Vishnubhai Patel was an operator-cum-fitter with Green Environment Services Co-operative Society Ltd. He claims he was sacked in August 2006, a little over a year after exposing the society's fraudulent effluent treatment practices. Society officials, however, say he was relieved off his duties because he stole imported machine parts worth Rs 9,000.
Based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the society was formed in April 1998 to run a common effluent treatment plant (cetp) for units--at present count 669--in the Vatwa industrial estate. For a while now its operations have been controversial. "I was being asked to operate the cetp though there were irregularities, such as directly discharging untreated and partially treated effluents," says Vishnubhai. "My conscience did not allow me to continue doing it. So, in December 2005, I submitted a representation to the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (gpcb), informing it of existing bypass channels either discharging untreated waste in the adjoining Kharicut canal or circumventing treatment procedures in the system."
gpcb took no action, but what did happen was that Vishnubhai was sacked on August 11, 2006, allegedly after gpcb informed the society of his representation. He says the parts in question got lost and he was victimised because he couldn't explain the disappearance.
It was not until November 11, 2006, that K C Mistry, regional officer, gpcb, and R R Vyas, from the board's vigilance cell, conducted a raid and identified the bypass channels. Not surprisingly, six identified routes that could be used for discharging untreated or partially treated effluents were disconnected or non-functional. Equally unsurprisingly, the report concluded that "these lines can be made operative at will". Further inspections in December 2006 and January 2007 showed while some bypass channels had been removed, others remained.
That there was an irregularity in the functioning of the cetp was evident from effluent samples collected over two days just preceding the raid. The samples were taken from two points on both days: one from the outlet of the final cleaning process to the pumping station and the other from the pumping station outlet just before discharge into the mega pipeline leading to the river. There was a wide disparity: on both days the discharge into the river was far dirtier than the effluent being fed into the pumping station (see table: It figures). Clearly, the effluents were being mixed with something--untreated or partially treated effluents--after being pumped out, but before they reached the pipeline. G H Trivedi, environmental engineer, gpcb, put this euphemistically, saying these figures "indicates that there may be discharge of untreated/partially treated effluent". gpcb data for March 2007 again showed that discharged effluents were way over prescribed norms. The chemical oxygen demand at the final outlet was 4,340 mg/l, while the biological oxygen demand level clocked in at 1250 mg/l.
It was not as if the poor quality of effluents discharged into the Sabarmati had not attracted gpcb's attention earlier. The regulatory authority had repeatedly issued directions under the Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, but cetp officials had done nothing to remedy the situation.
It wasn't just the GPCB; the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation had also issued a notice to the chairman of the Vatwa cetp about non-compliance with effluent standards, on March 27, 2006. The swift response had been a letter from the chairman of the society, Bipinbhai Patel, dated April 6, 2006, questioning the municipal body's jurisdiction. "The (corporation) has no legal right to enforce standards for effluent discharge from our cetp," it said.
It wasn't just a question of illegal channels though. The society had also allegedly been dragging its feet over upgrading its facilities. It had submitted a bank guarantee of Rs 50 lakh, dated February 16, 2007, valid up to August 31, 2008, by way of an assurance that the cetp would be upgraded and modernised. "Although the entire work of phase 1 was to be completed by July 2006, augmentation work for the aeration system is yet to start," Trivedi noted in a show-cause notice dated February 28, 2007. This was in spite of notices issued by the board in July, October and November, 2006.
"We have sent a response to gpcb informing them of the delay, June to September 2006, due to heavy rainfall," said Jatin Patel, adding that they had till August this year to finish all works.
The point that remains unaddressed is whether technological upgrades are going to help if illegal discharge channels remain operational. Vishnubhai has an answer. "Such illegal activities will continue unchecked unless the regulatory authority begins to hand out heavy punishments," he says.