Making the Gross Domestic Product the sole measure of national development for many years has left Indians with a natural environment that is among the most polluted in the world. Regardless of that dismal outcome, and in spite of settled law that polluters should pay, the Centre and State governments continue to balk at stronger enforcement of environmental laws. New evidence from a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on the approach of the States to their environment protection duties only confirms the view that they pay no more than lip service. The findings make it clear that the position of Chairman of a State Pollution Control Board is often used to reward political loyalists. This has been done even when the candidates lack prescribed qualifications, brazenly violating the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981. The malaise, though, is not of recent origin. An evaluation of SPCBs done more than a dozen years ago during the Eighth Plan and published by the Planning Commission referred to ‘the predominance of non-technical members in most of the Boards and the lack of professionals.’ The effects of such policies of convenience were felt acutely over the last decade when GDP growth was robust. Unsurprisingly, India today brings up the rear in air quality even among Asian countries.
Last year, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests disclosed that the Central Pollution Control Board had identified 43 critically polluted industrial clusters in 2009 for remediation. The outcomes are far from clear. Moreover, the poor record of SPCBs became evident when the CPCB issued 118 directions, after surprise checks, on failure of industries to comply with water and air quality laws between 2009 and 2012. Surprise checks and directions to State Boards can, however, cover only a small portion of industrial activity. Major laws relating to pollution remain a dead letter in most States, with rivers turned into sewers transporting waste downstream. Such contemptuous disregard for the environment can continue only at the cost of public health. There is a strong case to compel the SPCBs to publish, in real time on the Internet, data they gather under various laws and rules, particularly on water and air quality, noise pollution, and disposal of different types of waste. Lack of transparency in their working should be eliminated by setting up oversight panels with civil society representatives and independent technical members from reputed institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. The moribund environment protection boards need a thorough shake-up, starting with the appointment of individuals with the right credentials to lead them.