Study shows TNPCB ill-equipped to monitor the environmental impact of pollution

The scientific team of TNPCB is working at half its strength, affecting the Board's ability to carry out inspections in Chennai and other parts of the State.

The Central Pollution Control Board and the State Pollution Control Boards are the primary custodians for preventing and controlling all forms of pollution in our country. Despite their significant role in environmental protection, the public is mostly unaware of the functions of these regulatory bodies, due to insufficient research.

Therefore, we at Citizen consumer & civic Action Group (CAG) have attempted to understand the functions of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), through a study titled ‘The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in Retrospect: An Examination of Selected Parameters from 2017 to 2022.’

Read more: Fisherfolk lament as environmental threats push Pulicat Lake to the brink of decline

Here we present a few significant findings and recommendations drawn from this research.

TNPCB’s composition and policy-making

TNPCB, mandated by the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, comprises members from various state government departments, state-owned corporations and non-official members representing different sectors. This composition ensures diverse representation to effectively address pollution and its environmental and health impacts in Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

TNPCB pollution
A fly ash pond in Chepakkam village in Ennore, North Chennai. Fisherfolk here feel the TNPCB has failed to regulate industrial pollution in this region. Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

However, our analysis revealed a lack of representation from the fisheries sector and local bodies. This could potentially affect decision-making on issues related to coastal communities and local bodies’ interests.

Considering that Tamil Nadu’s coastline is the second longest in the country, addressing these gaps in representation could lead to more balanced and inclusive decision-making.

The professional and departmental composition of TNPCB significantly influences its policy as well as decision-making process. About 47% of the Board members belong to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and 6.5% to the Indian Forest Service (IFS).

One member represents the Indian Economic Service (IES), while the remaining 46% are categorised as ‘others’, including officers from state-owned corporations and non-official members from sectors like agriculture and industry.

The majority of decision-making members are from the IAS, whose decisions can greatly influence the Board’s functions. However, this could limit the diversity of perspectives in the Board’s decision-making process.

Tenure affecting decisions on pollution norms

In addition, the frequency of member changes also impacts the Board’s decision-making. Over six years, key departments like town and country planning, environment and forests experienced more member changes, disrupting the continuity of discussions and decisions. This could slow down decision-making and affect the Board’s efficiency.

However, members from the Directorate of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, who have had longer tenures on the Board, could have facilitated several long-term decisions related to public health and pollution control measures.

To prevent frequent changes that could hamper the Board’s functions, the government should ensure a longer tenure for the members. If necessary, it could consider amendments to the Water Act or its relevant Rules.

Decision-making process of TNPCB

The decisions made at the Board meetings primarily focus on personal and administrative matters (41.4%), followed by technical decisions (28.4%) related to environmental standards and operations. Expansion of operations, which includes the establishment of new offices and environmental laboratories, accounts for 9.2% of decisions.

Of the decisions made regarding financial grants, around 5% were allocated to environmental protection works by other government departments. However, a small percentage of funds (around 2%) were allocated to non-environmental protection works, raising questions about the justification for such expenditures. For instance, it was observed that the Board’s funds were used for LED strip lights and floor lights for the 44th Chess Olympiad held in Chennai.

Read more: How has TNPCB failed North Chennai?

Capacity of the TNPCB

TNPCB’s technical team, crucial for its functioning, faces a staffing issue with a 21% vacancy rate for engineering staff and a 54% vacancy rate for scientific staff. This could impact the Board’s ability to inspect and monitor industries effectively.

While the Water and Air Acts stipulate a time limit of four months for processing consent applications from industries, TNPCB has set a stringent timeline of 45 days. Based on the available data, none of the consent-related applications were processed within the ambitious 45-day timeline set by the TNPCB.

This deviation from the intended timeline can be attributed to the significant number of vacancies in the Board. The government should take immediate steps to fill the vacancies among the technical, scientific, and administrative staff of the Board, even if there are justifiable reasons for these vacancies. These vacancies have affected the mandate of the TNPCB.

More details from the report

The findings and recommendations mentioned above provide just a glimpse of the CAG’s report on the TNPCB, which is based on data from 2017 to 2022. Readers are encouraged to take a detailed look at the report.

This study assumes significance as research on the functioning of Pollution Control Boards in India is generally scant. Importantly, this report and its recommendations are made in good faith to strengthen the functioning of the Pollution Control Board. However, it’s worth noting that this study does not take into account the practical and financial difficulties involved in implementing these recommendations.

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