Time to fix pollution control boards

Time to fix pollution control boards

The pollution control boards in India have been mute spectators to the declining environmental quality.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) recently passed a landmark judgment (Rajender Singh Bhandari Vs State of Uttarakhand) with respect to the appointments to the pollution control boards (PCBs).

It ruled that only those persons who have ‘special knowledge’ and ‘practical experience’ in ‘matters relating to environmental protection’ are eligible for appointment as chairperson and member-secretary of the PCBs.

This, according to the Tribunal, is a statutory requirement under the law. Unfortunately, across various states, persons who do not fulfil the criterion have been appointed in these posts. For example, in Sikkim, the state pollution control board is headed by Kulawati Subba, former Speaker of the State Assembly. In Uttar Pradesh, it is headed by Syed Javed Abbas, whose experience, as stated in the judgment, is that he has been active in grass root politics and ‘green peace’ activities.

The Karnataka Pollution Control Board was headed by Dr Vaman Acharya who is an MBBS doctor who has treated patients in the Western Ghats. An Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the rank of additional chief secretary heads the board in Tamil Nadu and the chief secretary heads the board in Andhra Pradesh. In Puducherry, a person trained in veterinary sciences is the chairperson, and so on.
According to the Tribunal, to qualify as ‘special knowledge,’ the knowledge should not be ‘ordinary’ or ‘casual’ in respect to environment matters. It must be exceptional in nature and derived through exceptional study or research over a reasonable period of time in the field of environment.

In the Tribunal’s words, “the word ‘knowledge’ is preceded by the word ‘special’ and therefore has to be acquired through an accepted and established norm of education, that is an academic qualification in the field of environmental protection as recognised by a university established by law.” 

Similarly, with respect to ‘practical experience,’ it is specific experience in the field of environmental protection and not merely because of specific posts occupied or designation. Applying the above criterion, the NGT concluded that politicians, MLAs, IAS or even officers belonging to the Indian Forest Service are not eligible to be appointed to these crucial technical posts of the government.

The NGT directions are timely. India's environmental governance is in shambles. The pollution control boards have been mute spectators to the declining environmental quality across the country. Despite specific penal powers, the boards have refused to initiate action against even blatant violators.

The most striking example of the functioning of the boards is the latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau of Ministry of Home Affairs which provides details of the environment-related offences in 2015. In the 36 states and Union Territories, a total of 50 offences were registered under the Air Act of 1981.

Of the 50 cases, 42 are in one state – Maharashtra. In 25 states and the seven Union Territories, not a single instance of violation was recorded or action initiated. The state of affairs with the Water Act, 1974 is no different, with a total of 10 offences registered in all the states and UTs put together.

In all, in the southern states, only eight offences were registered under the Air Act, 1981, Water Act, 1974 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 put together. At a time when 10 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world are located in India where air pollution is the fifth largest killer (as per the Global Burden of Disease Report, 2013) and where water contamination causes death of about 1,600 people per day, the inaction of the pollution control boards is nothing short of criminal neglect.

Specialised service

The NGT direction is, without doubt, the first important step and now, other administrative  reforms need to take place. One critical issue which needs active consideration is the setting up of a specialised service to administer the subject of environment, including the pollution control boards.

One suggestion is to thorou-ghly revamp the recruitment, training and skill development of the existing Indian Forest Ser-vice and call it the Indian Forest and Environment Service (IFES). The officers of the IFES have to be trained (including in-service training for existing officers) in both environment and forest science and be able to provide the much-needed technical support to not only administer the pollution control boards but also other environmental bodies.

In addition, they should also be appointed to various departments of the government which have implications on environment. There needs to be active discussion on these lines both in the government and within the civil society. Administrative reforms have been one of the most neglected areas in environmental governance.

The focus has been essentially in enacting new laws without stressing on the human resources required for meeting the statutory and constitutional mandate. It is time the focus shifts to reforming and evolving a governance structure which is able to meet the environmental challenges of present times. 

(The writer is a New Delhi-based environmental lawyer)

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