Venkatachalam just a tip of an iceberg at TNPCB?
Industry players allege corruption well-rooted and widely prevalent
CHENNAI: The Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC), in its first information report (FIR) registered on Thursday against AV Venkatachalam, chairman of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), made a passing reference about other officials involved in corrupt practices. It said Venkatachalam "colluded with other officials in committing criminal misconduct and criminal misappropriation".
Several players in the electroplating industry who spoke to TNIE argued that the phrase "other officials" should have been written as "most officials". All of them were pointing at large-scale prevalence of alleged corruption in the board and stressed that Venkatachalam's case is just a speck of sand.
In the last quarter of 2020 alone, the DVAC booked at least two TNPCB officials and seized `3.58 crore from one of the official's house in Vellore. An owner of a red-category industry in Chennai, who had to pay bribes on many occasions in the past due to non-compliance of rules, said money is involved at every stage where the board issues permissions.
Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Air (P & CP) Act, 1981, bestows on TNPCB the power to issue consent letters to establish and operate industries and renew such consents every year. The board also issues authorisation to entities handling hazardous waste. "These are the checkpoints where bribes play a role," said an industry observer, further alleging "any entity can operate, despite violations, until hands of the board officials are greased".
Though a project proponent has to apply for consents only online, an industry owner, who is in the business for over three decades, alleged there would be no response from TNPCB, and even if we get a reply "officials would find many faults with the applications causing delay". The owner claimed he had to pay `3 lakh bribe to get the consents and had to approach private consultants to start a new venture. He added that an entrepreneur who quickly wants to start a venture is left with no option but to pay bribes.
A private consultant, who has helped several people set up establishments in the last three decades, alleged the bribe amount for a newcomer ranges between five to six per cent of the entire project cost. "However, for projects with large investments the percentage reduces," he said, adding this besides bribes sought for yearly renewal of consents, other permissions, and demands of TNPCB staff during compliance inspections.
Though the board has not officially authorised any private consultants to liaise between it and industries, a significant number of consultants do operate. Another private consultant (two decades into the industry) said, "For officials who want bribes, I convey the requirement to my customers, who will pay them in cash." When asked why corruption has been normalised, he said, "No company can function by absolutely complying with pollution control board norms and that gives scope for corruption."
The above-mentioned sources and others, who had paid bribes previously, told TNIE some top officials in the board have employed private persons to collect bribes. They said even some private consultants get the job done. Cash changes hands in common places, such as tea shops, restaurants, ice cream parlours. For large sums of money, more secured spaces are preferred.
Responding to corruption allegations, official sources in TNPCB said all officials were acting in accordance with instructions given by Venkatachalam who has been wielding power as chairman since 2019 and member secretary previously. A senior official said, "In order to bring in transparency and provide relief to industries, the State is now planning to issue Consent to Operate (CTO) for a set number of years, instead of renewing it every year under "Ease of Doing" policy."
He added, "Currently, industries under red category are issued CTO for one year, and under Orange and Green category for two years. Now, the CTO validity to Red, Orange and Green categories would be granted for 5/10/14 years respectively, on receipt of necessary fees. The industries that are willing can use this facility from this year."
TNPCB has categorised the industries under Red, Orange, Green and White based on the Pollution Index Score.
(With inputs from SV Krishna Chaitanya)