After Supreme Court raps state, Maharashtra pollution control body admits rampant illegal activities are polluting Ulhas, Waldhuni riversUpdated: Sep 12, 2020 01:39 IST
The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) has accepted that illegal discharge of effluents by industrial units and absence of proper vigilance, which allowed violations to continue, are the main reasons behind the high pollution levels at the Ulhas and Waldhuni rivers in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR).
“There are two specific issues: first, industries may have permission to discharge effluents, but are carrying out illegal activities [discharging effluents without treating them or beyond permissible limits]. The second issue is units are functioning illegally without any consent,” said a senior MPCB official.
The admission comes after the Supreme Court (SC) earlier this week highlighted the failure of state bodies to discharge their duties in improving the water quality of the rivers, despite repeated orders by the Apex court.
“The material which has been produced on record demonstrates that the situation warrants urgent and immediate remedial steps. There has been a failure of statutory bodies to discharge their responsibilities under the law,” read the SC order published on Thursday.
MPCB said it was formulating an action plan to address the issue. MPCB chairman Sudhir Srivastava said the pollution control body will increase vigilance. “Apart from sewage coming from towns such as Ulhasnagar, Badlapur, Kalyan etc, the main problem is the illegal activities being conducted by industries. This [pollution] is happening more at Waldhuni, which later meets Ulhas. Given the challenges pertaining to the illegal disposal of waste [into the rivers], we will increase vigilance, manpower and monitoring across the entire length of the two rivers. We are also following up with urban local bodies to ensure that their respective sewage treatment programmes are implemented swiftly,” he said.
The SC bench of justices DY Chandrachud and KM Joseph on September 7 heard an interim application filed by environment group Vanashakti, alleging industries had dumped untreated effluents at several sections of the two rivers. While the Ulhas river turned turquoise (see image) and witnessed foam, between May and June water in Waldhuni turned deep red in some parts of MMR. Despite repeated complaints, there was no action on ground regarding their grievances, Vanashakti alleged.
SC directed Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to file a report within three weeks (from September 7) after inspecting both the rivers to identify the units which are causing pollution and then formulate recommendations and steps that need to be taken by the municipal corporations concerned (which will include Ulhasnagar, Kalyan Dombivli, Kulgaon Badlapur and Ambernath), regulatory bodies and units to remedy the situation.
The fact that MPCB has been kept out of the investigation was a clear indictment of its failure to do its duties honestly, said applicant Stalin D, director of Vanashakti.
“MPCB has consistently failed to take credible action against polluting industries and has always offered a cover up,” he said.
Ulhas and Waldhuni are among 53 of the most polluted rivers from Maharashtra – the highest for any state among the 351 most polluted rivers in India – according to the CPCB.
The 122-km Ulhas River supplies drinking water to more than 30 lakh residents along the Badlapur-Thane belt.
The SC is hearing the issue since 2017 and several orders were passed over the past three years directing the state to improve water quality. The SC bench on September 7 directed the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) to file a compliance report for previous orders within two weeks.
“The court will also review whether compliance has been made of the time-lines set out in the previous order for the completion and commissioning of projects (by the next date of hearing on October 7),” the order said.
Zaman Ali, the counsel for Vanashakti, said a massive increase in industrial pollution in Ulhas river soon after the lockdown forced them to move SC.
“Such high pollution levels, even when the matter is being monitored by the SC, shows that MPCB has remained incompetent to address this issue and that is why CPCB has been directed to take over the functions,” said Ali.
SL Waghmare, MPCB regional officer (Kalyan), said the local common effluent treatment plant (CETP) responsible for violating water quality norms during the lockdown was fined ₹5 lakh.
“We also shut down one unit which was using chemical dyes. The investigation into the other violators is under way,” he said.
According to Stalin, industries under MIDC continue to operate without a CETP.
“Instead of acting on violations, the MPCB tripled the consent capacities of the polluters. We are hopeful that the judiciary will ensure that the guilty officials are brought to justice,” he said.
According to MIDC, there are 1,160 industries across Badlapur, Ambernath and Dombivli, of which 631 were classified as ‘polluting industries’. These discharge 25.7 million litres of effluents to five CETPs for treatment each day. In addition to it, untreated sewage is discharged from areas under municipal limits to the rivers.
“The construction of a 7.7-km disposal line connecting effluent discharge from CETPs emptying into a creek away from both rivers is underway. This will reduce the pollutant load significantly and it will be completed by February 2022,” said Kalidas Bandekar, superintendent engineer (MMR), MIDC.
‘Samples from drinking water zone found unfit for consumption’
A water quality report from last year, based on samples collected from the drinking water zone of both the rivers showed that the water was highly acidic. The water was collected by members of the Ulhasnagar and Ambernath Citizens Forum and sent for testing to a private lab.
“Drinking water was found not fit for consumption. Despite repeated interventions of the SC, numerous complaints to the CPCB and faulty investigations by local MPCB officials, the environmental quality of this entire region continues to deteriorate each day, with only industrial bodies profiting, even as the health of residents worsen,” said Satyajit Burman, member of the forum.
Srivastava said MPCB shut down more than 500 illegal jeans washing units and also directed the closure of several textile units using chemical dyes near both rivers.
“Violations have been booked but owing to fewer officials, cases have not been completely pursued and arrests haven’t taken place. With the execution of our latest plans, we will ensure that there is no illegal dumping of waste or effluents. In case of such activities, we will ensure strict action against violators to guarantee deterrence,” he said.