For the past several months, Delhi has been witness to a half-hearted government being prodded by a determined Supreme Court to clean the Yamuna. In September 1999, when the court banned the discharge of industrial effluents into the river, several industries along the Yamuna were closed down by the government -- only to be reopened in January. The excuse being that the industries had set up effluent treatment units. Later, the court cracked down again on the industries to ensure that no effluents were being directed into the river

Published: Tuesday 29 February 2000

N Venkatachala
Chairperson, National Environment Appellate Authority

The government must, first of all, take strict action to resolve matters relating to clean water, clean air and human health because every citizen has a right to these basic necessities of life. Adequate laws to safeguard the environment are already in existence, but implementation of these laws has always been a problem with the administration. Laws relating to the environment give sufficient powers to the central and state governments to control, prevent and abate pollution. But there is a failure on the part of the government in abiding by these laws. This is when the Supreme Court steps in.

In the Yamuna pollution case, the Supreme Court has rightly banned the discharge of untreated industrial effluents into the river. Many chemical pollutants that are being directed into the river by the industries have detrimental effects on the human health. The government should have, in the first place, ensured that these pollutants were not directly dumped into the Yamuna and directed the industries to treat their wastes by installing effluent treatment plants ( etp s).

If appropriate technologies are introduced, then it is possible to prevent pollution. It is also the task of the government to ensure that the effluent treatment devices are functioning on a regular basis. If proper effort is made by the state and central governments under the provisions of the relevant acts, there should be no difficulty in controlling environmental pollution in the country. Yet again, it is essential for the citizens, particularly when the authorities are apathetic to their rights, to move the court for redressal of their grievances.

Manu Bhatnagar
Advisor, Natural Heritage Division
Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage ( intach )

The Delhi government has always taken soft steps in a number of important issues which require stringent measures. Reopening of the industries that pollute the Yamuna is one of them. Almost immediately after the industries were reopened in January, there were newspaper reports stating that several of them had either made false claims of having installed etp s or that the etp s were not functioning effectively. I have seen some of these industries and they are build in such a way that there is absolutely no space left to install an efficient effluent treatment unit.

The steps taken by the government in this matter are very sporadic. There is little doubt that these industries will continue to pollute the Yamuna. The court is not going to get the desired result until the government takes harsh steps and closes down these polluting industries once and for all.

The fallout of such an action will naturally be employment problems. But, as I recall, in November 1996, when around 168 polluting industries were closed down, the industry owners were told to compensate the workers for one full year if the unit could not be relocated with all the desired standards. So this can be a solution yet again.

Ravi Agarwal
Chief coordinator, Srishti, environmental ngo

What kind of etp s are the industries talking about here? There are a whole lot of parameters involved in defining the cleanliness standard for drinking water. Besides, it should be kept in mind that etp s are effective in treating harmful elements in polluted water only to a certain extent. Simply put, a whole lot of toxic chemicals remain in the water even after it has been 'cleaned' in an etp . And then there is the issue of sludge (the residue after the water has been cleaned) disposal. Dumping sludge, which contains heavy metals besides other highly toxic substances, on a landfill site can further heighten the risk of contaminating the ground water. So, we are dealing with a whole lot of problems and to compound the crisis the government shows no real intention of cleaning the river.

The Delhi government, in my opinion, is just trying to seem right before the Supreme Court. They are not acting with the interests of the public at heart. Then again, participation by the civic society in resolving such issues of public concern is absolutely necessary. If the people want clean water they must demand it as it is their basic right. The level of commitment to such issues has to be high. If the government in Delhi can be toppled due to escalating onion prices, can't the government be made to answer for unsafe drinking water?

Shreekant Gupta
Professor, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi

In this Yamuna pollution issue, the Delhi government is acting in a reactive manner and they are not really pro-active. They are only reacting to the court orders without any well thought out policy of their own. I do not think shutting down industries is always the best way to ensure clean water in the long run, nor will the establishment of etp s solve the problem.

The vital thing here is to know up to what level you need the effluent to be treated. Establishment of etp s should be left to the concerned industries. Once the standard of the effluents being discharged is fixed by the government, the industries can meet the standard in whatever way they want, may be by simply modifying their production process. And then the government steps in to do the monitoring. You want clean water but shutting the industries will not serve the purpose.

I am not pro-industry and, after all this furor, if the industries cannot improve the standard of their effluents, the government should simply shut them down. There is no need for any new law for that, such legal statutes already exist. But I do not think that will happen. After all a person who is running a business knows very well how to keep it going. Shutting down industries can never be a solution, and in today's world, who can deny the importance of industries?

Devaki Panini
Environmental lawyer

The Delhi government's move in January this year to reopen polluting industries along the Yamuna river (only to shut them again recently) has fuelled a long-drawn debate. The issues being discussed include environmental standards and compliance of environmental regulation by polluting industries on the one hand and the rights of industrial workers on the other. However, leaving aside the interests of the workers, the Delhi government's decision to allow the industries to reopen seems shortsighted. Particularly in the light of newspaper reports that the etp s set up by the industries were certainly not effective in preventing pollution.

Despite the clear statutory mandate for preventing water pollution under the Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act (the Water Act) and the Environment Protection Act, 1986, the administration is slow to enforce provisions of legal environmental statutes. The Water Act, for instance, prohibits under Section 24 the use of any stream or well for disposing pollutants.

Now, the Supreme Court is putting pressure on the industries to keep a systematically clean track record and polluting industries will not be able to escape or subvert the law by merely installing etp s. In this case the court has upheld the principles of "Strict liability" and "Polluter pays." Going by these principles the court has correctly held the industries accountable for pollution of the Yamuna. Further, the court's decision to appoint court officers to monitor the execution of its orders will perhaps make the government more alert in carrying out its duties.

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