Lessons from Tuticorin violence

Dear Editor,
This is in response to the editorial titled “Ruthlessness on display” (May 23)
Twelve people were brutally killed and many people injured in police firing following protest demanding the closure of Vedanta group’s Sterlite Copper Plant due to it’s role in causing environmental pollution in the vicinity . The plant that was in operation since 20 years, used to cause severe environmental pollution as reflected from the gas leakage in March 2013. The erstwhile Tamil Nadu Chief minister had ordered its closure. The company somehow did manage to continue its operation with the help of National Green Tribunal. Then the state of Tamil Nadu moved the Supreme Court against it and that petition is still pending there. In this view, it is pertinent to mention that despite enforcement of environmental acts and regulations, this industrial unit continued to regularly discharge copper waste to land/water and emit toxic gases and particulate matter leading to detrimental effect on environment, economic and social aspects. Obviously non-compliance of this particular plant was a common feature and thereby suffering of the local people had reached alarming proportion.
Many industries do operate in India by neglecting their important role in controlling pollution-related problems. The main reason is that though corruption is the major obstacle to ensure pollution-free environment, but poor enforcement of environmental regulations is also no less responsible. The regulatory agencies inspect the industries once or twice a year, but unable to ensure control of pollution in a consistent basis. It is not always feasible with limited trained/experienced personnel to continuously monitor the environmental performance over time and so the environmental and social problems remain unaddressed in the area in the vicinity of the industrial plants.
The important factors that cause impediment to sustainable control of industrial environmental pollution in India and even in developing countries are non-availability of trained manpower, communication gap between government and industrial owners, policy frameworks, budgetary and organizational limitations, aversion to innovation and technological change, rigidity and bureaucratic complexity, high cost of environmental services/technologies, scarcity of information and lack of clarity on environment legislation and many more. The poor enforcement of environmental regulations act as a barrier in introducing cleaner production approach as adopted in many developed countries coupled with the lack of trained personnel in environmental agencies to carry out policy objectives. The Top management — responsible for framing environment management policies, objectives and procedures — is typically bureaucratic and do not take proper initiative to upgrade the system of inspection and monitoring program and improve human resource development. Compounded with these, lack of awareness (about policies, objectives and procedures ) and attitude (performing personnel responsibilities) among the technical workers result in failure of effective monitoring in fulfilling the defined objectives. The regulatory agencies are monitoring the emission from the stack and the effluent of the industries as per the provisions of environmental acts and regulations just to verify the compliance status without assessing the actual causes of non-compliance. The knowledge and hardship required for evaluating degree of success are practically lacking and thereby regulatory authority is unsuccessful in providing the volume of waste (solid/gas) generated at the cost of the raw material and fuel in their existing production process. Though formal training is imparted to staff at huge financial cost, but effectiveness of these trainings are seldom evaluated by the concerned authorites in environmental agencies. Even the industries, which are meeting the permissible limit of the industry specific standard as per the inspection report, are often polluting the environment. The huge number of Public Interest Litigation cases filed in the Green Tribunal bear clear evidence of poor enforcement of environmental regulations. The petition pending in Supreme Court, against the operation of the Sterlite copper plant for pollution problem, is clear example of poor enforcement of environmental regulations. The possible reason is that monitoring carried out by regulatory agencies cannot provide, in many occasions, reliable measurements. This may be attributed to the static type of management in the Government institutes.
Presently all industries are facing great difficulties in adopting advanced environmental protection measures. Mere enforcement of environmental regulations cannot solve this problem. Now emergent need is to adopt Cost effective cleaner production (CP) technologies and practices. Moreover aversion to innovation and technological change(both on the part of industries and employees of environmental regulatory agencies) as well as rigidity and bureaucratic complexity within the regulatory agencies must be reduced for future environmental plans through CP concept and economic development. Government and environmental regulatory authority must play significant role in changing the attitude of the manager of the industries. The regulation agencies, particularly in developing countries, must act to encourage Cleaner Production, exposing it as an opportunity for organizational improvement and economic benefit to address economic, environment and social problems and frame the policy to carry out environmental audits for assessment of the actual benefits associated with CP implementation in terms of energy consumption, violation cost and environmental performance in the backdrop of previous production practice at managerial level.
Dr Debapriya Mukherjee
Former Senior Scientist,
Central Pollution Control Board