One recurrent theme in the whole legal fracas around whether Sterlite Industries is polluting or not, has been that of the ‘green belt’. Sterlite’s detractors get worked up about the state regulator, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, going against its own thumb rule of a green belt of 250 meters and reducing it to 25 meters for Sterlite. This point has come up before the courts repeatedly.
However, it should be noted that the extent of the ‘green belt’ cannot be a number set in stone. A greenbelt is not a park. It is an external pollution-reducing entity, which is known to typically absorb about 20 per cent of pollution load.
First of all, the trees around a factory are not among the primary instruments to reduce pollution from the factory—that is the job of the pollution control equipment, such as filters, ESPs and scrubbers. So, one should not think of the greenery around a plant as a particle-sink, even though it does perform that function to some extent. To put it in another way, a large sylvan ring around a plant is not an excuse to pollute. To an extent, the green belt is an ecological symbolism, though it is not to say that it is not more than that.
How much area should be occupied by a green belt has, therefore, to be decided on a case-to-case basis. If a factory features the most modern pollution control or sequestering equipment, a thinner green ring might not be bad, especially if there is pressure on land. For sure, there does not appear to be a scientifically-determined equation relating the level of pollution and the extent of greenbelt.
Intuitively, pollution and greenbelt are linked, but there is no direct proportionality because several other factors jump into the equation. Therefore, if a regulator reduces the greenbelt from a normative 250 meters to anything less (as in the case of Sterlite), no wrongdoing is necessarily implied.
Furthermore, just as vertical space has been created by multi-storey buildings to address land crunch, there could be vertical green belts too. Today, vertical gardens are coming up, right up the walls or pillars. This concept must be tapped for green belts around industries as well.
These vertical green belts could come up where there is residual pollution load or all along the compound walls or even on top of the walls. Pollution control boards should think on these lines and instruct industries to install such vertical green belts. Professional horticulturists, foresters, architects, structural engineers could jointly come up with innovative designs.It is therefore time for the government to clearly articulate a statement on greenbelts around factories. Call it Green Belt Policy, if you will.
(The author is a retired professor from
Anna University and a former Expert Member of
the National Green Tribunal)