Pollution is not above board, nor in control


State Pollution Control Boards were meant to keep us safe, but are manipulating data to cover up a bleak picture. Janani Ganesan reports

Where there is smoke What the common man sees every day seems to evade the sophisticated equipment of the State Pollution Control Boards
Where there is smoke What the common man sees every day seems to evade the sophisticated equipment of the State Pollution Control Boards
Photo: Reuters

AROUND 300 tonnes of toxic waste still lies unattended at the former factories of Union Carbide in Bhopal. Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide, the company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, will spend £7 million on the 2012 London Olympics. The same company has refused to clean up Bhopal or pay additional compensation to the families of the dead in the horrific industrial accident of 1984. Survivors of the tragedy and activists demand that the Olympics be boycotted by India.

But would boycotting help? What about the role of the Madhya Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (MPSPCB) for having failed to do the routine checks? While Union Carbide may have been responsible for the leakage, how responsible has the state government been? Nearly three decades later, the MPSPCB is as incompetent as it was on that dreadful night and the toxic Union Carbide factory site is testimony to this.

In neighbouring Gujarat, another pollution- related controversy is brewing. On 2 August, the Gujarat High Court asked the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to investigate pollution caused by Ambuja Cements at Vadnagar village in Junagadh district. The villagers complain that the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) had failed to check the pollution caused by the factory, and worse, had even tried to manipulate data. The petitioners in the case claim that the engineer appointed to measure the pollution levels had stayed in the factory’s guesthouse. He had carried out the air pollution test only when the rains had begun, resulting in lower estimates.

The engineer had been appointed by the GPCB following a high court order in July. The GPCB, in charge of ensuring that pollution levels do not cross the threshold, had failed to do so in the first instance. After the court’s intervention, the engineer continued to circumvent his duties. The GPCB argued in court that he had travelled every day from Junagadh to the factory site — around 270 km of commute both ways — contrary to the villagers’ claim. The court refused to buy this argument.

Down south in Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court had to intervene and ask for the closure of Sterlite’s copper smelting unit in Tuticorin in 2010, following complaints of excessive pollution. After Sterlite appealed to the Supreme Court, the apex court had asked National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to file a report on the pollution caused.

Though the apex court is yet to record the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s (TNPCB) role as adversarial, the NEERI reports in 1998, ’99, 2003, ’05 and in ’11 show that heavy metal contamination in the region is beyond prescribed limits, suggesting that the TNPCB had consistently failed in its duties.

NEERI’s report also records that Sterlite has been flouting environmental clearances since 2009. In fact, in its 15-year existence, Sterlite had the consent to operate under the air and water pollution control Acts granted by the TNPCB only for five years, according to information obtained through the Right to Information Act by Corporate Accountability Desk, an environmental group based in Chennai.

But strangely, in spite of making these observations, the 2011 report gives a clean chit to Sterlite.

Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko, who is a petitioner in this case, claims that NEERI acted in favour of Sterlite. “We sent NEERI’s report to internationally renowned scientist, Mark Chernaik of Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide based in Oregon, US. He has pointed out that even according to NEERI’S own report, it is proven that the pollution levels are beyond prescribed limits.” Vaiko blames the TNPCB as well. “The board is hand-in-glove with Sterlite,” he says. The TNPCB Joint Chief Engineer, in charge of the Sterlite case, refused to comment.

The state pollution control boards (SPCBs) are required to have technicians in their board, but most of them are bureaucrats. Also, many chairmen of the SPCBs merely hold additional charges, thus often being absent from their offices. In spite of the vacancies in the already existing posts, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) wanted to create 100 new posts, a proposal that was shot down by the Ministry of Finance, asking the MoEF to first fill up the vacant posts.

With the SPCB’s lax attitude towards carrying out its responsibility, more and more cases on pollution are now reaching the judiciary. And to stop the intervention of the judiciary, the states fudge data related to pollution. For instance, the GPCB outsourced the air pollution monitoring of Vapi in Valsad district, one of the most polluted cities in the country, to private players. Their excuse was that “no measuring facility was available”. The institution, whose primary objective is to keep pollution levels within permissible limits, does not have the necessary equipment to carry out its duties.

Vapi was ranked second on the list of the most critically polluted areas in India by the MoEF. It was only recently removed from the list — on the recommendations of the GPCB. Ankur Paliwal, who did a survey of Vapi for the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), alleges that the GPCB had fudged the reports it had submitted to the MoEF.

“The GPCB’s report claimed that Vapi had moved down the pollution scale from being ‘critically polluted’ to ‘severely polluted’. But our lab tests of the region show that this isn’t the case,” says Paliwal.

Toxic resources Water from an effluent treatment pipe in Vapi, Gujarat
Toxic resources Water from an effluent treatment pipe in Vapi, Gujarat
Photo: Greenpeace

Following GPCB’s report, the MoEF has removed the moratorium on industrial expansion in Vapi, imposed earlier. And Gujarat, which is one of the most industrialised states, is also, not surprisingly, the most polluted. The state topped the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) chart in 2009 with two of its districts taking up the first two ranks — Ankleshwar and Vapi. Ankleshwar Industries Association claims the district will be off the chart by next month.

The MoEF acknowledges that the SPCBs are inefficient. Even the draft proposal of the National Environment Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA) acknowledges that the SPCBs “lack consistency in structure”. But the MoEFwashes its hands of the issue claiming that it is the responsibility of the state. MoEF Joint Secretary Rajneesh Dube says, “It is up to the state government to provide funds and ensure its working. These are local-level pollution issues. That is why a federal system is in place.” The same ministry is all geared to set up the NEAMA, an individual, independent body at the Centre, which would give environmental clearances henceforth. But once the industry is set up, it becomes the sole headache of the state governments.

Says Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group, a Bengaluru-based not-forprofit organisation: “This will only absolve the ministry of responsibilities as the implementation will lie with NEAMA, proposed to be an autonomous body.” But there’s a catch. The final word lies with the MoEF. Therefore, the ministry can interfere as well as steer clear of responsibilities.

A former SPCB official says on the condition on anonymity, “Even SPCBs are supposed to be autonomous, but they are not. When already existing autonomous bodies can’t function independently, how will a new ‘independent’ body change things?”

With the SPCB’s lax attitude towards monitoring of pollution, more and more cases are landing in the courts

It has been 42 years since the system of SPCBs was put in place, but, in the words of the former SPCB official, even after four decades, it is “only a failure”. That the post of chairman in the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, recently filled, had remained vacant for more than six years, is a case in point. A Planning Commission report had discovered “gross inadequacies in manpower” way back in 2000. A CSE report published this year observes the same.

But a senior official at CPCB claims that much has changed since then. “There is much more transparency now, and digitisation of available material is satisfactory,” he explains. He admits that a lot more is left to be done. “None of the boards have the required manpower. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had asked the state boards to file their requirements.

Blinded by laxity? Victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy
Blinded by laxity? Victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy
Photo: AFP

According to that estimate, we need 1,100 crore to address the basic problems faced by 28 SPCBs and six Pollution Control Committees,” he says. But with the ministry planning to set up a new regulatory body, he stresses that augmentation of SPCBs would be easier than creating a new body.

The vigilance officer in charge of Vapi, GH Trivedi, says, “We outsource monitoring of pollution to private companies in some stations, in others we do it ourselves. We don’t have enough manpower, and we need to monitor these places round-theclock for two days a week.”

Even the instances when the SPCBs bother doing the tests themselves are dubious. “The testing for pollution is not done properly by the GPCB. Even simple things like sealing the bag containing the sample is not done. The people can’t live next to the factory because the surrounding atmosphere is severely polluted. We have now requested CSE to do the pollution checks,” says advocate Anand Yagnik, counsel for Malabhai Arjunbhai Patat, an affected farmer in the Ambuja Cements case.

‘When existing SPCBs can’t function freely, how will a new institution change things?’ says a former board official

In spite of activists and NGOs pointing to the need for setting right existing institutions before proceeding to create new ones, the ministry is determined to go ahead.

THE UNITED States Environment Protection Agency Report in 2005, the Asian Environmental Compliance of 2006 and the World Bank report of 2006, on the working of PCBs in India, all point to the inadequacies, stressing that the multi-regulatory environmental mandate in India could prove as a deterrent in handling environmental problems.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, as recently as in July, reiterated the government’s commitment to tackling environmental problems through the setting up of NEAMA. But, where SPCBs and State-Level Environment Impact Assessment Authorities have failed, what’s the guarantee that NEAMA will do any better?

“There is a degree of political influence when it comes to the working of the SPCBs and autonomy is a vexed issue,” says Dube. In spite of the MoEF being well aware of the problems of SPCBs, it will not intervene.

SPCBs are perhaps the only democratic space available to the public when it comes to environment, where the people get to express their reservations and opinions during public hearings. While this democratic space is hijacked by vested interests, the democratic institution is being crippled by a non-commitment to reformation.

Janani Ganesan is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka.


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