Decimated and redundant
State pollution control boards are ill-equipped to justify their regulatory space
THE FIRST State Pollution Control Board (spcb) was set up in 1970 in Maharashtra. Today, all states have spcbs and Union Territories have committees. The role and responsibilities of spcbs have grown over the years. In 1974, Parliament mandated these boards to prevent and control water pollution, and in 1981, monitoring and controlling air pollution also came within its ambit.
The responsibilities of spcbs have kept increasing as more regulations were passed, including rules for hazardous waste, plastic manufacture and sale, municipal solid waste, noise pollution, battery regulation and e-waste management. Apart from industries, officials have to also monitor pollution from hotels, hospitals and housing complexes. spcbs have to act whenever they are instructed by the ministries or courts. And now with the introduction of cems and ceqms, their responsibilities have increased.
But pollution monitoring and control in the country is in the dumps because spcbs are incapacitated, redundant and losing the battle. Worse, nobody wants to invest in them as they are considered to be corrupt, ineffective and a liability. Let’s take the issue of personnel. A large proportion of sanctioned jobs in spcbs have not been filled—in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh alone, about 4755 per cent of posts are lying vacant. Even technical positions—the nature of jobs in spcbs is largely technical—have not been filled. In Maharashtra, for instance, about 20-33 per cent of technical jobs are yet to be filled (see ‘Empty at the top’).
These vacancies have led to the inability of the boards to perform their tasks. For instance, a technical staff in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Odisha gets less than one day in a year to inspect one industry for certifying approval. This includes the time spent to prepare, travel, inspect and write an inspection report. In Karnataka, one technical personnel has to inspect about 250 industries in a year. This ratio is bound to worsen as the number of industries that need to be monitored
is increasing. In contrast to the increase in the number of industries, the number of technical staff in most spcbs has remained the same or has decreased. In Karnataka, while the number of industries increased from 71,743 in 2013-14 to 74,936 in 2014-15, the scientific and technical staff remained the same, at 235. So monitoring of industries remains only on paper (see graphs: ‘Posting vacancies’ and ‘Ratio that defies logic’). In most spcbs, an official inspects the factory only when the renewal of the license, called consent to operate (cto), is due. As officials cannot monitor, they ask industries to get pollution monitoring done by private laboratories and submit reports. But even this reporting requirement varies from state to state—some spcbs demand a monthly pollution report, while others ask for quarterly one. There is no uniform protocol.
For the ease of doing business, most state governments have initiated a single window clearance mechanism, which includes online submission of forms and adoption of online mechanism for granting licenses. There is nothing wrong with this system, except that most spcbs have impractically reduced the time limit for giving cto, even though the statutory regulations permit 120 days for processing. For example, Andhra Pradesh has reduced the clearance timeline to 45 days for red category (most polluting) industries, and 21 and 7 days for orange (moderately polluting) and green (low polluting) categories respectively. Due to this, inspection and cross-checks are not carried properly. Says an official of the Odisha State Pollution Control Board: “A single window clearance scheme not only allows industries to know about the details of inspection well in advance, but also gives them ample time to hide matters before the inspecting team arrives. So the basic purpose of inspection is defeated.”
Ditto for the renewal of cto. The cto was earlier renewed every 1-5 years. The period has now been increased to 5-20 years. “The state boards are not able to carry out proper evaluation due to time constraints. They are just processing clearance applications based on their "siting" criteria. Closure notices for non-complying industries too have fallen drastically,” says an official of the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, who does not wish to be named.