Back to the pollution board

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COME OCTOBER and people from all over the world pour into Agra, drawn by the beauty and romance of the Taj Mahal. But this year, with the tourists will be a group of experts on pollution and pollution control systems, come to take a look at the industrial pollution that threatens to damage the mausoleum.

Tourism, as an industry in Agra, is being overshadowed by industries such as iron foundries, glass works and brick kilns. Earlier, it was the tourism department that took centrestage during the five-month tourist season. This year, the spotlight has moved to the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), following an August 27 Supreme Court order closing down 212 industries in the 10,400 sq km sensitive zone around the mausoleum, known as the Taj trapezium.

The court has also asked another 299 factories to set up air pollution control systems by November 17 or shut down. In a judgement that has taken both industrialists and environmentalists by surprise, Justice Kuldip Singh warned, "The court would not even hesitate to close down the Mathura Refinery -- the biggest industry in the area -- if it found it was polluting the atmosphere."

The orders have come nine years after lawyer M C Mehta filed a public interest petition on July 24, 1984, requesting the Supreme Court to check the industrial pollution that was posing a threat to the Taj and the people in its vicinity.

Mehta insists "there are more than 1,300 industries in the area" and he would "not rest until all of them conform to safe environmental norms". And no one is taking his threat lightly. Says Nannu Mal Mittal, director of the Glass Industrial Syndicate (GIS), an association of Firozabad's bangle manufacturers, "We had never thought this would happen. But the court has already closed 147 units in Firozabad and it may close many more. After all, it is the Supreme Court of India, you cannot even appeal against its orders."

The court ordered the closure of only those units that refused to file replies to its orders, interpreting their action as disobedience and contempt of court. Otherwise, only two factories besides the Mathura refinery have installed pollution control systems in the trapezium area that houses, according to local sources, more than 1,200 industrial units. Even though the UPPCB submitted a list of 511 polluting factories, about 300 units that asked for grace period were given time till November 17 to install these systems.

Stalked by fear
As the deadline approaches, even the industries that escaped the court's wrath are in a tizzy. Though most of the industries affiliated to GIS have not been closed, fear and uncertainty grip its members. Says GIS president Mahendra Prakash Agrawal, "The foremost issue on our minds is how to avoid closure."

The scene in Agra is no different. Only about half a dozen member foundries of the Agra Iron Foundries Association (AIFA) have been closed. The rest responded in time to the notices served upon them because of which they have been given time to put their houses in order. But apprehension is writ large on the faces of most of the foundry owners. Says Raman, owner of the National Iron Foundry and head of AIFA's environment unit, "No one knows what is going to happen next. We may have to close any day after the deadline expires."

But even now, only a few industrialists are willing to cleanse their acts. While there is little sign of cleaner industries emerging, a lot of resources are committed to finding means of avoiding the judicial dragnet.

The response of the business community to the court orders can be divided into three categories. Most businesspersons want to stall for time, hoping enough loopholes will be found in the Indian legal system to allow "some pollution". Then there are those who are convinced the pollution their units cause is insignificant. Finally, there are scores of clever businesspersons who have seen the writing on the wall and know pollution control just cannot be wished away. So they want to set up "something that will enable the UPPCB" to give them no objection certificates (NOCs).

But some industrialists doubt the sincerity of the government officials who are to issue the NOCs. Says Vishwadeep Singh, a Firozabad industrialist who owns the Electronic Glass Industries, "Even if I install the most modern system, I still have to get certificates to satisfy the court. Let someone assure us we will not have to please the officials to get the certificates."

A few factory owners in Firozabad say UPPCB has been playing foul from the very beginning. Claims Yogendra Kaushal, president of the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Agra, "UPPCB never told us anything about violating pollution standards. And in many cases, the court notices were sent so late, they reached the industrialists after the April 25 deadline."

And says Singh, who is also director of the Firozabad district chamber of commerce and industry, "Many units outside the trapezium have been included in the list of 511 polluting units." He mentioned Gowardhan Glass Industries, P K Glass Enterprises, Firozabad Glass Shell Industries and Choice Glass Works among them.

The areas where the affected industrial units are located have become the hotspot for several "environmental consultants" and pollution control systems manufacturers. The only qualification they hawk is their "clout with the appropriate authorities" and many industrialists in the region find the offer tempting. "We only want to ensure our factories will not be shut down and if someone can ensure that, we will pay the price," says a bangle manufacturer in Firozabad.

On the other hand, genuine equipment manufacturers and pollution experts, including the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the Envirotech Consultants of Delhi, offer no such guarantee. In fact, according to Kaushal, NEERI has clearly stated that it would require a minimum of six months and Rs 12 lakh to design the required air pollution control system (APCS). Says Raman, "UPPCB has not given a clean chit to Mahajan Iron Foundry and Gopal Iron Foundry, the only units that installed APCS about two years ago, even though they were designed by NEERI."

But it is the science of ecology that most of them are using as a shield against installing APCS. As Raman argues, "Neither UPPCB nor any other agency has been able to quantify the burden of pollution caused by the foundries." Mittal makes the same argument on behalf of the glassware makers of Firozabad. Both groups contend they emit marginal quantities of sulphur dioxide, which forms the sulphuric acid that corrodes the Taj. Foundry owners quote a November 1981 NEERI study that put the total SO2 emission from foundries at 121 kg a day. They also say their SO2 emissions could not have gone up as the government has banned both new foundries as well as the expansion of old ones.

In contrast, the six million tonne-capacity Mathura refinery has been allowed to emit SO2 at a maximum rate of one tonne an hour (See box). According to O P Garg, UPPCB regional officer at Agra, the emission from the refinery is in the range of 600 kg an hour. "This is what has shot up the pollution load around the Taj," asserts Kaushal. Raman says other major offenders are the thousands of vehicles that ply around Agra, the hundreds of brick kilns that have sprung up during the last two decades and the diesel generators that are commonly used because of acute power shortage in the area.

The basic problem appears to be the absence of convincing scientific studies to source polluters. Now industrialists and environmentalists want the court to adjudicate on these scientific issues. "But it is not the job of the judiciary to examine scientific issues related to environment," argues Supreme Court lawyer Rajiv Dhawan. It can only give directives to government agencies to perform their role better. Finally, it is upto the executive agencies set up for this task to ensure that the environment is not polluted, says P S Pothi, former justice of the Ahmedabad High Court.

The nine-year-old legal wrangle, however, has only highlighted the suspect performance of the executive in disciplining polluters. While it is almost certain that after the November 17 deadline expires, the Supreme Court will come down heavily on factories without certified pollution control equipment, it is doubtful if the procedure of obtaining NOCs will be clean. UPPCB's attitude is clear from what Garg told Down to Earth when asked to react to allegations that the board was not trying to help clean the environment. According to Garg, "It is not our job to tell them what equipment they should use. They should find out and install the necessary equipment themselves. After that, we will examine them and if they meet our standards, they will get the NOCs."

This has left a large number of manufacturers groping in the dark. While the bigwigs in the trapezium talk of group activities, they are also taking measures individually. The small ones, on the other hand, are entirely at the mercy of the government. Allegations are rife around Agra that it is a conspiracy to get the small fries out of business. This was also taken up at meetings in Firozabad and Agra by participants who requested the board for technical and financial assistance. Even Union environment minister Kamal Nath reportedly agreed with the request, but there's little hope it will materialise before the deadline.

In all this debate, the travel industry, which is Agra's biggest revenue earner, has gone unrepresented. Says Bhawani Shankar Sharma, a hotelier and travel agent, "Pollution is affecting even the tourist potential of Agra. If the Taj gets damaged by pollution, the city is finished."

Tourists come to Agra for barely a few hours, he says, because besides the Taj there is little else to see. If facilities were to improve, he argues, tourism could generate a lot more income and jobs than these industries. "...if we can create harmony between a clean environment and jobs for people, this is the only lasting solution to the problem," says Om Prakash Jindal, Congress president in Agra and a former member of the state legislative assembly. But harmony does not seem to be a priority for either the government or the industry in Agra.