them through the courts is so cumbersome that regulators have stopped filing cases.
When India embraced a new-age pollution monitoring regime in February 2014, it was hailed as a move to widen and strengthen the environmental governance in the country. The new system was supposed to be a major game changer to re-calibrate and transform the country’s tardy pollution compliance and enforcement system.
The significance of implementing the Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS) and Continuous Effluent Quality Monitoring Systems (CEQMS)—real time pollution monitoring and reporting for 17 highly polluting industries—cannot be understated. These technological systems not only produce credible and accurate data, but also transfer the information continuously, in real time, to the regulator so that remedial action can be taken immediately.
More than three years have gone, but the CEMS and the CEQMS are headed nowhere because of official inaction to seriously implement them. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a non-profit in New Delhi, has revealed that most equipment installations were faulty, incomplete or non-operational. For instance, a textile plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, was producing incorrect data as the monitoring equipment was installed at a wrong place. In another case, the analyser of a biomedical waste incineration plant in Bengaluru was showing zero emissions of hydrochloric acid (HCl), a toxic pollutant commonly emitted by waste incineration plants.
In the new system, when data for a particular pollutant shows high levels at an industrial plant, the servers of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in New Delhi, and the respective State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), send messages to the erring industry and to the machine vendor. This mechanism was supposed to strengthen the hands of the regulator. But in most cases, these messages remain unread by the industry and no follow-up action is taken by the authorities.
The objective of CEMS and CEQMS today stands defeated because of poor preparatory planning, lack of knowledge about the choice of equipment, maintenance, installation of non-certified equipments, incorrect installation, fudging of data, lack of inspection, and poor enforcement. Due to the environment ministry's apathy, the CPCB’s lethargy and the inaction of SPCBs', the new regulatory system is failing pathetically.