Crisis of credibility
Shoddy pollution data remains a big concern even today when real-time monitoring is being used in Indian industries. Not only does it sow distrust among the industry, regulators and common public, it also slashes the Government's confidence to opt for self-monitoring regime
Self-monitoring is an ideal mechanism for pollution regulation wherein industries themselves own the responsibility to properly monitor pollution levels in the plant and submit the monitored data to the regulator for a compliance check. Here, credibility and quality of the data are believed as appropriate which matters a lot— it is ultimately used for compliance check and mainly to frame effective policies and legislations that mutually benefit industries, environment as well as the public health and safety. The European countries present the best example. The European Commission which is an executive body of the European Union collects such industrial pollution data from the member countries, assesses it and proposes suitable and uniform legislation in all of Europe. The member countries adopt the proposals suitably as per their national regulation. The wonderful effectiveness of such policies and legislations in the European countries like in Sweden, Norway, Germany etc. needs no proof. Other countries such as the USA and the UK (erstwhile an EU member) also follow self-monitoring practice. Self-monitoring system enables industry, the polluters itself, to own the liability of pollution monitoring, control and reporting which ensures transparency in the system and smooth environmental governance. Besides saving resources and skilled manpower for more productive tasks, it avoids red-tapism and corruption, a big problem in the developing economies. The self- monitoring regime is based on the real-time monitoring where the data is also used for emission trading market, a system where industries compete themselves to pollute less and earn profit. These are the best mechanisms in use worldwide.
One would ask that if self-monitoring is so good, why it is not practised in India? And why are environmental policies and legislations not really effective?
The answer is in the inherent problem of the credibility and quality of industrial pollution monitoring in India.
THE INHERENT PROBLEM
Though trust on the industry-monitored data is the heart of self-monitoring practice, in India, the credibility and quality of the data are non-existent. The distrust between industries and regulators, industries and local community and also the regulators and the local community is known to all. It is unethical practices in India's conventional pollution monitoring and reporting system which have led to this trust deficit. Here, industries are required to get pollution monitoring done through an environmental laboratory accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) or recognised under the Environment Protection Act. The monitored data is reported to the state regulator — the state pollution control board (SPCB) or the pollution control committee (PCC) in union territories. The ground reality is grim — these laboratories which manage to get pollution monitoring job at industry going through cut-throat competition, often ends-up taking an order at a substantially low price. Not only this, they also have the pressure of keeping their client happy to get further jobs, therefore, ultimately ends-up compromising with the quality of monitoring and the results. Many laboratories resort to just handing over all-complied pollution monitoring reports to the industry. Since industry gets to know about regulators any plan for inspection of the site, it reduces the pollution level to the appropriate level during the inspection. In many cases, even the regulators while doing an inspection, find signs of high pollution level from the plant. The local community which plays a watchdog role on the ground often raises voices on pollution incidents. Such cases are common and many of those have landed in legal battles, but eventually gets lost in time.
Some incidents of high pollution are possible in the industry but there are habitual offenders who chose this way to save expenditure needed for pollution control. Since the regulators have access only to these cooked reports that too in a month or three months period, they have no clue and control on what happens on the ground. The SPCBs or PCCs are often short of manpower and loaded with work, rarely gets chance to inspect industry. This loophole assures offender that nobody is watching.
THE DISGRACE IT BROUGHT
The convention system is not bad, rather it is unfit to this scale of industrialisation and in this era. What makes it wrong is the unethical practices which has plagued the entire system, so much that this compliance check system is being considered a farse and whitewash. Decades of unethical practices have brought-in this disgrace to the entire industry fraternity. The industry data is always considered false and manipulated even if it is not. The regulators have also earned a bad name for accepting false compliance and allowing the industry to get away with it. The public including the local community believes that industries are liars and the regulators are corrupt. This is not good for the system. There need some serious efforts to revive the system and reconstruct the trust — both by industries and the regulators.
Trust building must be a common goal. Onus is largely on the industry to revive its image, become transparent, responsible and trustworthy to the regulator, community and the environment at large. Needless to say, the regulators also have to wash the blot from the past system and reinstate its lost image of a guide and mentor.
THE RIGHT WAY
Since missing transparency in pollution monitoring and reporting process is the root cause of the problem, real-time monitoring is expected to help. Under this system, an automatic pollution monitoring device is installed in the industry which monitors the pollution and sends data directly to both the central and state regulators. There is not much manual intervention required in this process, therefore, chances of manipulation remain low and the data credibility is believed to be better.
Though it is not yet adopted as a legal compliance check system, it has certainly led to the positive change in the attitude towards environmental monitoring. Whereas the industry knows that regulators are able to watch them 24 x 7, the regulators also understand that the data is directly coming to them and also being seen by everyone. It has discouraged the manipulations and chances of corruption for false compliance assurance — on the way towards self-monitoring.
Real-time monitoring brings transparency in the system, enables round-the-clock check on pollution from industry and enables proactive actions toward pollution control in the case of any unfortunate event, but, only if it is properly implemented. The current picture is not so good.
Believed to bring credibility in the system, real-time monitoring, unfortunately, is also suffering from data quality issue. This is largely because of the problems in implementation, unlike earlier systematic fiddling. Poor data quality has multiple possible reasons — the selection of wrong technology, no quality check, wrong installation, wrong-set-up, no data standardisation, apart from rare cases of intentional manipulation. Except for superficial issues, some critical issues such as correct equipment setting, data standardisation and proper calibration are difficult to be identified by the industries and therefore operates as such and generates incorrect data. Unless someone understands the industrial process and can assess the data, it remains unnoticed. This is a reality with the majority of industries and henceforth, regulators' low confidence on the data quality at present is very much justified.
CRUCIAL QUALITY ASSURANCE
Quality assurance includes the assurance of the monitor's quality and quality control by maintenances during use. One of the first mistakes industries make is the selection of a monitor which is not quality assured, especially from a supplier who is not an expert and trustworthy for appropriate and timely support services. The quality assurance of monitor has two ways — one is the selection of a certified monitor, a system followed in the European Union, which assures that it works are per the specifications. Second is the selection of a standard monitor and carry tests to check its performance accuracy and reliability, a system followed in the USA. Indian regulatory requirement permits both the models— however, those who can afford it prefer certified monitors.
A monitor, even if it is certified, requires an expert technology provider to properly adjust, install and set-up the monitor for operation and, later on, when needed provides services and repairs on time. An expert service provider can better ensure correct installation, equipment setting and data standardisation in compliance with the regulatory requirements. Therefore, it is important to have not alone a certified monitor but also an expert and trustworthy service provider to ensure proper functioning and credible data. It certainly adds some marginal cost compared to the overall expenditure, however, those who ignore such costs mostly regret such a decision later on.
If a monitor is not certified, it is to undergo a set of tests during installation by an expert laboratory. Unfortunately, India doesn't even have a system for evaluating such laboratories and the existing laboratories have no facilities and skill-sets for testing real-time monitors as per internationally recognised practices.
A NEW CHALLENGE
Industries generally purchases real-time monitors through tendering process and allot order to the lowest bidder who definitely fulfils minimum qualifying criteria. Tendering is, however, a transparent, fair and competitive practice mostly aligned with company policies, it sometimes becomes bureaucratic, time and resource consuming and barrier for small players and innovators. Apart from purchasing and installing the monitor, the industry generally asks for multi-year comprehensive annual maintenance contract (AMC). Issues come up when industry intends just to adhere to the regulatory requirement and leans more towards cost-cutting while ignoring high-quality and long-life monitor and expert service provider. The equipment purchased this way may fit into the regulatory requirement criteria, but may not be best suitable, correctly installed, correctly set-up, long life and properly serviced from time to time.
A new trend in such tendering processes has been noted where a bidder quotes unrealistically low price to grab the order. So, how such an unsustainable price, even lower than the manufacturing cost leave apart the multi-year AMC, gets quoted is something that takes everyone by surprise, even those who are expert in this field and well aware of various business tactics. This raises a valid doubt on the fact that though the tender qualifies as the lowest bid, it doesn't really have tools to assess and ensure the product and components' quality and shelf-life and after-sales services under AMC which can be explored only when the time comes. Leading technology providers, taken by surprise, often raise this doubt.
In some of such cases, the project gets on hold or under re-tendering as the selected bidder fails to realise the claim. Such inappropriate processes at the end,
if implemented, may ultimately hurt the quality and credibility of the system. Hence, it is important for industries to ensure that the quality of overall equipment, its components and the expected services are maintained in the longer run — not merely adhering to compliance norms.
Post monitor selection, its installation, correct set-up and maintenance steps are another area where mistakes may result in incorrect monitoring and poor quality of pollution data. The problems often get minimised if the supplier and service provider has enough expertise and ensures proper installation. This can help when an industry is going to install a new monitor, but what about those who already have installed? In reality, maximum cases fall in the latter category. Experience says that majority of the industries have atleast a
few problems related to real-time monitoring — smaller or bigger but nevertheless, affecting the data quality.
This also affects the shelf-life of the monitor beside bringing industry into non-compliance. The industry must concentrate on this issue, assess their installations, identify the problem and rectify them. There are guidelines and experts to get help from. It's certainly not a good choice to wait for the regulators to notice the problem and push for remediation. The industry should own up to the responsibility — not for compliance alone but to safeguard their investment and its best use.
With use of real-time monitoring, India's compliance check system is on the right path — away from the disgraceful mistakes of the past. It is one of the best initiatives for a new India but surely needs efforts to fine-tune it. Though policymakers and regulators also have important roles to play, the industry remains the actual implementer. It invests hard-earned money into the system, therefore, also focus
on ensuring best equipment, expert service provider, correct installation, operation and maintenance.
Industry efforts will ensure quality of pollution data, credible enough to use it for legal compliance check while moving towards the ideal self- monitoring regime. It is a win-win for all. The industry benefits from using accurate real-time data not only in optimising and improving the process and efficiency, but also in getting rid of red-tapism and corruption. Whereas the policymakers get accurate data to frame effective policies and legislations, the regulator will have better regulatory hand and opportunities to focus on more constructive works. The environment, public health and safety also get improved. The missing transparency, trust and credibility of the system will be reinstated gradually, and thereby, a credible and effective environmental governance system will be in place. All these, this way, seems working well in the right direction — towards a new India.
The writer is an environmental research & advocacy professional