Filthiest rivers in India
There was a time when Hanif S. Parkar, a fisherman from Dhabol Khadi village in the coastal district of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, could net 25 different kinds of fish from Vashisthi, the local river.
For the past 25 years, factories in the neighbouring industrial belt of Lote Parshuram have been dumping untreated effluents in the river, destroying all life forms in it. The fish are dying and the river no longer offers a livelihood for Parkar and others like him in the village.
For the last 15 years, Parkar has been campaigning against river pollution in the area, engaging with the officials of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) as well as the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) which maintains the belt.
Maharashtra, the state with India's biggest economy, also has the highest number of polluted river stretches in the country. And, at 161, it also has the most number of cities and towns along polluted stretches, according to a 2015 report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
Of the 156 locations where the CPCB has set up its monitoring units on the 49 rivers and tributaries in the state, 153 do not meet the water quality criteria. The MPCB has issued more than 5,300 show-cause notices to erring factories between 2011 and 2017.
The MPCB has limited powers to discipline errant units, and hence the state has been unable to contain river pollution along its industrial zones. The board can issue notices or levy a small fine. But these measures are not strong enough to deter factories from emptying their waste into rivers.
The state has more than 75,000 manufacturing units which include automobile, tyre, textiles, chemicals, and steel industries. Many of them are in the Pune-Chinchwad region.
Pune attracted 45 per cent of the notices (2,392 of 5,276) issued to polluting factories between 2011 and 2016. This is thrice the number served to the region that attracted the second-most -- Kolhapur (673).
Pune also has the most polluted rivers in the state, according to a joint survey on water quality conducted in 2014 by the MPCB and The Energy and Resources Institute.
In 2007, the state government had drawn up a plan to develop infrastructure in the state to facilitate industrial growth. The plan included Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Kolhapur, and Aurangabad. These regions, along with Navi Mumbai, are among the top six in the list of regions served the most notices by the MPCB.
Factories in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region -- comprising areas such as Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane, Raigad and Kalyan -- received about 20 per cent of the notices.
The MPCB classifies factories on the basis of a pollution index, calculated by factoring in how much their operations pollute air and water, and generate hazardous waste. They are then classified into red, orange, and green categories, red being heavily polluting.
Of the 5,276 notices issued by the MPCB, 65 per cent (3,445) went to factories in the red category. Orange and green categories attracted 1,599 and 232 notices, respectively.
A look at the list of erring companies showed that large-scale units were served with 47 per cent of the red-category notices. The rest were served to medium and small-scale industries.
In Kolhapur, which has the second-highest number of defaulting factories, 64 per cent of red-category notices were issued to medium and small-scale units. In Navi Mumbai -- third in the list of regions that got the most number of notices -- of the 282 factories categorised as red, 80 per cent are medium and small-scale.
Copies of the MPCB's directives to erring companies reveal that many factories have been discharging untreated effluents into rivers such as Warna, Sonpatra and Panchganga in Kolhapur, Ghot in Navi Mumbai, Savitri in Raigad, Godavari in Nashik and Krishna in Sangli and Satara.
The lax monitoring of and prosecution for water pollution in the state means that Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) routinely flout environmental guidelines on discharging untreated effluents into rivers.
Medium and small-scale industries depend on common plants for the mandatory treatment of their chemical waste. But the malfunctioning of even one can raise the levels of pollution caused by all the units dependent on the CETP. Currently, Maharashtra has 24 CETPs; five more are set to come up.
Of five CETPs in the Dombivli-Ambernath belt, four were not working, according to a March 2016 affidavit submitted by the CPCB to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Three years before that, in 2013, the level of pollutants in treated effluent was found to be "dangerously high" at three CETPs in Pune.
Experts allege that the MPCB doesn't implement rules and regulations in letter and spirit. Time and again, social activists and NGOs have blamed the board for laxity in the enforcement of environmental norms.
IndiaSpend analysed 150-odd notices served by the MPCB to erring units and found that in many cases, multiple directives had to be issued to the same company because it simply did not respond to an earlier alert. But merely serving notices means little, said experts.
"Industries know they can continue doing what they want to," said Geetanjoy Sahu, an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, who is researching on compliance and enforcement of environmental laws in India. While the MPCB has issued directives to erring units, it hadn't taken any legal action against them, he pointed out.
Polluting companies only needed to give an assurance to the MPCB that they would comply with the norms and pay a small fine, IndiaSpend's investigations found. But the law requires that any company found polluting its surroundings ought to be penalised and directed to restore the environment within a stipulated time.
The Bombay High Court too had taken note of such violations in an order passed after hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) in December 2011. The high court had observed that whenever the MPCB's regional officer sought to act against the polluting units in MIDC, Mahad, the chairperson of the board would modify the closure notice.
The chairperson would then impose certain conditions on the company and levy a fine to let it continue its operations, the court observed. The companies in question would then continue to flout pollution control norms.
"That is not a satisfactory manner of dealing with the problem. The damage is being caused to the rivers by the polluting industries," the high court noted while issuing a show-cause notice to the MPCB chairperson.
For Maharashtra, the year 2015 began with the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government scrapping the 15-year-old Rivers Regulation Zone policy. This was seen as a step towards the government's bid to promote manufacturing under its "Make in Maharashtra" campaign.
The move enabled all industries to set up their factories near rivers, sparking fears of aggravating water pollution. Besides widespread protests and PILs, even the NGT asked the state why the decision shouldn't be considered invalid from the outset.
The pollution control board has a sanctioned strength of 840 employees. Of these, 275 were vacant, as on January 01, 2017. On average, 150 posts were vacant each year during the last five years, an analysis of annual reports shows. Of the 840-strong workforce, only about 350 belong to technical and scientific teams.
The MPCB is required by law to grant or refuse consent to the operation of new factories within 120 days of a request for permission. If the board doesn't give its verdict in this period, consents are deemed granted. As of January 2013, more than 17,500 consents had been pending for more than 120 days, according to the board's own records.
"This is an alarming situation. These 17,500 factories can start operations without having the mandatory environment protection guidelines from the board," said Sahu of TISS.
In April 2016, the NGT had directed theUnion Ministry of Environment to intervene, noting that the MPCB had failed to check the discharge of untreated effluent into Ulhas river in Mumbai metropolitan region. In view of the MPBC's inability to do its job, the CPCB had requested permission to monitor Maharashtra's CETPs.
The treatment of liquid waste is a costly affair for any factory, more so for a chemical unit, a former senior official of the pollution control board, on condition of anonymity, told IndiaSpend. A bribe could help keep costs low, said the official.
As many as 1,726 industrial units in Maharashtra that are prone to polluting water have only partial facilities to treat their effluents, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General's 2011 report on the MPCB. The report said 356 units have no treatment facility at all.