Under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, the environment ministry has often spoken of simplifying green clearance norms and focusing on monitoring compliance with environmental norms by industries that get the nod. But a report by a parliamentary standing committee and other data show how the ministry and its arms are failing to check industrial pollution in recent years.
The report lists instances of how the government has been "ad-hoc" in regulating pollution and polluting industries. On this count, the blame does not lie only with the government. Data show the monitoring of compliance with green norms was extremely poor even under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime.
Regional offices of the ministry monitor large projects for compliance. But the standing committee found there was no fixed frequency at which the industries should be monitored. "Detailed norms for monitoring of projects of different nature during various stages of their implementation have not been stipulated," the ministry informed the committee. "In the name of action, mere formalities were completed" when projects were found non-compliant with regulations, the panel said. For minor violations, the matter was referred to state pollution control boards, while for serious violations, the ministry was asked to issue show-cause notices.
The ministry has 10 regional offices to regulate projects. These were increased from six, following a Supreme Court order. But for the four new offices - in Chennai, Dehradun Nagpur and Chennai - there is an overall staff strength of 18, including senior and junior officials. The government did not reveal the actual staff strength of each office but said new additional posts had been created. The ministry also "chose to give a vague and evasive reply" on the number of officials at the central and state level engaged in monitoring the enforcement of green laws. Data show the regional offices were able to monitor only a third of the projects under their supervision, with the number falling substantially in the past year. In 2014-15, these offices monitored only 376 of the 2,208 projects under the scanner.
The case of the Bengaluru regional office, which covers projects in Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and Lakshadweep, is elucidating. In 2013-14, it had 1,598 projects to monitor, of which it monitored only 193. By 2014-15, the number of projects to monitor fell to 823, while the number of projects actually monitored stood at 80. The ministry said for a part of the period, the regional office did not have senior officials to monitor projects.
The lack of resources at regional offices, which are tasked with field-level monitoring of industries that violate norms, is also evident in the case of the central zone regional office at Lucknow. The office monitors projects in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. To do so, it has three forest service officers, three scientists and 14 clerical staff members.
Such a regional office's work includes physical inspection of sites where forest diversions under the Forest Conservation Act is greater than 100 hectares. This is to keep a tab on all projects given clearances through the years, to ensure they follow the conditions laid down for forest clearance. They are required to do so for environmental clearances, as well under the Environment Protection Act, including inspection of industries that secure central clearances. Random checks on industries and scrutinising hundreds of period reports from a self-monitoring mechanism are required. Additionally, adherence to all legal orders of the central government on environmental and forestry issues is needed, as is ensuring not only industries but local bodies and state government, too, follow these. The overall monitoring responsibilities of the regional offices have increased from 10 specific ones in 1986 to 27 now. Naturally, the number of industries getting clearances and which have to be monitored has risen rapidly in the three decades.
The Central Pollution Control Board in Delhi also monitors heavily polluting industries. Of the 3,261 heavily polluting industries on record across the country, the board inspected only 805 units through four years, with the number of units inspected declining each year. In 2014-15, only 93 of the 3,261 industries were inspected, against 201 in 2013-14. Only four thermal power plants were inspected last financial year.
The Central Pollution Control Board is hampered by lack of staff. It has a sanctioned strength of 539 officials but 105 of these, including 60 technical and scientific staff positions, are vacant. The position of chairman of the CPCB has long been held by an Indian Administrative service officer in the ministry.
The parliamentary standing committee noted, "Lax monitoring, flaccid enforcement arising out of inadequate manpower, institutional failure and overlapping jurisdiction added by total absence of accountability, are the main drivers of environmental degradation."
The environment protection Act has loose architecture, with most standards, clearance processes and specific regulations emanating from executive orders passed by the ministry from time to time. This makes it easy to alter regulations with ease. The parliamentary committee noted this had led to ad hocism in the operations of the ministry. It cited the case of the country's critically polluted industrial zones.
The government had imposed a temporary ban on any new industry in heavily polluted industrial belts. Of the 88 such industrial areas, 78 were found polluted initially and 33 critically dangerous to public health. The ban was imposed on the latter. But the UPA government did away with the ban on most, with states filing a statement that "some groundwork has been initiated in accordance" with new action plans. When the NDA government came to power at the Centre, only eight remained under the moratorium. The government put a moratorium on the pollution measuring index system and permitted new industries in these critically polluting areas, too. "Barring some paperwork and cosmetic curative measures here and there, no substantial progress in improving the environmental quality" was achieved, the panel said.
Now, the government is considering an overhaul of environmental laws and the monitoring mechanism, including introducing greater self-certification by industry of its adherence to pollution norms. The move was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2012. But with a fund crunch this year - the ministry has been given a third of the funds it got last year - additional capacity or resources are unlikely this year. The ministry has already mandated automated round-the-clock air and water pollution monitoring by heavily polluting industries.
But the ministry will continue to have the same under-staffed monitoring teams to review these, even as the number of projects cleared every year continue to balloon.