Court curbs Ganga polluters in Bihar, Bengal

Sugar and paper mills in Bihar and tanneries in West Bengal have been penalised by the Supreme Court for continuing to discharge untreated waste into the Ganga and its tributaries.

By Uday Shankar
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

CASTING its anti-pollution net wider, the Supreme Court has cracked down on industries in Bihar and West Bengal spewing pollutants into the Ganga river, ordering them to be shut down or relocated.

Ruling on a public interest petition filed by lawyer M C Mehta, Justices Kuldip Singh and N M Kasliwal ordered the closure of the Bhawani Paper Mills near Patna and 11 state-owned sugar mills in Bihar for not installing effluent treatment plants (ETPs) despite repeated deadlines. In a separate order, Justices Kasliwal and K Venkatachala ordered the West Bengal government to relocate 230 small-scale tanneries by June 1 to a site with an ETP that can serve all the units.

The industries ordered shut in Bihar had been instructed by the court to install ETPs by April 30. These industries had ignored notices issued by the state pollution control board asking them to explain what action they had taken to set up ETPs. The state pollution control board later informed the court 20 industries were operating ETPs and 27 others were "in the process" of setting them up. These 27 industries were then allowed eight weeks by the court to begin operating ETPs.
Relocating tanneries The relocation of the tanneries -- all in Topsia, Tiljala and Tangra areas in eastern Calcutta -- was ordered after the West Bengal pollution control board certified they did not have waste treatment facilities and they were not in a position to install them. The state government said the tanneries would be shifted to a site with a common ETP that would set up with partial funding from the tanneries.

Mehta's public interest writ was filed in 1985, urging the apex court to order industries and other bodies such as municipalities to stop discharging untreated waste into the Ganga and its tributaries. The court responded by first ordering tanneries and civic authorities in Kanpur to set up treatment plants. Subsequently, the court found there were more than 1,500 polluting industries in the Ganga basin and classified them according to type and by state location.

On February 19, 1993, the court categorised 413 polluting industries in West Bengal into five groups on the basis of state pollution control board ratings, which stated 46 had satisfactory ETPs, 62 had ETPs that required upgrading and 77 had taken "positive steps" towards installing treatment facilities. The court then ordered all treatment plants had to be made efficient by April-end and most are reported to have complied.

But the court cracked down on 38 Ganga-polluting industries discharging untreated effluents into the river, including Howrah railway station, Birla-owned Kesoram Rayon, Bindal Agro, Bharat Batteries, Titagarh Papers and Belgachia Dairy. These industries were given until May 15 to install ETPs or close down and some companies like Bharat Batteries are reported to have complied. The court then set July 16 as the deadline to take stock of the measures taken by the state government and pollution control board to enforce its orders.

Though obviously pleased by the latest rulings, Mehta pointed out, "The court's intervention to clean up the environment will be worthwhile only if the governments earnestly implement it." In the past, he recalled, the sting had been taken out of some court judgements because of indifferent execution. The question is how will the governments involved acquit themselves this time?

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