As India becomes infamous for having some of the most polluted cities in the world, the Union government has made another attempt to subvert its own rules brought in to curtail air pollution.

In December, the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre had allowed all existing thermal power plants in the country to release pollutants in violation of the legal limits for up to five more years.

Now, three months later, the government has decided to exempt even under-construction plants from meeting the legally-binding pollution standards till up to five years, documents reviewed by show. The government also wants the Supreme Court to regularise at least 16 thermal plants that have come up in the last year in violation of the mandatory air pollution rules.

According to the World Health Organisation’s global air pollution database, released on May 2, India has 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world.

Environmentalists in India have expressed concern at the government’s bid to dilute the rules capping emissions from thermal plants, saying that its actions put a question mark on its commitment to tackle air pollution in the country. They say that the environment ministry’s actions on the thermal emissions front contradict a programme it launched last month to address air pollution.

“It exposes the doublespeak of the government,” said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “On one hand it is launching the National Clean Air action plan. On the other hand, it continues to kill its own air pollution norms. Emissions from power plants are significant contributor to air pollution. The government is killing the 2015 [air pollution] rules.”

Spiking its own rules

The air pollution rules for thermal plants were notified in 2015 to control the emissions of hazardous nitrogen and sulphur oxides and tiny particulate matter that can enter human lungs, cause respiratory diseases and lower lifespans. According to the rules, all existing power stations were required to contain the emission of pollutants under strict limits by December 2017. Existing thermal power plants in India were expected to cut particulate matter emissions by about 40%, sulphur and nitrogen oxides by about 48%, and water consumption by nearly a third by the December deadline. New power stations commissioned after January 1, 2017, were expected to adhere to the norms from the beginning of their operations.

But as the deadline approached, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change argued before the Supreme Court that the retrofitting of cleaner technologies would require the plants to shut down for months, which would affect the country’s power supply. It accepted a “phased plan” prepared by the power ministry to give more than 400 power stations time up to 2022 to meet the norms. At that time, the ministry did not clarify if it would also not impose the pollution norms on the plants that were yet to come up.

On March 27, however, the environment ministry submitted to the Supreme Court that it was not possible for even under-construction plants to adopt the cleaner technology, as it would increase their costs and cause delays. It has asked the Supreme Court to allow plants that received environment clearance before the 2015 rules were notified, and which have not yet started operations, to come up and continue to pollute beyond legal limits until 2022.

If the court, which is hearing a case related to air pollution in Delhi, accepts the ministry’s request, plants that are currently under construction and those that started operations after January 2017 in violation of the environment ministry’s rules, will get relief.

According to data from the Ministry of Power, 85 coal-based power plants (with an electricity generation capacity of 47,800 MW) were being constructed in March 2017. has previously reported that at least 16 such plants have started operations in the past year in violation of the pollution norms.

Another dilution

The government’s concessions to polluting plants do not stop here. Documents show that the environment ministry is considering the dilution of another set of rules that banned thermal power plants from dumping fly ash in the environment.

Thermal power plants, after burning coal, produce fly ash as waste. Most plants dump this ash in the environment, which contributes significantly to air pollution. In 2016, the environment ministry ordered that all thermal plants must have a mechanism in place by December 2017 to utilise 100% of the fly ash produced by them. But documents show none of the plants have followed this rule. The ministry has now told the court that it was considering extending the deadline for 100% utilisation of fly ash by another five years.

If approved, these plans would practically render ineffective the efforts made by the government to clean up the country’s highly-polluting thermal power sector.

All this comes even as the environment ministry, under pressure from environmentalists and advocacy groups, released its National Clean Air Programme last month. Environmentalists have criticised this action plan, saying that it focussed on monitoring of pollution but lacked action.

The environment ministry did not respond to’s email queries on the matter.

How old plants were let off

India did not have any standards for mercury emissions and the release of nitrogen and sulphur oxides till 2015. The norms for the emission of particulate matter, laid down in 1986, were lax compared to other countries. In comparasion, around the world, countries have regulations limiting harmful emissions by thermal power stations.

The December 2015 rules introduced standards for the release of mercury, nitrogen and sulphur oxides, and made existing emission norms for particulate matter stricter.

Government documents reviewed by show that immediately after the new emission rules were issued, the power industry started resisting their implementation. It argued that the technology required to reduce the pollution was costly and would need more time and space for the plants to install it. The Central Pollution Control Board under the environment ministry, which drafted the rules, discarded the industry’s contention saying enough time was given for the power plants to switch to the new technology and that the public health benefits of controlling pollution outweighed the cost of the switch to new technology.

But the industry roped in the power ministry to argue for its cause. After several meetings with the power ministry, the environment ministry gave in to the pressure. It agreed to a “phased plan” prepared by the power ministry to give up to five more years to the power plants to release pollutants in violation of the legal limits.

To modify the deadline, the ministry did not amend it rules, as this would have required public consultation. Instead, it asked the Supreme Court to approve its decision.

Relief for new plants

On January 17, the National Green Tribunal ordered that no new thermal power plants would be given environment clearance unless it complies with the 2015 pollution norms. All power projects start construction only after they receive mandatory environmental clearance from the environment ministry, which stipulates the conditions the project must meet once it starts operations.

But the environment ministry is now arguing in the Supreme Court that the under-construction projects that have got environment clearance should be allowed to operate without meeting the pollution norms. Even this is against the 2015 rules. The rules specifically mention that all thermal power plants installed after January 1, 2017, should follow the norms, including those “which have been accorded environmental clearance and are under construction”.

And again, instead of amending the rules to give relief to these plants – which requires public consultation – the ministry is insisting the court allow it. It said in an affidavit: “Modification in these [under-construction] projects at this stage requires changes in design and lay-out. This may result in delays in project commissioning, increased project cost, re-working of PPAs, increase in interest during construction and financing issues.”

The court is yet to pass an order.

“This is ridiculous,” said Dutta. “First, they did not want the existing plants to cut the emissions as per the rules because retrofitting of technology is costly and takes time. Now they want even the new plants to continue installing the old technology. Why would the plants retrofit it after five years and bear a higher cost then if they can’t do it now at the initial stage?”

At the time of notification of the rules, less time (one year) was given to under-construction plants to switch to new technology than the existing plants (two years) because the Central Pollution Control Board, after wide consultations, decided it was easier for plants to incorporate the new technology at the initial stages.

On the utilisation of fly ash, the environment ministry said that the maximum utilisation by any power plant last year was 63 %. It said the 100% utilisation as per its own notification of 2016 was not possible because of their “remote locations” and not having enough demand for fly ash in the market. The environment ministry informed the court that the power ministry has requested it to extend the deadline for 100% utilisation of fly ash up to 2022 and that it is considering the request.