By Dr. Armin Rosencranz and Dushyant Kishan Kaul
The Supreme Court of India on February 22, 2017, lashed out at polluting industries and gave them a three-month ultimatum to install Primary Effluent Treatment Plants (PETP’s).This order came in an effort to prevent untreated wastes from being discharged into water bodies. A failure to do so would lead to the shutting down of these non-compliant industries.
A bench headed by Chief Justice J. S Khehar issued stern directions to the concerned state pollution control boards to issue a common notice to all industries and have proper mechanisms to treat effluvia. In fact, directions of a similar nature were issued to set up sewerage treatment plants (STP’s) for other types of wastes as well. The state boards and environmental secretaries have been entrusted with the task of assessing all units and monitoring the implementation post this three-month period.
A threat that carries weight
This order carries some weight as Justice D.Y Chandrachud and Justice S.K. Kaul said that defaulting industries would lose their electricity supply from the electricity distribution companies. This seems to be an appropriate threat issued by the Court. While some industries like Dabur and Bajaj Auto assured the Court that they had working sewage treatment plants, the majority of the units are currently operating with impunity.
The PIL was filed in 2012 by an NGO ‘Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti’ on the issue of pollution in water bodies, including groundwater and seawater. The petition had sought directions from the Court to curb the “massive” industrial pollution that was well beyond the prescribed limits. It said that the livelihood of millions of people, as well as of flora and fauna, have been endangered due to this. It was also argued that effluents that are in excess of norms should not be discharged into water bodies.
A step in the right direction
The Court, though initially seeking an explanation from Gujarat, later widened the scope of the matter. It issued a notice to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and 19 state governments in January this year and directed them to furnish affidavits. Even though the PIL was disposed of, the order signalled a long-term goal given to the government and not just private industries. It said that the state governments, as well as private industrial units, must set up Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) within three years of acquiring the land.
In addition, the State Pollution Boards was also advised to conduct “online real-time continuous monitoring process” to treat waste and display the emission levels on public portals. The findings will then be passed on to the Central Ground Water Authority for evaluation. Next, it shall then be presented to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). This is seen as a positive step as the tribunal has had a better implementation record than the Supreme Court in civil law matters.
An environmentally sound approach
Furthermore, while discussing the constitutional provisions with regard to waste management, sanitation and public health, the Court said that municipal authorities may also levy an impost from the users. This is only to be done if they do not face a financial predicament in complying. In case it was not done, the state governments will be responsible for setting up these plants and bear all costs.
However, the Supreme Court gave quite a lot of time to the concerned authorities to set up zero liquid discharge (ZLD) plants.This system has been seen as an environmentally sound and sustainable alternative. What is a cause of concern is that courts have been slow in getting this system functional. The setting up of the ZLD plants will happen six months after the first round of CETPs are in operation.
An alarming situation
The statistics produced have displayed the alarming condition of rivers in India. For instance, the CPCB study in 2015 revealed that at least 302 river stretches had high levels of Biological Oxygen Demand, a key measure of organic pollution. The statistics also point towards the fact that for the amount of sewage that is generated annually, the treatment capacity covers only half that amount.
While many have praised the order, the Court has merely been more strident in its language. The bench clearly said, “It is an important issue. If the country does not act now, it can never be retrieved”. The Court criticised the state governments for their inaction all this time, by saying, “You (governments) can see everything else but not how people are suffering.”
The apex court has been remarkably ineffective in implementing such orders. Only if the judiciary consciously decides to depart from this practice can one hope to save the water bodies vital to the nation.
Armin Rosencranz is a professor of law at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, where Dushyant Kaul is a law student.