by N.S. Venkataraman       4/7/2018

The recent decision of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to shut down the Sterlite Copper project in Tuticorin and seal the facilities have been widely reported and discussed all over India and abroad. Tamil Nadu government has repeatedly said that the unit would not be allowed to function again.

Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, which is under the state government, has given some reasons for ordering the closure of Sterlite Copper unit, which appears to be vague and does not point out to any fundamental issues.

Earlier, a few years back, National Green Tribunal has overturned the decision of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to close the Sterlite Copper unit and permitted operation of the unit.
.Even if Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board felt that the Sterlite Copper unit has not adhered to the stipulated environmental standards, it could have asked the unit to suspend the operation and implement necessary measures to set right the faults, if any, and then restart the plant.

It is now apparent that Tamil Nadu government and the government-controlled Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, under the chairmanship of an IAS officer, have ordered the Sterlite Copper to close permanently, given the widespread agitation against the unit that resulted in violence and police firing. Tamil Nadu Government has not cared to listen to those including the employees who felt that there is no justification for the closure of the unit. Should the fate of the industrial projects be decided on the streets?

Industrial operations in several sectors such as chemical and biotech are becoming technology intensive with the introduction of several sophisticated practices and controls. Evaluation of the performance and operational standards including environment norms of the units require considerable expertise and can not be left to those who lack domain knowledge. Functional design and parameters of the industrial units are so advanced that a general administrator or even one who has expertise about textile or steel unit cannot be adequate to judge the performance and standards of some other industrial projects like chemical or biotech industries,

Chief executives of the Pollution Control Boards are appointed by the state governments from the IAS cadre who are general administrators and have no particular expertise to judge industries about environmental issues and operational standards.

Presently, a case is heard in Madras High Court where the court has ordered notice to Tamil Nadu Government on a plea by a petitioner as to in what capacity IAS officer was holding the post of Chairman of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board as a full additional charge.

According to the petitioner, the Supreme Court in Techi Tagi Tara Vs. Rajendra Singh Bhandari case had made it very clear that the Chairperson of the pollution control board must have the necessary expertise and experience in environmental science. The petitioner pointed out that an IAS officer, has neither knowledge nor experience in the field of environment and as such, the state government was not correct in appointing IAS officer as the Chairperson of Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board.

Some people think that the closure of Sterlite Copper is a political decision of Tamil Nadu government, which took the decision, as a knee-jerk reaction to the agitation launched by fringe groups. It is also suspected that Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board might have rushed to the decision to issue closure order, due to an oral directive by the Tamil Nadu government. Tamil Nadu, Pollution Control Board, ordered closure only after the violent incidents and not before, even though, the unit has been operating for an extended period.

Given such a scenario, it appears that it would be appropriate to make the Pollution Control Boards, which are wings of state governments now, as autonomous bodies, so that they can operate independently and would not be subjected to pressure by the government or public demonstrators.
Making Pollution Control Boards as autonomous bodies will protect them from political interference, the arbitrary order of the government and pressure from the motivated fringe groups and the so-called activists. Such autonomous body can undoubtedly function better when it would be headed by technocrats, who can appreciate the technology related issues much better.

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