When watchdogs are tame


The pollution control boards in India could have become really effective watchdogs, instead they are mostly ineffective, despite the powers and functions vested in them on paper. This situation really needs to change, says Leena Mehendale..

From time immemorial, Indian society has known the importance of keeping the quality of our land, water and air, pure. Vedas are replete with diktats on what needs to be done to keep these three Panchmahabhuta (the five natural elements air, water, soil, space and fire which combine to create a balance in nature) clean. The other two, namely sun and sky, were thought unpollutable by Man, hence very few references about them.

Creating the pollution watchdogs
After the advent of industrialisation, a strong need was felt to address the damage and pollution caused by it. The first consolidated action by the Government of India (GoI) came in the form of The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. Under it, there is a provision for creating CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) and other State level PCBs (SPCB). It is important to note that the CPCB or the SPCBs do not have the word “water” in their name, although their Authority comes from that Act. Later, as two more Acts were passed, namely, The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, and the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, the power and authority of the CPCB (and SPCBs) was expanded to cover the aspects of pollution like soil, air and noise. The beginning was good, so to say.

Thus the PCBs were vested with powers to control under the Water Act, Air Act and Environment Act. They cover a large number of polluting activities. In fact, theoretically, they cover all the activities known in the past and the present and whatever can arise in future, that can cause pollution. This is evident from a large number of rules and notifications brought out by GoI from time to time, which enhance the scope of the PCBs. Here is an impressive list from a wide range of subjects that these cover:

  • pollution of water caused by industrial effluents
  • air pollution through diesel engines and hence standards for gensets
  • noise pollution and fixing permitted decibel levels
  • municipal waste
  • biomedical, plastic and electronic waste
  • waste from construction activity
  • cigarette smoking in public places
  • air or ambience polluting activities near Taj Mahal
  • petroleum induced sea-pollution
  • coastal pollution
  • control of fly ash from thermal power stations
  • local Acts for cleaning and conserving river basins such as those of Ganga, Godavari, and other rivers
  • Toothless watchdogs?
    Some details about the functioning of PCBs are worth mentioning. The CPCB is supported by state boards and can create suitable arrangements for Union Territories. It has the support from testing laboratories under the government and can also authorise other labs for testing specific aspects of pollution. Already it has recognised nearly 150 labs across the country. All the three Acts give elaborate authority and procedure to the officers and the Boards to set up standards, receive complaints, collect samples and get them tested from the labs, and initiate civil and criminal cases against persons who cause pollution. In addition, the parent ministry, namely, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has passed yet another Act and set up Environment Tribunals which can hear individuals or public litigations, and can order compensation and penalty for those causing pollution.

    Despite such elaborate legal framework, authority, infrastructure, manpower resources, and budget for the PCBs, the pollution of water, soil, air, environment remains unabated. A common citizen is at a loss to understand the reasons for failure to control pollution. The worst failure of all was the Bhopal gas tragedy that will perhaps remain unparalleled in history, for its violation of all safety norms for air and environment protection. It was a failure of implementation as well as of effectively penalising the culprits and adequately compensating the losses, and reveals the glaring defects in the working of these Acts and their administrative or legal back-up.

    Apart from such tragedies, the routinely known failure of these Acts comes from the huge pollution caused by industrial effluents, be it from chemical industries, sugar factories, tanneries, pesticide factories etc. The Boards are virtually powerless when confronting big industrial houses causing these. There are reasons for this. First, the inadequacy of functions entrusted and authority granted to the Boards. What are they? The concerned chapters on functions under each Act elaborates them. They are essentially:

  • Power to enter any industrial premise suspected to cause pollution
  • Power of inspection
  • Power to take samples and send them to laboratory
  • After receiving lab report, to file FIR and when the case comes up for hearing, attend the court to assist them to punish the guilty
  • This shows that the Boards only have “nuisance” power as their officers can inspect and collect samples. Beyond that, the Boards are powerless even when the pollution is visible. Secondly, the procedure laid down for collecting samples, their proper packaging and sending to the lab for testing is again too elaborate and time consuming. There is no power to punish or stop a very obviously happening pollution. Once the lab reports arrive and if an individual or agency is found guilty, an FIR is lodged against the guilty, and the matter is handed over to the police who routinely investigate the case, often without understanding the technical aspects of that particular pollution. After the investigation is complete, the police file a case in the court. The authority for imposing financial penalty or imprisonment lies solely with the court. Additionally, the Board officers are not declared as investigating officers.

    Under the present Environment Protection Acts, the Boards (but not its officers) have authority to refuse certain permissions to the industry, but there is no prescribed action against those who carry out their operations without seeking permission.

    Under the present Environment Protection Acts, the Boards (but not its officers) have authority to refuse certain permissions to the industry, but there is no prescribed action against those who carry out their operations without seeking permission. Thus what seems and is often projected as a wide authority of the Boards is often of little consequence if the industry chooses to flout rules.

    No real time solution
    The Indian judicial system goes by the principle of separation of power. Thus, the investigating officers, the courts and the authority to implement punishment are three separate entities. Creation of PCBs has added a fourth entity. All this is too much of division of labour which becomes completely ineffective while dealing with small-level violations, where quick punitive action is the key to the visibility and effectiveness of the system. Today, equally elaborate procedure is required to be followed for dealing with both small and major violations. Hence, the focus remains on minor violations where the Board officers are able to demonstrate some “nuisance power”.

    Another reason why PCBs have remained ineffective is that they seek to resolve the complete problem in one go, rather than dissecting the problem into several sub-problems and solving at least some so that they achieve part improvement. Declaring Board officers as Investigating Officers under CrPC is one such example. There are many more, smaller measures which can bring only about 10% improvement, but at a small budget and very little lag-time. Boards, while waiting for big ideas have often ignored them. Hence they fail to provide any real-time solution to our huge problem of pollution.

    What is described above are the functional lacunae of the Acts and the working of the PCBs. But a much bigger issue often remains unaddressed. We can see that lots of efforts have gone into creating these laws and forming the Boards. A huge legal framework is created, and enough physical infrastructure, budget, and manpower have been put in place. Yet, the outcome is poor. This is because our regulatory and punitive agencies, modeled after the British system, are totally segregated from any role as an educator or researcher.

    Where is the budget for training and awareness?
    We do not see the Board budgeting for any training or research. The parent Environment Ministry provides a miniscule budget, if at all, on training and almost nil on research. So when there is a real-time problem, especially with semi-government bodies, e.g. municipalities, I have seen spurious agencies offering huge schemes, making tall claims, requiring and getting huge financial support, and finally reporting half-success or failure. Secondly, the PCBs do not involve citizens in their programme of inspections. In fact, any citizen-oriented programme, if ever taken up by the Boards or the Ministry, is never focused on local, visible problems for which citizens may have much greater insight and can also be a monitoring agency. Local schools and colleges are never invited in the problem-solving exercises. Our models and systems built on these models require a paradigm shift in that direction. PCBs will do well if they spend some budget on education, training, research and citizen-orientation.

    In Western countries, two thumb rule criteria are used to mark the cleanliness and goodness of their cities. One is freedom from dust, pollution and noise. The other, I think, shows great foresight. It recognises the right of citizen to enjoy a ‘watchable’, ‘starry’ night-sky and hence puts restrictions on the frequency, intensity and the angle of inclination of street lights, so that the “starry night” is not masked in their glare. We are still way away from this.


    Leena Mehendale

    The writer retired as Chief Information Commissioner of Goa in the rank of Supreme Court Judge. She is an accomplished administrator, teacher, thinker and writer. She has travelled over 400 out of 650 districts in India and is proficient in many Indian languages. As an administrator she has worked in various departments which include education, women, children, industries, petroleum, agriculture, and health. Some of her service highlights are economic rehabilitation of Devdasis, making TV and radio serials for energy conservation, designing, training and framing policies for Yashada (Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration) and promoting Indian languages on computers. Presently, she is actively pursuing revival of Sanskrit language. She has authored 25 books on diverse subjects.