NGT asks ED to investigate polluting industries at Tarapur MIDC
This follows over five years of litigation between local fisherfolk and various industries and state bodies over the discharge of untreated industrial effluents into surrounding creeks and rivers
Mumbai In an unusual move, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has asked the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to investigate polluting industries located at the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation’s (MIDC) complex in Tarapur, near Boisar in Palghar district, under provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
This follows over five years of litigation between local fisherfolk and various industries and state bodies over the discharge of untreated and partially-treated industrial effluents into surrounding creeks and rivers, eventually leading into farms, salt pans and the sea.
The final judgement in the matter (Akhil Bhartiya Mangela Samaj Parishad & Ors. v. MPCB & Ors.) was delivered by a four judge-bench chaired by NGT chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel on January 21. “In the present case, when environmental norms were not followed, by not operating effluent treatment plant or by discharging partially or totally untreated pollutant...this resulted in the commissioning of scheduled offence and revenue earned by committing such crime is proceeds of crime as defined in PMLA 2002... by showing it as part of business proceeds in accounts amounts to projecting or claiming it as untainted property. The entire activity is covered by Section 3 of PMLA 2002,” the bench noted.
The PMLA was initially enacted to cover terrorist activities and illegal trafficking of narcotics, among a limited set of statutes. In 2012, the law was amended to cover violations of environmental statutes, specifically under the Environment Protection Act, Air Act and Water Act. The amendment has been in effect since February 2013, but more than eight years after the fact the ED has yet to initiate any action against violators committing environmental offences, the bench remarked, pointing out that offences under the PMLA are cognizable offences, unlike those under Environmental Acts.
“Offences under the environment acts are non-cognisable, which is why the Acts are not strong deterrents against violations such as have been carried out by industries at MIDC Tarapur. They also carry very paltry fines, whereas crimes under the PMLA attract more stringent legal action,” said Gayatri Singh, veteran lawyer and counsel for the applicant in the matter.
“I have never seen the NGT take such a stance before. It is a welcome move that evolves environmental jurisprudence in the right direction. The PMLA has been widened in scope as per the 2012 amendment, so the NGT is within its bounds in asking revenue authorities to investigate, wherever environmental offences may have led to the accumulation of funds,” she added.
The Tarapur industrial area, set up by MIDC, is spread around 15 villages, where the population is largely indigenous and involved in artisan fishing, in addition to agriculture and salt-making. The area is woven by a network of creeks, lakes and rivers leading to the sea. The petitioner in the matter had first moved the NGT in 2016, with the grievance that water resources, which provides a livelihood to locals, were being subjected to “grave degradation” at the hands of respondents, through the discharge of untreated industrial effluents.
It was revealed in court proceedings that a central effluent treatment plant (CETP) operated by the Tarapur Environment Protection Society (TEPS) was found to be operating at a max capacity of 25MLD, as against the required capacity 37-40MLD discharge which is being let into water bodies. A court-appointed expert committee also found the presence of heavy metals (mercury, lead, chromium, and cadmium) at the outfall points, and highlighted the “general failure in maintenance of standards” of effluent treatment plants.
The Tribunal also noted that these violations have had an adverse impact on public health. As per information placed on record by the medical superintendent, Rural Hospital, Boisar, the establishment reported a high incidence of 4,000 cases of skin diseases in one year between January 2015 and January 2016. The Ground Water Surveys and Development Authorities (GSDA), Palghar, and sub-divisional water testing laboratory conducted an analysis of 86 water samples from marked borewells and 535 water samples from private bore wells, of which five government and 61 private samples were found unfit for consumption due to presence of iron and turbidity, the NGT noted.
In its final judgement, the NGT revised the total amount of environmental compensation payable by 100 identified polluting units to ₹262 crore, up from ₹160 recommended by the expert committee in June 2020. This amount is to be deposited with the MPCB and used for the restoration of the environment and remedying the health of locals, a task assigned to a fresh court-appointed committee headed by the MPCB and district collector.
The MIDC was also rapped for failing in its statutory duties and ordered to pay an amount of ₹2 crore as environmental compensation. A plan to remediate environmental public health is now expected to be drafted by April this year and executed by April 2022. It will be drafted by representatives from the CPCB, MPCB, health department, National Institute of Oceanography and the district collector.
Kanchi Kohli, a researcher with the think tank Centre for Policy Research, who reviewed a copy of the NGT’s judgement at HT’s request, said, “This interpretation is important as it extends environmental liability to financial corruption. The NGT’s directions to the ED may be a significant mechanism to hold violators accountable even though it continues relying on the ‘polluter pays’ principle as a restorative measure. However, neither our environmental laws nor the judgement has strong enough deterrents against violations, such as the possibility of losing their license for the offence committed. It also does not have any space for people affected by the violation to frame remedies and fix liabilities which is necessary.”
MPCB officials in the district directed inquiries to Yashwant Sontakke, joint director (water), MPCB, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.