New Delhi: Haryana, home to the second highest number of grossly polluting industries in the country, weakened its pollution control board and regulations in favour of industries to climb up and stay atop the Centre’s ‘ease of doing business’ rankings.

Internal documents, policy papers and interviews with the board’s officials have now revealed that the state government turned the Haryana State Pollution Control Board, a regulatory body to monitor and control pollution, into a body that serves the potential polluters - the industries - by including it in the Right to Service Act despite objections from a top-ranking official.  

It set unrealistic deadlines to grant consents to polluting industries, subverting due diligence, and chargesheeted multiple officials for not meeting the deadlines under the Right to Service Act.

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar drove these changes in favour of industries in line with the Centre’s Business Reform Action Plan of 2016 that pushed for greater industrialisation, show files on correspondence between pollution control board and the Chief Minister’s Office.

The state changed rules to drastically reduce the time allotted to the board to grant approvals to industries with environmental footprints, hamstringing the sole regulatory body tasked with controlling pollution in a region.

The government, which slashed the time for approval and scrutiny from 120 days to 45 days, is now going after board officials with punitive actions for violating the stipulated time frame, even by a day, reveal internal documents.

The board, working with the state government, also tweaked rules to renew its consent to polluting industries without due diligence. And, instead of sending officials to inspect industries for their pollution levels, for almost 3 years, the board relied on voluntary disclosure of pollution and self-monitoring of compliance by the polluting industries.

The Reporters’ Collective investigated the functioning of the Haryana State Pollution Control Board and found a pattern in diluting pollution-control regulations.

Governments have been struggling to amp up the economy but regulatory mechanisms meant to protect the environment are perceived by officials as chokepoints of growth. One such regulatory agency is the state pollution control board that works under the state governments in assessing if an industry should be allowed, monitors pollution once the industries are running and enforces environment protection laws. While it is often viewed as a hurdle for businesses, governments have swung to the other extreme by demolishing essential regulations to attract businesses, with the environment being the net loser.

Crucial among the state’s industry-friendly decisions that weakened and stretched thin the pollution control agency was categorising it as a time-bound service provider under the Haryana Right to Service Act. The board officials now have only a maximum of 30 days (15 more in case application is incomplete) to look at the application, visit the site, study the project’s impact and decide on giving permission to set up the project or start operation.

The timer ticked on the officials in the heavily understaffed pollution control board where around 63% of posts were lying vacant. Officers told The Collective that, on average, they juggled 50-60 inspections, numerous meetings, court cases and samplings in a month. But still the timer went off on some of them.

In the first half of this year, an official of the board, let’s call him Sandeep, was chargesheeted under Rule 8 of Haryana Civil Services (Punishment and Appeal) Rules, 2016 for a two-day delay.

In his reply to the charges, the official said that due to the huge workload the case skipped his attention. He explained that he conducted 60-65 mandatory inspections in the month along with numerous grievance redressal meetings and monthly sampling of rivers/drains/groundwater and sewage treatment plants.

While the official is anxiously waiting for the rap, officials of the board told The Collective that many of their seniors across offices were lined up for punishment and “they were scapegoats of a broken regulatory system that favours industry over the environment or its own officials”.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n September 2014, a month before the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in Haryana, the state was mulling changes to its pollution control regulations. 

The state’s pollution control board called a meeting of its officials to formulate “exhaustive and realistic” timelines for officials to permit the operation of polluting industries.

The board has to give approvals – ‘Consent to Establish’ to set up an industry and ‘Consent to Operate’ to begin operations – for any project that would let out pollutants.

In this and subsequent meetings in September 2014, the technical committee of the Board recommended that officials should decide on granting permission to set up an industry in 65 days instead of a maximum limit of 120 days allowed under environmental rules. Once the project gets the nod and is ready to fire, the decision on whether it should be allowed to operate should come in another 85 days instead of 120.

In October 2015, a year after the assembly elections that brought BJP to power, these recommendations were enforced in Haryana. Within 4 months, the government moved to further reduce the time limit to grant consent to establish.

This was after the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry floated the Business Reform Action Plan, 2016 which aimed to create a business-friendly environment across India through a series of reforms under ‘Ease of Doing Business’.

The Ministry asked states to provide industry permits as a service and move them online where a dedicated portal can be used for applications, payments, check status and approvals. They also recommend bringing in a law to penalise officials who don’t follow the timelines.

After the Centre's push, the board, in March 2016 reduced the time limit to grant consent to establish by 5 days.

In January 2017, in a meeting to review Ease of Doing Business in the state, Chief Minister Khattar “directed Departments to make sincere efforts to secure Top spot” in the Ease of Doing Business ranking for 2017.

The meeting instructed departments to complete "industrial/enterprise-related services" within 45 days. This includes 30 days for the initial processing and an extra 15 days if additional information is needed from the industry.

But 9 months passed without any movement. So, the Chief Minister’s Office intervened again.

On October 24, 2017 the Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister wrote to the Additional Chief Secretary (Environment). The letter said: Hon’ble CM has desired that … a notification under The Haryana Right to Service Act, 2014 be issued immediately.

Chief Minister's Office demanded that Pollution Control Board's permits be brought under the Haryana Right to Service Act.

The Haryana Right to Service Act, 2014, according to the state government, “was enacted with the sole objective of providing an effective framework for time-bound delivery of services being provided by various government departments under the State of Haryana.”

CM’s desire was that the board’s permissions be monitored under the state’s services law with only 30 days’ time to officials to process applications of industry seeking permissions, rather than the environment laws which allowed them 120 days to complete the job. The services law also had penal provisions for disciplinary actions against officials who fail to discharge their duties within stipulated time.

A day after the CMO’s letter, a top official of the Haryana State Pollution Control Board wrote against categorising the board as a service provider. The internal file notings of Haryana’s Administrative Reforms Department show that the Member Secretary of the board, S Narayanan, wrote to the Chairman of the board that board grants clearances to industries as per the Water and Air Acts “for protection of environmental norms and it may not be considered as Service under Right to Service Act”.

He informed the government that the environment laws give 120 days to decide whether an industry should be allowed, and override state’s service act that cut short the timeframe.

Pollution control board Member Secretary points out that clearance of the board should not be brought into the ambit of Right to Service Act.
The Member Secretary points out that the Water Act /Air Act takes precedence over the Right to Service Act.

The Member Secretary said these legal aspects were considered earlier and the state's Chief Secretary had decided to exempt the board from the Right to Service Act. He said that the board could take legal opinion from the state’s Law and Legislative Reforms Department if needed.

On October 31, 2017 the legislative reforms department gave its opinion. It said that the consents given by the board could “safely be brought into the domain of the Haryana Right to Service Act but in conformity with the provisions of limitation of the relevant Central Act/ Rules”.

Since the central acts only put a limit of the maximum time taken by officials to give consent, any time-limit within that period would not go against the central environmental laws. For example, under the Water Act, consent would “be deemed to have been given unconditionally on the expiry of a period of four months” if it is not granted or denied earlier than that.

The government moved its fastest that day.

The administrative reforms department, led by the Chief Secretary who reports to the Chief Minister, consulted Haryana's Law and Legislative department on a draft to announce the board's consents under the Right to Service Act.

Breaking norms, the draft was sent to the Additional Legal Remembrancer, a government officer who advises on legal matters, on Whatsapp and the official communicated corrections on telephone. The administrative reforms department notes in its internal documents that there was no need to send the draft to the legal department for vetting since the changes had been discussed on phone.

The Administrative Reforms Department informs that the notification was sent to Additional Legal Remembrancer on WhatsApp and doesn’t need to be sent for vetting.

The same day the draft was also forwarded to the state’s Chief Secretary and the Haryana Government Press for publishing it in the Government Gazette (Extraordinary).

On that day, the department issued a notification that brought the approvals granted by the board under the Haryana Right to Service Act, 2014. This meant that the regulatory board became a “service-provider” for the industry.

This notification said that the board would have to provide the service of granting approvals within 30 days, as the Chief Minister had demanded.

In the coming months, the board issued an order approving the new shorter time limit. The time-limits for giving consent to establish and operate were cut short from 60 and 85 days to 30 days, with 15 more days given to the officials in case they were provided incomplete information by the industry applicants.

“The timer starts when we receive an application. If we receive the complete information on the 40th day, we have only the remaining 5 days to process it, since we can’t take more than 45 days in total,” said an official of the board on the condition of anonymity. 

The Collective sent detailed queries to the board, the Chief Minister's Office, the Administration Reforms Department and the Haryana Right to Service Commission. We haven't received a response yet.

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]andeep’s fault was that he had delayed approval to a polluting industry, to operate, by two days. The consent to operate was granted after 47 days instead of the mandated 45.

As the official anxiously waits for the official order on whether he is guilty of dereliction of duty, which could mean his salary being docked, warning, censure, hold on increment and promotion for a specified period among others, he is clutching on to the last straw of technicality: that the time-limit means “working days” according to the Haryana Right to Service Act.

In his case, the time period counted as 47 days includes more than 3 official holidays.

While the technicality may or may not come to Sandeep’s aid, several officials of the board we talked to informed us of the critical state of affairs in the Haryana pollution control board.

“On an average, we have to do 50 to 60 mandatory inspections in a month, along with administrative and grievance redressal meetings, court hearings, sample collections and much more. Officials find themselves burdened with approximately 150 to 200 pending applications at any given point of time. Attempting to address all of them within the restricted 30- to 45-day time frame is simply impractical,” another official of the board said.

The latest available data of the board shows it received 1,248 applications for permit to establish and 12,027 for permit to operate an industry during 2017-18. 

On an average, officials have to carry out more than 650 inspections a year, said an official.

The board currently has 24 regional offices. Every such office is supposed to have a Regional Officer (RO), 3 Assistant Environmental Engineers (AEE), 1 Scientist, 1 Junior Engineer (JE), 1 Superintendent, 1 Assistant, 1 Clerk, field assistants and a peon, according to an official The Collective spoke to. But the board remains severely understaffed.

“Our branch has just 1 RO, 1 AEE and 1 driver,” revealed one of the officials.

“In my regional office we have only 3 officials — 1 RO, 1 AEE and  1 JE,”  said the official who has been chargesheeted.

In April this year, the National Green Tribunal reprimanded the state government and directed it to fill the vacant posts and look for alternatives if it’s unable to do it in a time-bound manner.

The case was filed by Varun Gulati, an environmental activist who tracks pollution control boards in three states. In October 2022 Gulati sought information from the Haryana board on its staff strength. Their response revealed that out of 481 sanctioned posts, 303, that is 62.9%, were vacant.

“The officials miss deadlines for no fault of theirs. Many positions are vacant and field officials have to do all the work from inspections, looking at all documents filed for consent to operate and establish to dealing with complaints and numerous court cases. They work under a lot of mental pressure,” Gulati told us.

“In the case of approvals, if officials take due time, delays are caused and they get a chargesheet in their name. If they work faster, they slip in their duties, which again invites punitive measures,” Gulati said.

These issues are not new or temporary, they have not been resolved for years.

In September 2020, a report of the Central Pollution Control Board highlighted this and asked the board to “make recruitment on sanctioned posts lying vacant, 49 % of which are Scientific & Technical Posts, for effective disposal of its mandated functions.”

The report noted that out of the 2,747 Grossly Polluting Industries (GPI) units identified across the country, Haryana hosted 638 operational GPIs, ranking it as the state with the second-highest number of operational GPIs after Uttar Pradesh with 1,079 operational GPIs.

But even after that and the April 2023 order of the NGT in Gulati’s case to fill up vacant posts, the board is yet to, according to officials The Collective spoke to. In its Action Taken Report, the board told the NGT that applications received for vacancies were not ‘eligible in all respects’, therefore fresh circulars were issued for filling up of the posts on a deputation basis.

Instead, the Haryana government kept diluting various regulations for the ease of industry, such as extending the validity period of the approvals they are granted and allowing these approvals to be automatically renewed.

While the board was constantly decreasing the time limit for official(s) to grant the consents, thereby intensifying the pressure on the officers and support staff, on the other hand, it was extending the validity of these consents, offering a significant relaxation for polluting industries.

Previously, Consent To Operate for Orange category industries (those with a Pollution Index score of 41 to 59) was valid for 3 years, while Red category industries (those with a Pollution Index score of 60 and above) held a 2-year validity, after an initial validity period of only one year. However, since October 2015, these durations have been increased to 10 years and 5 years, respectively. This effectively allowed industries, even those with substantial environmental impact, to operate for prolonged periods with reduced oversight and regulatory scrutiny.

In March 2016, the board issued a new directive introducing a provision for the automatic renewal of CTO based on self-certification and an undertaking of compliance with the conditions of the previous CTO granted to industrial units. After being reprimanded by NGT in the year 2019, the Board introduced an amendment of ‘pre-verification of documents’ in its auto-renewal policy for CTO.

Now the Haryana pollution control board operates as a service provider to industry, and not as an agency which is answerable to citizens for the plumes of toxic pollution that envelope the state’s industrial belts. 

After the story was published, the Haryana Right to Service Commission responded to The Collective's queries. It said the government's efforts to notify the Board's clearances under the Right to Service Act, which entails penalty in case of failure, is “praiseworthy”. The Commission said the timelines in this act show the department's commitment to providing services within a specified timeframe, which might be shorter than those in other acts like the Air Act or Water Act.