Boards are understaffed, have little time for meetings, inspection or regulation, says study

Environmental protection seems to be in shaky hands with political appointees nominated to head state pollution control boards (SPCB) in some places. In one case, the educational qualification of the chairperson was tenth standard.

In Karnataka, for instance, the chairperson of the SPCB is Vaman Acharya, a senior BJP leader. In Himachal Pradesh, it is Kuldip Singh Pathania, a Congress party leader and former MLA, and, in Uttar Pradesh, Waseem Ahmed Khan was the head of the board for six months till he was removed in February 2013. Khan was appointed at the behest of a political party leader.

In Arunachal Pradesh, Ralom Borang, a sitting NCP MLA heads the SPCB and in Manipur the honour has fallen on E. Dwijamani Singh, also a sitting MLA. In Maharashtra J.S. Sahani, a former bureaucrat, heads the board. Ms. C. C. Sangdarpa, a tenth standard pass, was chairperson of the SPCB in Sikkim from 2005- 2009, according to a new study based on information culled under the Right to Information (RTI) act, which has found serious lacunae in the functioning of 28 SPCBs in India, mandated to implement laws related to environmental protection and air and water quality.

The study says such appointments are in blatant violation of Supreme Court guidelines and the law, according to which chairpersons should be qualified in the field of environment or should have special knowledge of the subject. Mr. Sahani has retired and by appointing him for only one year, the Maharashtra government has violated section 4 of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 which says the minimum tenure should be three years.

Titled “Environmental Regulatory Authorities in India: An assessment of state pollution control boards,” by Geetanjoy Sahu, assistant professor, Centre for Science, Technology and Society, School of Habitat Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), the study raises doubts about the efficacy of SPCBs but finds no evidence to support new regulatory bodies in the form of the National Environmental Protection Authority or the National Environment Assessment and Monitoring Authority proposed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

Apart from unqualified political appointees, the SPCBs are understaffed and have little time for meetings, inspection or regulation, says the study. Chairpersons remain symbolic and data shows that except in Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Nagaland and Tripura, the average tenure of the chairperson in all other SPCBs has been less than three years. Though it is mandatory for the SPCBs to meet at least once in three months, the study finds that the meetings have not been consistent and often not well attended. They also have less than 17 members stipulated under the law. Board members should have a three-year tenure which is rare.

The study found a shortfall in human, technical and financial resources and increasing political interference and inability of SPCBs to adapt to emerging environmental problems. Poor resources and increasing political interference created hurdles in implementing environmental standards and norms effectively at the grassroots level, the study concludes.

The TISS study was conducted in March-June 2012 and analysed data from RTIs, reports and interviews. Even earlier studies pointed to environmental regulatory bodies facing a number of challenges such as lack of resources and increasing political interference in the performance of their statutory duties.

No industry can be set up without prior permission from the SPCBs that mainly regulate air and water quality and also approve locations for industries and conduct inspections or determine effluent standards for waste, among other duties. The Central Pollution Control Board in June 2006 said there were 2672 highly polluting industries and more than 1551 industries were not complying with norms laid down by SPCBs. Inspections are not conducted to check compliance as stack tests are rarely conducted. According to MoEF, Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) contribute to 70 per cent of the environmental pollution load in India.

Many States have not increased the staff strength of the SPCBs and report many vacancies. For example the study quotes a media report saying Kerala still operates with the staff strength it had been allocated in 1995, though new areas like municipal solid waste management, biomedical waste and high-rise buildings have been brought under its ambit. Of the sanctioned strength of around 320, 150 remain vacant. A committee appointed by the Supreme Court had recommended sanctioning 20 additional posts to the Kerala SPCB around six years ago, but nothing has been done so far.

Shortage of staff is a serious issue and Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha SPCBs have not recruited even one person in the last five years. While environmental engineers and scientists have been recruited, these appointments are contractual and the salary is so low that most of them either leave or work under tremendous pressure.

>> “Political meddling proves toxic for pollution control boards” (July 22, 2013) gave the name of the sitting NCP MLA in Arunachal Pradesh as Ramol Barang. It should have been Ralom Borang.