On March 10th, a significant audit report that has probed into the state of environmental clearance processes and post–clearance monitoring was tabled in parliament.

This 117 pages performance audit report contains very indicting comments on the state of non-compliance which almost borders on impunity. It also shows how State Pollution Control Boards( SPCBs) /Union Territory Pollution Control Committees and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) as well as Regional Offices of Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) failed to monitor compliance of environment clearance conditions by project proponents. The most shocking audit findings is that many such non-compliances were also observed in the projects operating within Critically Polluted Areas( CPAs). While the audit report contains a minefield of information on the state of environmental governance in country, this article engages with what CAG auditors found with respect to 22 projects that are operated in CPAs.

During the year 2009-10, CPCB in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi carried out comprehensive environmental assessment in 88 prominent industrial clusters. This comprehensive assessment was based on Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index (CEPI), which is a rational number to characterize the environmental quality at a given location following the algorithm of source, pathway and receptor. Out of 88 industrial clusters, 43 industrial clusters which were assigned the score of 70 and above were declared as CPAs.

To restore the environmental quality in these 43 critically polluted areas, MoEFCC had taken several actions during the period 2010-14, the most significant of these being imposition of moratorium on grant of environment clearance in all these 43 critically polluted areas. However, on several occasions during October 2010 to September 2013, MoEF decided to lift moratorium from 26 of these critically polluted areas. This decision was based upon statements furnished by SPCBs to the effect that some ground work had been initiated in line with the submitted action plans.

Missing actions in the plans

During audit scrutiny, it was found that out of 16 states where these 43 critically polluted areas are located, the SPCBs of only 12 states (Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal) had prepared action plans. CAG auditors couldn’t ascertain the position of preparation of action plans in three states, namely Gujarat, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. Although Najafgarh drain including Anand Parvat, Naraina, Okhla and Wazirpur were identified as critically polluted area, Delhi stated this requirement was ‘not applicable’! Further reply by MoEFCC in October 2016 stated that action plan pertaining to Najafgarh drain basin was in draft stage.

CAG auditors also probed whether the action plan were in public domain and found that only in five states (Andhra Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Karnataka, Odisha and Punjab) websites of SPCBs provided access to these action plans. In the case of six states (Jharkhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal), it was claimed that SPCBs had prepared action plans, but these were not displayed on websites of SPCBs. What is absolutely saddening is that during the course of these performance audit, four states (Delhi, Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra) did not provide any information vis a vis preparation of action plans.

However, the audit paragraph 6.3 had stated that Kerala’s SPCB had prepared action plan, whereas Jharkhand’s SPCB had failed to do the same and audit paragraph 6.4 listed Jharkhand as having prepared an action plan but not displaying the same. Has this contradiction entered because SPCBs and MoEFCC has made contradictory claims at different times during the course of audit? Or this simply goes on to suggest that CAG auditors were checking compliance and performance merely as ‘ticking the box’ activity.

Environmental activists and organisations would have liked to see a robust analysis of the qualitative parameters of the action plans prepared by SPCBs, with reference to critically polluted areas in an environment audit. Those from Indian Audit and Accounts Service (IAAS) who have a passion and commitment to environmental auditing genre have made efforts to enhance their academic capabilities on this subject, but their efforts are frustrated by audited entities whose non-cooperative attitude almost borders on disrespecting a constitutional institution with impunity.

In a further reply filed by MoEFCC in October 2016 after the draft audit report was presented to them, they argued that all 16 SPCBs have been directed to upload the action plan on their website. One can only wonder and shout aloud, “only if directions would have ensured compliance”!

Monitoring the action plan

So if this was the state of affairs on the front of preparation of action plans by SPCBs and making them accessible in public domain, how did SPCBs perform when it came to monitoring of the action plan execution?

CAG audit notes that “In nine states (Andhra Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Kerala, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) the implementation of action plan was monitored by SPCBs, whereas it was not monitored in six states (Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh) by SPCBs and in case of Delhi, it was stated as ‘not applicable’”. In its reply on this audit observation, MoEFCC stated that “the local level committees in 35 critically polluted areas have been constituted for monitoring the implementation of action plans, while in the respect of remaining eight CPAs, the committees have not been formed and SPCBs were monitoring the progress”.

SPCBs were also required to submit yearly monitoring report of critically polluted areas to CPCB. Audit scrutiny revealed that during the period 2011 to 2015, only eight states (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) submitted monitoring reports to CPCB regularly, whereas seven states (Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Kerala and Maharashtra) did not submit the monitoring report to CPCB. In the case of Uttar Pradesh, monitoring reports were submitted intermittently.

Audit scrutiny also showed that only six states (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh) brought the increase in pollution levels to the notice of CPCB as well as MoEFCC, while the other states failed to monitor pollution levels.

In April 2016, MoEFCC directed the concerned SPCBs to ensure that monitoring of action plan gets carried out by third-party bi-annually. Third party monitoring was done by five states (Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab and West Bengal) and in case of Karnataka, one project (i.e. MRPL) was monitored out of two projects. Audit scrutiny revealed that in remaining 10 states (Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh) monitoring of the implementation of action plan by third party was not done.

Responding to this audit finding, MoEFCC stated in its reply dated October 2016 that “all the SPCBs had been directed to undertake third party monitoring in CPAs on regular basis”.

A lacklustre ministry

And what happens when the ministry issues mere directives?

Audit scrutiny revealed that in September 2013 MoEFCC had directed CPCB to undertake environmental quality monitoring in CPAs through a third party in biennial basis for computing CEPI in these 43 critically polluted areas. It was seen through the scrutiny of records that CPCB had not finalized the firms through which the environmental quality monitoring was to be done till May 2016, although the work was to be completed in the year 2015. In May 2016, during the course of performance audit CPCB merely stated that “the environmental quality monitoring in 43 critically polluted areas would be undertaken by CPCB during 2016-17”. Five months after this moment, when a shocking non-compliance caught by CAG auditors was being responded by CPCB with mere assurances, MoEFCC in its reply field in October 2016 argued, “due to paucity of funds and other administrative difficulties, the third party monitoring could not be performed by CPCB in 2015” and went on to merely assure that “the finalization of zone wise monitoring agency was in process and CEPI score was expected to be evaluated in 2016-17”.