The violent protests against Vedanta’s copper plant in Thoothukudi in May 2018, which led to 13 deaths, may be fading from public memory, but important questions about the way industrial pollution is regulated in India, remain. The first being, how much information about pollution from industries is available to the public?

How industries perform on pollution, remains a black box. The public rarely get eyes on official pollution data from industries that are required to share it with regulators. Thoothukudi is not on the list of most industrially polluted areas in India, but even in the 43 areas that are designated as critically polluted, little information is shared with the public about the extent of pollution.

“Though the government seems to be pushing the industries towards continuous realtime monitoring of emissions, the portals where such realtime monitoring information is uploaded by industries are not accessible by general public,” said Debadityo Sinha, an air pollution activist at the Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. “Making such information publicly accessible would bring greater transparency and create a degree of accountability of the polluters towards general public,” he added.

The Continuous Emissions Monitoring System (CEMS) introduced in 2014 tracks pollution from 17 categories of Grossly Polluting Industries in real-time. However, this data is only available with the state pollution control boards and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

An RTI filed by HT to access Vedanta’s CEMS data is pending with the Tamil Nadu board and CPCB. Sources at the CPCB said that there was a lack of clarity on whether data shared by a private company with regulators could be made available through an RTI.

To capture long-term pollution, a Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) was designed and applied for the first time in 2009, to assess if the carrying capacity of the region has been breached.

“If a man can carry 60 kg, and you ask him to carry 100 kg, he cannot do it, the body has its limits, so does nature,” said Jagat Narayan Vishwakarma, a petitioner in another case in the NGT against pollution in Singrauli, a Critically Polluted Area (CPA).

In the first assessment, of 88 areas were considered, 43 were declared CPAs. A re-assessment is now underway in 100 industrial clusters. The declaration of CPA is supposed to focus attention on an industrial cluster and requires a long-term pollution mitigation plan and close monitoring of pollution levels. “The areas that were critically polluted in 2009, remain critically polluted in 2015,” Aishwarya Sudhir, a Bangalore based environmental activist, said, adding, “the plans have not worked.”

This kind of monitoring has to be done manually and is a resource intensive and time-consuming process.

For routine monitoring of grossly polluting industries, pollution regulators rely on a scheme of self-reporting and top-down regulation. Based on data shared by industries themselves, that is periodically checked by the pollution control board and the CPCB, the latter issues warnings and orders. If all else fails, either the pollution regulator or members of the public approach the courts, and the issue gets embroiled in lengthy litigation….