Niti Aayog backs ‘polluter pay’ law, says closure should be last resort

polutionNEW DELHI: The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has recently ordered closure of many polluting units in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, but such a ‘drastic’ step could soon be the last resort if the government finally legislates a proposed law which imposes heavy fines on violators instead of shutting them down altogether.

The proposed law provides for an increase in the existing penalty from Rs 1 lakh to a minimum Rs 5 crore and imprisonment up to seven years for causing ‘substantial’ environmental damage. It also has provisions of imposing fine up to Rs 20 crore and extending the imprisonment to life term in certain cases where the polluting industries cause damage to larger areas.

Though the proposed legislation has received the law ministry’s nod last year, the environment ministry has, so far, not put it before the Union Cabinet for clearance. Officials in the ministry indicated that the draft still needs to be fine-tuned after incorporating certain suggestions from stakeholders. Though the proposal drew a lot of flak from environmentalists who criticised the ‘pollute and pay’ principle, the case to have such a law is strengthened by the government’s policy think tank Niti Aayog.

The Aayog in its three-year action agenda, released on last Thursday, pitched for change in legislation, arguing that the present mechanism under the existing law (Environment Protection Act, 1986) may often lead to either “drastic action or no action” against violators.

It said, “Closure and cutting electricity\water should be the last resort. Presently, the choice for a pollution control board faced with non-compliance is to take drastic action or no action. The result is that frequently no action is taken until matters reach a crisis point”. The ministry while bringing the draft of the proposed legislation too had taken the similar plea, arguing that the the basic objective to introduce civil penalties is to ensure that those who are noncompliant and are polluting should pay for environmental restoration without always facing the threat of closure, which often also means job losses for thousands.

Officials in the ministry believe that stiff fines will force polluting industries to take corrective measures which they currently avoid since they find it easier to pay the paltry fine and carry on with their polluting activities.

At present, a violator has to pay a maximum fine of Rs 1 lakh and faces imprisonment up to five years on conviction. The fine can, however, be imposed only after filing a complaint in a court and getting an order for the same against the violator.

The proposed legislation is meant to amend the existing Environment Protection Act and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Act. Once amended, the law will have separate provisions of categorisation of green violations into ‘minor’, ‘non-substantial’ and ‘substantial’ on the basis of extent of damage and imposing fines on them accordingly.

(This article was originally published in The Times of India)

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