Audit of India's water bodies confirms their polluted status

CAG assessment reveals governments' inaction in curbing water pollution

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Monday 26 December 2011

The Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report on water pollution, tabled in Parliament on December 16, confirms what is already known and apparent. After more than two and a half decades of the Centre's attempts to control pollution, our lakes and rivers remain critically polluted. According to the report titled Water pollution in India, no efforts have been made to compile a list of water bodies in the country. Even the process of identifying lakes and rivers for pollution abatement has been flawed, says the report.

This is correct, says R C Trivedi, former additional director of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). “Unless we have an inventory to prioritise the nature and magnitude of pollution in different regions, how can we focus our efforts?” asks Trivedi. The logical first step is to assess the problem of pollution, and curb it thereafter. In the 1980s, CPCB attempted to prepare an inventory of sources of pollution, but the exercise could not be completed due to the lack of information from the state boards. As a result, the rationale of our efforts are skewed, Trivedi adds.

Key recommendations 

  • Ministry of Environment and Forests/Central Pollution Control Board should initiate steps, along with Ministry of Water Resources and all the states to draw up a comprehensive inventory of all rivers, lakes and ground water sources in India
  • MoEF should also undertake a survey to list all the keystone species associated with each river and lake in India
  • Higher penalties need to be levied for violation of water quality standards
  • Right now, there are multiple agencies involved in river and lake conservation, right from planning to implementation and monitoring. There is a need to consolidate all these functions under an umbrella agency for better coordination and accountability
The CAG office held a conference on concerns of water pollution in 2010 after which it decided to take up a first of its kind pollution audit. The examination extended to 140 projects across 24 river stretches and 22 lakes in 116 blocks across 25 states of India. “All the rivers test-checked continue to be plagued by high levels of organic pollution, low oxygen levels available for aquatic organisms and bacteria, protozoa and viruses which have faecal origin and cause illnessess. The lakes in India continue to be under threat from nutrient overloading which is causing their eutrophication and the eventual choking caused by various weeds proliferating in the nutrient-rich water,” says Geetali Tare, principal director of audit, scientific departments with CAG.

Only 10 per cent waste water treated

Even after 26 years of pollution abatement works, only ten per cent of waste water generated in the country is treated. The rest collects as cess pools or is discharged into the 14 major, 55 minor and several hundred other rivers. It is quite clear from the CAG report that the overall status of quality of water in rivers, lakes and its links to groundwater has not been adequately addressed. Neither have adequate policies, legislations or programmes been formulated, says the report. The report examined various Acts and found that the maximum penalty or fine for a case relating to  water pollution is just Rs 10,000. Over time “the cost of non-compliance became significantly lower than the cost of compliance with the provisions and rules and orders under the Acts,” points out the report.

No inventory of water bodies compiled

The National Water Policy was envisaged in 2002. Since then 18 states have framed their water policy under it. However, with the exception of Kerala, none have formulated a seperate policy to deal with pollution, says the report. There is little emphasis on prevention and control of pollution. Furthermore, not a single state has an inventory of water bodies or has identified risks to aquatic species. No inventory of rivers or lakes has been undertaken by the environment ministry either, says the report, and this has been acknowledged by the ministry.

The CAG report has recommended that the environment ministry identify a keystone species for major rivers and lakes in the country to not only act as an indicator of ecological health but also help to design programmes in accordance. Only Himachal Pradesh has identified such species for river stretches in the state. The environment ministry has said that this identification is location-specifc and need-based as has been done in the case of the Ganga. 

The report has identified the need to update research on pollution sources and their effects since majority of the research has been done between 1980 and 1995. The complexity in quantity and type of pollutant has changed since, says the report. It has also said that neither the environment ministry nor the pollution control boards have linked water pollution to risk assessment. In 2009, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reported 1.14 crore cases of acute diarrheoal diseases occurring in India. The current programmes at the Centre do not link pollution to populations at risk, and only deal with stretches where pollution has already occurred. 

The programmes, however misguided, are also behind schedule. Of the completed projects under the national river conservation plan, 82 per cent were completed after the scheduled date of completion. Moreover, only two of the twenty two projects have been completed and the rest were either beyond scheduled completion time or had been abandoned, says the report. Only three lakes have been restored to the designated criteria.

In May 2011, the environment ministry constituted a committee to look into the report and implement some of the recommendations or observations. The committee has proposed to address the issue of inadequate sewage treatment capacity as well as to amend the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to link penalities for contravention.

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