In India, as in most countries, permits are required to establish and operate businesses that have environmental and social sensitivities. The Pollution Control Boards (PCBs) in India require businesses to obtain consents to establish and operate, following a well-laid-down review and permitting process.
These consents prescribe the conditions that are to be met. The conditions generally refer to the mitigation plans, the monitoring and the reporting. Inspections are then carried out by the staff of the PCB to check the compliance. The consent to operate requires to be renewed after a stipulated time period.
The business on account of economic conditions, labor issues, dispute etc. sometimes shut down their operations and exit. There are several approvals required in closing down the business. However, there is no consent required from the PCB.
Many businesses in their exit phase simply spew away pollution and residues causing serious concerns to the safety of workers and neighborhood and the environment. There are instances when sludges and rejects were injected into borewells on the site or buried in the top soils. Barrels and contaminated sacks and such packaging materials are left on the site. In effect, the site is deserted in a contaminated state and it continues to pollute natural resources, causing a liability to the next occupier.
In India, we do not have site assessment as a formal requirement. We do not have regulatory frameworks e.g., standards, to address the issue of contaminated lands. So when serious issues of land and water contamination get reported, the PCBs step in and act suo moto to remedy the site and recover the remediation costs from the polluter. The costs of remediation are often high and implementation takes quite some time. In-country experience on remediation is also low. Besides, identifying the ‘culprit’ is often difficult and one needs to use advanced techniques of environmental forensics to know whom to blame.
The website www.pollutedplaces.org provides examples of contaminated lands in India and other parts of the world. I am clipping below just one case of Hema Dyechem
|Hema Dyechem Private Limited, formerly Hema Chemicals, operated a Chromium Sulphate manufacturing unit in the Gorwa Industrial Estate of Vadodara (a city about 115 kilometres south of Ahmedabad) from 1965 to 2001. Despite the enactment of the Hazardous Waste Rules in 1989, the company disposed off approximately 77,000 tons (estimated by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board or GPCB) of toxic Chromium waste around the unit. The laborers working in the factory were unaware of potential health risks, and used the Chromium-rich sludge to fill up low lying ditches in the neighborhood. They also mixed the sludge with cement to construct their houses and spread it across the boundaries of surrounding fields. The abandoned plant site itself covers about 15,000square feet and is contaminated with chromate salts. The illegal dumping areas may cover as much as seven kilometres of filled trenches along the roads in the vicinity of the factory. Hema’s illegal dumping at this site has spurred the largest Public Interest Litigation in Indian history. GPCB has sued the company for INR 170
Instead of responding on a reactive basis it may be worth acting proactively on such issues. One possibility could be to introduce a mechanism of consent to close i.e. permission required from the PCB to allow closure of the business. This requirement may be restricted to only those businesses that fall in the red category, above a threshold of manufacturing or investment, or when the business activity is proximal to a sensitive natural resource or
Consent to close will require conducting site audits by the PCB or a PCB-accredited agency. Financing institutions and regulatory agencies (e.g. industries department or factories department) may insist on obtaining consent to close from the PCB. This requirement will help avoid dumping of wastes and residues by the industries during operations or prior to closure.
A requirement for consent to close may avoid to a great extent instances of site contamination and subsequent remediation. Perhaps the TSR Subramanian Committee set up by India’s Ministry of Environment & Forests & Climate Change for reforms in Environmental Laws in India should consider this proposition.