I can't just close down a polluting industry

As chairperson of the Karnataka state pollution control board (KSPCB), 39-year-old K V Bengeri has to contend with more than environmental problems: he has faced allegations of corruption and inefficient functioning in the board, besides a court case challenging his credentials for the post of chairperson. Bengeri is a doctorate in environmental biology from Karnataka University and has seven-years' teaching experience and two published books to his credit. He justifies his appointment and articulates KSPCB's problems to Keya Acharya in Bangalore

 
Published: Wednesday 30 April 1997

On the Comptroller and Auditor General's (cag) report tabled in the Karnataka Assembly in 1996, which identified 10,888 polluting industries in the state (till March 1995):
In 1992, some of the industries were exempted (from seeking environmental clearance), under the exempted category of non-polluting industries, which meant that we could act only if there were any complaints against them. In 1994, a one-time consent was given to many industries (which allowed them to operate forever by getting a pollution clearance once). Moreover, many of the municipalities still owe money to us (not having these revenues hampered the functioning of the kspcb ). Another point that I would like to clarify is that these things took place before my time; I joined only in January 1995.

On the state of industries in Karnataka and the cag 's report on effluent treatment plants (ETPs):
What right has the cag to comment on effluent treatment? This is a deliberate attempt to malign the board. I would understand such criticisms from a citizen or a concerned person, but not from an auditor-general. This report is incorrect; it is based on incomplete knowledge.

On the problems being faced by the kspcb and the legal loopholes that allow long-drawn out wrangles between the board and industries:
The laws are similar all over the world, and it is true that we have comprehensive legislation. However, I cannot just close down an industry if it starts polluting. First, our officer has to go to the industry, conduct an inspection, collect samples and issue a notice. Then the industry has to reply to the notice and if the officer concerned is not satisfied with the report, he has to send in another report based on collected samples. We can proceed only after receiving the officer's report.

We have so many industries -- every officer has to oversee a minimum of 700 units. Assuming that he works all 365 days, he still won't be able to inspect all the industries under his jurisdiction. As far as I am concerned, I have taken action. We have opened four regional offices to upgrade our monitoring work. The board has, for the first time in the country, closed down five polluting pharmaceutical industries in Bidar. Now they have been allotted 40.5 ha of land elsewhere. These units have arranged for finance and we have laid down the framework for setting up a common etp within a certain period of time.

On his responsibilities as the kspcb chairperson and the measures taken by him to improve the situation:
We had placed the issue of one-time consent given to polluting industries before the board and it has now been revoked. We have informed the industries concerned to apply again (for environmental clearance). I have also issued notices to all municipalities to pay their debts to the board.

Some small industries begin operations without even knowing they need the clearance. It is only the ones that depend on bank loans that come to know of pollution control clearance, because the application forms tell them so. We have issued a notification to the authorities concerned to identify industries that are not coming forward (to seek environmental clearance). This year, we have collected additional revenues to the tune of Rs 1.5 crore.

On the lawsuit challenging his professional credentials; he was appointed kspcb's chairperson in 1995 even though in 1993 he had been rejected for the post of junior scientific officer (jso) :
That is totally wrong. The then special secretary in the department of environment had, in fact, invited me for this post ( jso) . I was then working in the department of education ( doe) and had replied that I would be unable to join as I worked in a different department. He then wrote to the doe who replied in a letter that they were unable to spare my services.

On the allegation that his appointment is political and not technical (he allegedly got the post because of his close links with P C Siddanagouda, the minister of state for environment):
Everybody gets nominated like that; it is a political nomination. But I don't say that it is not a technical appointment. It is a political appointment -- it is a nomination. What is wrong? Why are these questions being asked only to this board? Why not to other boards? I am technically qualified.

On kspcb 's competence to oversee environmental impact assessments ( eia ) in the industrial sector in Karnataka, which is pursuing an aggressive industrial policy:
Of course it is competent. The board has many officers who are either environmental scientists or environmental engineers. The 14 members of the technical advisory committee are all specialists in different fields. In fact, the kspcb is the only board (in the country) that has this high a number of qualified people.

On the environmental clearance given by kspcb to the Cogentrix power project, which was rejected by theNational Environmental Engineering Research Institute ( neeri ), and whether the decision to clear Cogentrix was a political or technical one:
Are you questioning the expertise of the kspcb ? If yes, then why aren't you questioning the expertise of neeri in this regard? Scientists all over the world are more or less on par with each other as far as knowledge and expertise are concerned. Those who are working in neeri are not the only competent scientists. Where have we failed in the eia ? neeri should answer this question, not me. Is it possible for anyone to do an eia in five days (as done by neeri) ? Even to prepare a rapid assessment, you require a minimum of three months, while a detailed one needs a minimum of four seasons. How can scientists give their report in five days? neeri cleared an eia on the same site for the National Thermal Power Corporation before Cogentrix. I do not understand what was the political decision! The political decision might have been taken by the Union cabinet, not by the board.

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