Challenges in Regulating Water Pollution in India (GS-2,3 , The Hindu)

Challenges in Regulating Water Pollution in India (GS-2,3 , The Hindu)

Challenges in Regulating Water Pollution in India- Today Current Affairs

India passed its first water pollution regulation law, known as the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, back in 1974 and supplemented it with the Environment (Protection) Act in 1986. Since then, the context has changed dramatically: not only has the population more than doubled (now approximately 138 crore), but the urban population has more than tripled (now approximately 35%), the gross domestic product (GDP) has quadrupled, and the industrial sector has grown more than proportionately. Even as the quantity of pollutants generated has incre­ased dramatically, the nature of pollutants has also changed or diversified. In addition to domestic sewage and conventional industrial pollutants (such as salts), heavy metals, pesticides from agriculture and micro-pollutants from expan­ding household chemicals are a matter of concern .

Standard-setting: Today Current Affairs

(i) The discharge standards for indirect use appear to assume that the receiving water bodies (such as streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes) have inflows from pristine or rural watersheds, diluting the discharged pollutants’ concentration. But this would not be true for seasonal rivers and may no longer be true even for perennial ones, as upstream catchments or stretches of the river get urbanised and industrialised.

(ii) The standards vary inexplicably

(iii) Certain sources are entirely unregulated. For example, limits for persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are specified only for industrial discharges, ignoring that farming is a significant source of POPs.

(iv) The standards are almost always concentration-based, not load-based, and therefore, the total amount of pollutants entering the recei­ving waterbody is not being regulated.

The most significant gap is that no standards have been set for the ambient water quality of a surface waterbody, whether in general or corresponding to different uses that it might be put to. 

Monitoring: The Hindu Analysis

Needless to say, adequately defined standards have to be matched by rigorous monitoring to identify situations where pollution levels are unacceptable, to trace them back to causes or sources on the one hand, and to estimate impacts on the other. Monitoring, therefore, needs to happen at multiple points (Figure 2): sources, in-stream/in aquifers, soil and food pathways, and the final recipient human populations and ecosystems.

The monitoring effort in India is no doubt deployed at these multiple points. The primary focus, however, is on industrial sources. Monitoring of these sources takes place under routine or surprise inspections by pollution inspectors of the regulated industries and can include “compliance evaluation” inspections (where pollution control facilities are checked) and “compliance sampling” inspections . But limited data are available, or research has been done on the intensities of compliance sampling, and the results of this sampling are certainly not in the public domain. Gupta et al’s study in Punjab showed that overall inspection levels are low, with 75% of the firms inspected less frequently than once in five years. PCB staff confess to 

Second, monitoring effort has no doubt increased when it comes to monitoring pollutants in transit: under the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS) and the Monitoring of Indian National Aquatic Resources System (MINARS) schemes. 

A third and major deficiency in the monitoring strategy used for in-stream water quality is the sampling regime. Usually, the samples are collected in the form of “grab samples” (one-time samples) at a fixed (day) time once every three–four months. This often does not capture the true picture regarding the pollution levels.

Fourth, monitoring water quality at a location is not the end of the matter. Unacceptable levels of pollution are a pointer to the existence of a problem. In some cases, the sources may be obvious (the industry from which the sampled effluent is being discharged), while in others (when a stream is sampled), the sources have to be traced. 

Enforcement: The Hindu Analysis

Given a set of water quality standards and the detection of their violations and identification of polluters, the next stage in regulation is law enforcement. The powers given for enf­orcement include the ability to revoke or not renew consent, direct shutting down of operations, direct state utilities to shut off electricity and water supply to errant polluters, and finally, initiate criminal prosecution. The data on enforcement are hard to come by, and independent authentication of compliance is nearly impossible (since the researcher is never “authorised” to collect samples from industries and even conduct in-stream sampling requires permission). Where some data has become available, there is evidence that just the act of repeated inspection improves compliance. In the absence of powers to impose fines on its own, the PCBs will have to launch a criminal prosecution when there are repeated instances of violations. However, the record on criminal prosecution is abysmal. 

While there are suggestions that the existing powers of the boards are not fully used, many analysts contend that giving the boards the power to fine and compound offences (by downgrading some of the offences to civil ones) would help . Others remain wary about whether, in the absence of structural reforms, this would become another avenue for corruption by the PCB officials. While the criminal prosecution option is indeed challenging given the delays in and vagaries of the lower courts, we believe that the lack of effort on enforcement and the widespread accusations of corruption need to be addressed before adding other means of enforcement.

Accountability: The Hindu Analysis

Why do the above lacunae in standard-setting, monitoring and enforcement continue even 35 years after the environmental protection agency was passed? This leads us to the question of how PCBs are governed. Several studies have debunked the supposed scarcity of funds and pointed instead to the shortage of human resources even when funding is available, poor or narrow training of staff and the lack of investment in monitoring equipment and technology upgradation. But this only begs the question of why such a state of affairs prevails.

The problem originates in the structure of the governing body (the “board”) of the PCBs. There is, however, no representation of the affected public. Nor is there any place for independent experts/scientists. Thus, the boards are hardly accountable to the public they are supposed to serve, nor are they really “autonomous” or “independent” of the state government as envisaged in the Water Act.

The issue is not just about qualification but also about independence (which means chairpersons must be allowed to complete terms and renewed based on a proper performance review) and accountability. The latter requires that member secretaries be full-time professionals hired and fired by the governing body. Unfortunately, here, the tendency is to fill this position on deputation—almost always by IFS officers. Apart from their actual experience in pollution regulation, the fact that they are on deputation means they have no real commitment to or accountability towards the board they serve. Conversely, the rare competent and committed officer cannot be retained by the board beyond three years.

Adjudication: The Hindu Analysis

Before the NGT was established, cases relating to pollution were either filed before the high court or the Supreme Court as writ petitions, and a handful of cases were filed before civil courts seeking injunctive reliefs. The NGT was specifically established at the behest of the Supreme Court to be a specialised forum to hear only environmental cases, with a panel consisting of judges and technical members who had experience in environmental sciences or regulation. Thus, the NGT was expected to provide an impetus to science-driven environmental adjudication in India and promote better access to justice. The tribunal has developed several substantive and procedural innovations that enable fact-finding, go beyond merely adjudicating the disputes presented before it and actively inquire into the situation and draw on science and scientific expertise in its decision-making. 

Summing Up: The Hindu Analysis

A rapidly urbanising and industrialising country with a dense population is bound to throw up significant water pollution challenges. While water pollution may be somewhat easier to deal with because it travels within known and observable channels (except for groundwater contamination), it is also less palpable than air pollution and easily overlooked or solved in a limited way through individual purification devices. Our review suggests that neither has the law in India regarding water pollution/quality standards kept up with the times, nor have the regulatory authorities, primarily the PCBs, come close to discharging their duties with the scientific and administrative rigour that would be required to address this problem. The structural weaknesses in the governance of the PCBs result in extremely poor accountability to the affected public, and the judiciary is not able to consistently and credibly strengthen this accountability. We have illustrated these problems mainly from a somewhat narrower canvas of examples of individual smaller rivers such as Vrishabawathi or individual cities such as Bengaluru. The problem is even more pressing yet intractable when it comes to the Ganga river—repeated grand clean-up missions have ended up making hardly any dent. The literature on water pollution has generally been divided on disciplinary lines between the plethora of studies by environmental scientists showing the existence of the problem and analyses of the legal dimensions by environmental lawyers. But the questions of monitoring practice, enfo­r­­cement effort and mechanisms and the structure and functioning of the regulators and the adjudicators could bear with more interdisciplinary investigation.

There is, of course, the larger question of whether one can even expect genuine public accountability institutions and rigorous enforcement in an era of single-minded promotion of economic growth and “ease of doing business” by the state. On the other hand, citizen activism and engagement with water-pollution issues is increasing, as in the case of Bengaluru’s lakes. It remains to be seen whether these concerns gain enough traction in the political space to force some long-term shifts in the regulation of water pollution in the country.


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plutus ias daily current affairs 31 December 2021

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