Neither voluntary nor compliant

India's first ever Charter on Corporate Responsibility for Environmental Protection, unveiled amid much hype on March 13 in New Delhi, has turned out to be just hot air

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Wednesday 30 April 2003

-- (Credit: Illustrations : EMKAY)India's first ever Charter on Corporate Responsibility for Environmental Protection (crep), unveiled amid much hype on March 13 in New Delhi, has turned out to be just hot air. Predictably, the government has described it as an "excellent ... move towards voluntary compliance". Experts have, in stark contrast, dismissed it as a primer without a sense of purpose.

Union minister of environment and forests T R Baalu, who released the document with Union minister for heavy industries and public enterprise Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, waxes eloquent on the subject: " crep is a unique case of public-private partnership. (It) will ensure 100 per cent compliance by way of the industry's active participation." His optimism may, however, be misplaced because disgruntlement is already surfacing among some of the industries which worked alongside the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) and Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) to prepare the crep.

"The industry is not owning up the charter in totality. This goes against the very principle of voluntary compliance," points out Chandra Bhushan, coordinator, green rating project, in New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (ngo) Centre for Science and Environment (cse). "It is for this reason that the crep's implementation is highly doubtful, despite the concept of formulating a charter being sound," he adds. P S Subrahmanian, an advocate practising in Vellore, mirrors the civil society's apprehension saying that the charter is an "immoral collusion and unholy partnership". Reliable sources reveal that the document was authored primarily by the moef, and its terms and conditions finalised almost on a barter basis by the government and the industry.
Weak on content The crep comprises a set of about 153 guidelines that would supposedly assist the corporate sector in streamlining environmental management. It covers 17 highly polluting industries. These include the aluminium, cement, chlor-alkali, copper, dyes and dye intermediates, fertiliser, iron and steel, pesticide, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, paper and pulp, sugar and zinc segments, apart from tanneries, thermal power plants, distilleries and oil refineries. They total 2,098 units.

The undue haste shown by the Union government in putting together the charter is a sad reflection on its cavalier attitude to a crucial issue like corporate environmental accountability. A cpcb official gives a blow-by-blow account of the hectic behind-the-scenes activity: "Sometime in November 2002, the moef directed us to prepare the crep and involve the 17 highly polluting industries in the exercise. The cpcb sprang into action, holding brainstorming sessions with each of the sectors -- an endeavour in which it was supported by the state pollution control boards (spcbs). All the 17 meetings were held almost within a month, between December 5, 2002, and January 10, 2003. At times, as many as four meetings took place in a day." It may be noted that action points for the crep emanated from the cpcb and not the industry, throwing the process into disarray. The irony of the situation is that despite these major concessions, the industry is far from happy with the crep.

Controversy over consent
Some corporate representatives maintain that contrary to the authorities' claims on the industry's concurrence, the charter has been forced down their throat. "This is not a charter on self-regulation for environmental protection, but a piece of surrogate legislation. Not enough thought has gone into its preparation," says K P Nyati, head, environment management division, Confederation of Indian Industry, New Delhi.

During the inaugural session of the seminar, Biswas had stated that the crep is a voluntary initiative of the industry for responsible care of the environment. The events of the ensuing technical session, however, gave the lie to his claim.

S M Shahid, the owner of a tannery in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, was initially satisfied with the document. "The charter is good and will protect the environment. The leather industry is happy," he told dte. But his outlook underwent a sea change when the final charter was released on March 13. "The action point on bank guarantee for non-complying units was never a part of the draft document. It wasn't discussed with us," he grumbled. The clause requires errant industries to compensate for the pollution caused.

Both the moef and cpcb are propagating incineration as a safe option for waste disposal. On this matter, too, the industry is not convinced. "Who says dioxins and furans are not released at 1200 degrees centigrade? We are being unnecessarily forced to go in for a costly upgrade," laments S K Gupta, a pesticide unit owner of Mumbai.

The negative reaction that the crep has evoked clearly shows that the government has squandered an opportunity to put the industry on the right track.

Coherence lacking
The charter is being proclaimed as "the roadmap for progressive improvement" in handling environmental issues. But the path ahead is paved with potholes. Firstly, the document is subjective in nature. It does not contain clear steps to meet the set targets. Secondly, several important questions remain unanswered. In this context, the crep has recommended 44 action plans and at least four expert committees.

Thirdly, the petrochemical sector and refineries have been allowed to get off scot-free. Duggal tries to explain away this move: "All refineries in India function well within the environmental norms." It is another matter that the country's oldest running refineries date back to 1901 and just cannot fit the green bill. Bhushan asks: "If the refineries are environmentally compliant, why have they been included in the highly polluting industry list? Why not call them a green industry?"

The issue of monitoring and implementation has also been left unaddressed. Baalu is of the view that the spcbs, in tandem with the industry, will keep tabs on pollution. A cpcb official, however, admits: "Most spcbs do not possess the technical know-how to carry out environmental monitoring." And the industry cannot be expected to concede that it is polluting the environment. The minister goes a step further, saying: "We will not punish any industry if it fails to implement the charter, as such an act would be against the spirit of voluntary compliance."

Unfortunately, by failing to capture this very essence of self-regulation in the crep, the government has ended up giving the industry the licence to pollute. And so far as the concept of corporate environmental management is concerned, the writing is on the wall.

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