It’s half past six in the evening and trucks hauling large containers are speeding in from the Rajasthan side of the border with Haryana. Fifteen minutes later, men with hand carts pull onto National Highway 8 and line up on the left side of a one-kilometre stretch near Bawal, Haryana. Fifteen more minutes later, bright bulbs light up these pop-up Pollution Under Control (PUC) centres that trade pollution certificates to anyone who pulls up, irrespective of how polluting the vehicle is.
Undercutting is the way of the trade on this stretch of the highway. If the licensed PUC across the road at the petrol pump charges Rs 100 for a three-month certificate, it’s the same rate on this side of NH-8 – but for a six-month period. If the first hand cart offers the certificate for Rs 100, the second offers for Rs 60. The hand carts are completely empty – no gas analysing machines, no computers or even printers to print PUC certificates – yet the certificates miraculously appear, from the dark patches off the service lane.
A recent report by the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) had described these hand-carted PUC pop-ups as an “extreme form” of “unauthorised PUC certification”. In the two-and-a-half kilometre stretch between the two flyovers on NH8, The Sunday Express counted at least 17 PUC centres. While most of the pop-up centres are on push carts, screened off on one side by boards that announce the presence of these “Pradooshan Janch Kendra (PUC centre)”, there are some that run out of shacks. Besides, there are the PUC centres that are attached to petrol pumps.
EPCA officials said one of the reasons for the concentration of the pop-up centres in a small stretch on the highway was that while PUC regulations were comparatively strict in Delhi and Haryana, they remained lax in Rajasthan. While the EPCA report describes the emergence of these centres as an “organic” reaction, The Sunday Express found that most of the cars and other vehicles that stopped at these centres for a PUC certificate were Delhi-licenced vehicles crossing over into Haryana, before possibly heading towards the Capital.
The ‘certification’ process at these centres begins with a 12-inch laptop that’s pulled out from a bag below the handcart. The car’s registration number is entered into the software – much like the one the licensed centres use – but instead of using a webcam to photograph the licence plate, as is legally mandated, these centres manually enter the registration number of the vehicle and superimpose it on a photo-shopped image of the licence plate.
The rest of the work happens some distance away, in the cover of the darkness by the side of the highway. The EPCA report says that “at least 30 feet” from the hand cart, the operator “crouched and moved a dark piece of cloth”. Under the cloth, “in a carefully dug ditch” was a printer that printed “an authentic PUC certificate for the audit team’s vehicle, complete with PUC centre code included”.
Of the 17 PUCs in the area, six were attached to petrol pumps, providing some legitimacy to the service. Dharampal Singh is among those who works at a legal PUC. Not too long ago, however, he was on the other side. Singh said he previously ran five PUCs but now operates two licenced ones. “In Haryana, it’s mostly do numberi ka kaam (illegal). While we have set rates, these guys offer certificates for as low as Rs 20,” he said.
The rates at his centre are Rs 50 for two-wheelers, Rs 80 for three- and four-wheelers that run on petrol and CNG, and Rs 100 for diesel vehicles.
Singh shows two different versions of the PUC certificate: one with a hologram with the rates printed at the bottom, the other without the hologram sticker or the rates. However, the EPCA said that while both “may be authentic, in principle”, the operators of the pop-up PUCs allegedly procure the certificates illegally.
“Come here after dark and you will find at least 25 in the next eight-km stretch,” said Singh, adding that the push carts often demarcate their territories with bricks and stones. “I have operated a PUC centre for three years now and I have never seen authorities come round to crack down on the illegal ones. Sometimes, they come to check the licences,” he said.
Transport officials in Haryana said roughly 600 permits for PUC centres had been handed out in the entire state, of which roughly 450 operate in Faridabad and Gurgaon.
When asked about these pop-up PUC centres, Transport Commissioner (Haryana) Suprabha Dahiya initially maintained that “not having a printer” didn’t mean “that they are illegal”. However, on being told that the ‘certificates’ came without the government approved rates printed at the bottom, she said, “We will investigate the matter. We conduct monthly checks.”
However, an EPCA member maintained that “there are specific rules in each state”, including on the “dimensions of the PUC centre” and the “equipment they need to have”.
S S Dhillon, additional chief secretary (transport), said the government “cancels certificates” on finding “irregularities”. He said, “The regional transport authority goes on regular checks. If PUCs are found to be operating without proper certification, their licences are either cancelled or an FIR is lodged against them.”