Whose credentials are greener?

It is surprising but true that of the three most energy efficient cement plants in the world, two are from India. In several sectors, like aluminum, steel, paper and power, Indian plants are among the most energy efficient in the world. Energy efficiency is also a reliable proxy for overall environmental performance, as modern energy efficient technologies are also required to meet stringent environmental norms in the developed countries of origin-typically Europe, Japan, and the US. Indian industry has perforce had to employ these modern technologies in their investments in recent years owing to global competitiveness concerns.

Another driving factor has been the requirement of mandatory environmental appraisals in a number of potentially polluting sectors. Environmental impact appraisals, in the case of many types of projects, involve consultations with stakeholders. The concerns of the stakeholders, besides those revealed in the impact assessment reports, have to be addressed by an environmental management plan, which is subject to monitoring and enforcement. Lapses in implementation of environmental management plans may also be reported by third-party stakeholders to the state pollution control boards for enforcement. The courts have also been pro-active in several cases. I do not argue that the system is as effective as it should be. Nevertheless, it does act as a significant deterrent to rampant polluting behaviour.

There have, of course, been some lapses. Unauthorised groundwater withdrawals by a soft-drink major in Kerala brought the company in direct conflict with local residents. Pollution from a power plant in Maharashtra have allegedly reduced agricultural yields, leading to court intervention. Mine tailings in Goa have made agricultural lands unfit for cultivation. On the positive side, Indian industry has garnered the second-largest number of clean development mechanism (CDM) projects worldwide, involving considerable innovation in clean technologies.

Nevertheless, Indian industry faces a number of challenges on the environmental front. The older plants are generally more polluting than recent ones. They need significant technology upgradation and modernisation. Competitive pressures and heightened awareness of environmental issues by local stakeholders are gradually forcing them to do so. The pace of change can, however, be significantly accelerated by more effective monitoring and enforcement. The power of random audits as an instrument of governance may help. A few years ago, the Central Pollution Control Board adopted, on an experimental basis, a system of randomised selection of industrial plants for surprise inspections. The rate of detection of environmental violations increased manifold. Unfortunately, the experiment was abandoned when a new chairman, whose priority was technology innovation rather than governance, took office. This system needs to be revived, institutionalised, and mainstreamed across the entire environmental monitoring and enforcement regime.

There remains a serious problem of pollution in the small-scale sector. These units have serious constraints of access to capital and technology. However, all is not lost. Many such units employ standard equipment-electric motors, boilers, cupola furnaces, etc. The adoption and enforcement of strict environmental performance standards in the manufacture (in the large-scale sector) of such equipment may help ensure environmental sustainability in the small scale sector.

Tags: industrial pollution, industrial plants, India, energy efficiency, clean development mechanism