The proposed changes in the Environment Protection Act that would have allowed polluting industries and persons to go scot free after paying a monetary penalty have been re-opened for debate.
Tweaking the normal process of Cabinet approval, the Prime Minister’s Office on September 29 directed the Environment Ministry to post the contents of the Cabinet note on Environmental Laws (Amendment) Bill — to amend the EPA and the National Green Tribunal Act — on its website for public opinion.
Usually, a concept paper is posted for seeking public views and comments which are then suitably incorporated in the draft Cabinet note sent out for comments of the ministries concerned. Their observations are subsequently included in the final note sent out for Cabinet approval.
In this case, most ministries, especially Finance, had objected to insertion of new sub-sections in the Bill defining “substantial damage” and “minor violation” where different levels of monetary punishment were proposed.
The proposal, they said, left it to the adjudicatory authority — a senior bureaucrat or a district judge — to decide the level of environmental degradation and classify it into either “substantial damage” or “minor violation”.
The proposed Bill inserts “substantial damage to environment” as an act of direct violation, omission or negligence by which the environment is affected or likely to be adversely affected. “Minor violation” would mean an act of omission or commission by a person causing damage to environment but “not a substantial damage”.
While “substantial damage” carries a minimum penalty of Rs 5 crore (depending on the aerial extent of the damage), “minor violation” would attract a fine of Rs 1,000 rising up to Rs 10,000. Violations “not causing substantial damage” would have been fined at Rs 1 lakh and extend up to Rs 5 crore.
The introduction of monetary punishments was being seen as a mere slap on the wrist of polluters who are currently tried under criminal provisions with their economic activity put on hold until the court verdict. The Environment Ministry had cited the lack of monetary punishments as the rationale for introducing hefty fines as a deterrent.
Any pollution violation lands up in court where long legal battles go on. The fine is Rs 1 lakh on conviction with additional fine of Rs 5,000 per day in case the polluter continues to violate norms. Factories find it more practical to pay the fine rather than take expensive corrective measures, it argued. The ministry’s contention is that criminal proceedings had become a protracted affair often acting as a disincentive for adhering to environmental guidelines.
The existing regulatory solutions, it said, were drastic and against economy and public interest as factories or units were forced to shut down even when their infringements were minor and reversible.