East Kolkata Wetlands: NGT warns officials for violating waste dumping norms

The National Green Tribunal directed scientific shifting of legacy waste accumulated in the wetlands for decades

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Monday 17 August 2020
The East Kolkata Wetlands received has a Ramsar tag, a formal acknowledgement of its status as wetlands of international importance. Photo: www.ekwma.in

Urban local bodies (ULB) were warned of punishment by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for failing to comply with its order over waste disposal at the internationally acclaimed East Kolkata Wetlands. They were accused of illegally dumping waste and contaminating water bodies in the area.

West Bengal’s environment department and the ULBs in the eastern fringe of Kolkata were told by the court their officials could receive civil imprisonment, withholding salaries and payment of penalties. The NGT, July 2020, ordered the scientific shifting of legacy waste — also called bio-mining — accumulated in the wetlands for decades.

The order was given over a petition filed by environmentalist Subhas Datta in May 2019. The petition alleged illegal dumping of solid waste by the Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) Municipal Corporation (BMC) in Mollar Bheri (water body) over a long period of time.

The area — within the East Kolkata Wetlands — is considered the ‘kidney’ of Kolkata and adjoining areas because of its ability to naturally treat wastewater. “Two other urban bodies — Nabadiganta Industrial Township Authority (NDITA) and the New Kolkata Development Authority (NKDA) — also dump waste in the wetlands,” said Datta.

“The tribunal came down heavily on all three ULBs and the state environment department — the regulator agency that is supposed to monitor them — in the last hearing,” he added.

The tribunal earlier fined the BMC twice — Rs 10 lakh and Rs 2 crore respectively — for failing to cordon off the waste disposal area and stop contamination of adjoining water bodies through toxic leachate.

The order passed by Justice SP Wangdi and expert member Nagin Nanda was as follows:

We make it clear that failure to comply with the direction even during the extended period shall entail issuance of coercive orders which would include civil imprisonment, withholding of the salary of concerned personnel, payment of penalty, environmental compensation, etc.

Illegal waste dumping doubled in 15 years

The actions taken by the BMC were not adequate according to its own affidavit, the NGT said. The NDITA, NKDA and environment department did not submit affidavits, despite the NGT’s order, the tribunal noted. Datta earlier pointed out — with photographic evidence — that all the agencies failed to protect the wetland area from waste contamination.

An expert committee — set up by the NGT to assess violations within the wetlands — recommended the BMC to stop further dumping of solid waste at the Mollar Bheri site.

“As East Kolkata Wetland is a Ramsar site (wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention), BMC shall stop further dumping of solid waste at the Mollar Bheri site,” the committee said. The municipality needed to find an alternative / new site for a municipal solid waste facility, it added.

The waste dumping site at Bheri on the rear side of Sector V, Salt Lake, which has emerged as an information technology hub, has almost doubled in the past 15 years, show comparative satellite maps of the area, said the report. The activity also polluted fishery ponds in the area, a primary source of livelihood for thousands, the report added.

The Calcutta High Court — responding to a petition filed by non-profit People United for Better Living In Calcutta in the early 1990s — barred any land use change within 12,500 hectares of the wetlands area and declared it a ‘no development zone’.

The area subsequently received its Ramsar tag, a formal acknowledgement of its status as wetlands of international importance. The Wetlands Act, 2016 again barred any change of land use within the wetlands. This included the disposal of solid waste.

Datta said the urban bodies disposed of their waste and contaminated the wetland which, apart from being illegal, impacting the local ecology, also affected the livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk who depend on the ecosystem for survival.

Minister promised action, but glitches remain

West Bengal Environment Minister Saumen Mahapatra — speaking to Down To Earth — promised immediate action.

“The order is of significant concern. We had a meeting recently on the issue. ULBs were asked to comply with the NGT order. I expect them to take immediate action over the matter,” Mahapatra told DTE August 17. Municipal representatives, however, were less hopeful.

“We are trying our best but facing several obstacles. Our first two tenders about removing the legacy waste from Mollar Bheri have to be cancelled,” said Debasish Ghosh, commissioner of the BMC. “We are in process of a third tender that will be opened mid-August,” he added.

Ghosh, however, claimed the process of shifting the legacy waste to Dhapa area, following the norms of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, has begun.

The next hearing on the matter was listed for September 14.

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