There was a time when Hanif S Parkar, a fisherman from Dhabol Khadi village in the coastal district of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, could net 25 different kinds of fish from Vashisthi, the local river.
For the past 25 years, factories in the neighbouring industrial belt of Lote Parshuram have been dumping untreated effluents in the river, destroying all living forms in it. The fish are dying and the river no longer offers a livelihood option for Parkar and others like him in the village.
“I now work as a daily wage worker and my wife as a tailor,” said Parkar. “I had a comfortable life when I was fishing. Today, I am struggling to make ends meet.”
For the last 15 years, Parkar has been campaigning against river pollution in the area, engaging with the officials of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board as well as the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation which maintains the belt.
Toxic waste has been choking the state’s rivers, and fishing communities complain that their daily catch is only 10% of what it used to be.
Maharashtra, the state with India’s biggest economy, also has the highest number of polluted river stretches in the country. And, at 161, it also has the most number of cities and towns along polluted stretches, according to a 2015 report of the Central Pollution Control Board.
Of the 156 locations where the Central Pollution Control Board has set up its monitoring units on the 49 rivers and tributaries in the state, 153 do not meet the water quality criteria, according to the Board. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has issued more than 5,300 show-cause notices to erring factories between 2011 and 2017.
The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has limited powers to discipline errant units, and hence the state has been unable to contain river pollution along its industrial zones. The board can issue notices or levy a small fine. But these measures are not strong enough to deter factories from emptying their waste into rivers.
As IndiaSpend investigations detailed in later sections show, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board ends up issuing multiple and repeated notices to polluting factories and these are often ignored by the defaulters.
Queries sent by IndiaSpend to the member secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board did not evoke a response, despite repeated reminders and the story will be updated if a response comes in.
Pune-Chinchwad region has the most offenders
The state has more than 75,000 manufacturing units that include automobile, tyre, textiles, chemicals and steel industries. Many of them are in the Pune-Chinchwad region.
Pune attracted 45% of the notices (2,392 of 5,276) issued to polluting factories between 2011 and 2016. This is thrice the number served to the region that attracted the second-most: Kolhapur (673).
Pune also has the most polluted rivers in the state, according to a joint survey on water quality conducted in 2014 by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board and The Energy and Resources Institute.
DP Desai, 55, a resident of Kolhapur’s Navraswadi, said the sugar industry in the area is a known offender. “Sugar industries brazenly dump chemicals into the Vedganga tributary,” he said. “We receive dark murky water for drinking and even the crops are adversely affected.”
In 2007, the state government had drawn up a plan to develop infrastructure in the state to facilitate industrial growth. The plan included Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Kolhapur, and Aurangabad. These regions, along with Navi Mumbai, are among the top six in the list of regions served the most notices by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board.
Factories in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region – comprising areas such as Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane, Raigad and Kalyan – received about 20% of the notices.
Most defaulters are heavy polluters
The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board classifies factories on the basis of a pollution index, calculated by factoring in how much their operations pollute air and water, and generate hazardous waste. They are then classified into red, orange and green categories, red being heavily polluting.
Of the 5,276 notices issued by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board between 2011 and 2016, 65% (3,445) went to factories in the red category. Orange and green categories attracted 1,599 and 232 notices respectively.
A look at the list of erring companies showed that large-scale units were served with 47% of the red-category notices. The rest were served to medium and small-scale industries.
In Kolhapur, which has the second-highest number of defaulting factories, 64% of red-category notices were issued to medium and small-scale units. In Navi Mumbai – third in the list of regions that got the most number of notices – of the 282 factories categorised as red, 80% are medium and small-scale.t
DB Boralkar, former member secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, explained why a large number of medium and small units made it to the list of defaulters: Large-scale units have their own effluent treatment plants but smaller ones depend on a common effluent treatment plants. If one such common effluent treatment plant went defunct, all the companies depending on it are served notices, he explained.
Copies of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board’s directives to erring companies reveal that many factories have been discharging untreated effluents into rivers such as Warna, Sonpatra and Panchganga in Kolhapur, Ghot in Navi Mumbai, Savitri in Raigad, Godavari in Nashik and Krishna in Sangli and Satara.
Effluents reduce the oxygen content of water bodies because it is used up by the chemicals to decompose. This fall in oxygen levels kills the fish and other living forms in the river.
One plant can pollute an entire belt
The lax monitoring of and prosecution for water pollution in the state means that Common Effluent Treatment Plants routinely flout environmental guidelines on discharging untreated effluents into rivers.
Managements of factories are responsible for water contamination because they allow below-par functioning of effluent treatment plants, according to a 2014 Maharashtra Pollution Control Board study on groundwater contamination in the Pimpri-Chinchwad industrial cluster in Pune.
As Boralkar pointed out, medium and small-scale industries depend on common plants for the mandatory treatment of their chemical waste. But the malfunctioning of even one can raise the levels of pollution caused by all the units dependent on the Central Effluent Treatment Plants. Currently, Maharashtra has 24 such plants and five more are set to come up.
Of five Central Effluent Treatment Plants in the Dombivli-Ambernath belt, four were not working, according to a March 2016 affidavit submitted by the Central Pollution Control Board to the National Green Tribunal. Three years before that, in 2013, the level of pollutants in treated effluent was found to be “dangerously high” at three Central Effluent Treatment Plants in Pune.
Of the 24 plants, 11 are not following the environmental norms, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board’s own latest report on the status of Central Effluent Treatment Plants, available on its website, shows. Data for one plant was not available.
Thousands of notices to defaulters but barely any impact
Experts allege that the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board doesn’t implement rules and regulations in letter and spirit. Time and again, social activists and NGOs have blamed the board for laxity in the enforcement of environmental norms.
IndiaSpend analysed 150-odd notices served by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board to erring units and found that in many cases, multiple directives had to be issued to the same company because it simply did not respond to an earlier alert. But merely serving notices means little, said experts.
“Industries know they can continue doing what they want to,” said Geetanjoy Sahu, an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, who is researching on compliance and enforcement of environmental laws in India. While the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has issued directives to erring units, it hadn’t taken any legal action against them, he pointed out.
Polluting companies only needed to give an assurance to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board that they would comply with the norms and pay a small fine, IndiaSpend’s investigations found. But law requires that any company found polluting its surroundings ought to be penalised and directed to restore the environment within a stipulated time.
Notices are mostly ignored by defaulters
The Bombay High Court too had taken note of such violations in an order passed after hearing a public interest litigation in December 2011. The high court had observed that whenever the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board’s regional officer sought to act against the polluting units in Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation or MIDC, Mahad, the chairperson of the board would modify the closure notice.
The chairperson would then impose certain conditions on the company and levy a fine to let it continue its operations, the court observed. The companies in question would then continue to flout pollution control norms.
“That is not a satisfactory manner of dealing with the problem. The damage is being caused to the rivers by the polluting industries,” the High Court noted while issuing a show-cause notice to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board chairperson.
Nizamuddin Jalal, a resident of Raigad, has filed two PILs in the Bombay High Court over pollution caused by the MIDC factories in his region. He said the sustainability aspect of development was lost on the government.
For Maharashtra, the year 2015 began with the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government scrapping the 15-year-old Rivers Regulation Zone policy. This was seen as a step towards the government’s bid to promote manufacturing under its “Make in Maharashtra” campaign.
The move enabled all industries to set up their factories near rivers, sparking fears of aggravating water pollution. Besides widespread protests and PILs, even the NGT asked the state why the decision shouldn’t be considered invalid from the outset.
Severe staff crunch
The pollution control board has a sanctioned strength of 840 employees. Of these, 275 were vacant, as on January 01, 2017. On average, 150 posts were vacant each year during the last five years, an analysis of annual reports shows. Of the 840-strong workforce, only about 350 belong to technical and scientific teams.
Boralkar said the technical teams are particularly overworked and understaffed, given the scope and volume of their work. “The commensurate capacity-building and the technical leadership is not sufficient to handle the volume of the problem,” he said.
The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board is required by law to grant or refuse consent to the operation of new factories within 120 days of a request for permission. If the board doesn’t give its verdict in this period, consents are deemed granted. As of January 2013, more than 17,500 consents had been pending for more than 120 days, according to the board’s own records.
“This is an alarming situation. These 17,500 factories can start operations without having the mandatory environment protection guidelines from the board,” said Sahu, the assistant professor with TISS.
Effluents destroying sugarcane fields
A district environment committee, appointed by the Bombay High Court, criticised the MPCB in November 2016 for failing to check water pollution by sugar mills and medium and small-scale industries. Some units that had been closed for violating norms had been given permission to resume operations and that untreated effluent was being discharged into the river, the committee’s report noted.
Mahadev Sawant, 43, who grows sugarcane on four acres of land in Sangli’s Tasgaon city, complained that his crops were irrigated by polluted water. “Sugarcane factories, sand mining and human waste from the towns have contributed to the degradation of Krishna river. The salty water has destroyed crops in the area,” he said.
In April 2016, the NGT had directed the union environment ministry to intervene, noting that the MPCB had failed to check the discharge of untreated effluent into Ulhas river in Mumbai metropolitan region. In view of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board’s inability to do its job, the Central Pollution Control Board had requested permission to monitor Maharashtra’s Central Effluent Treatment Plants.
In May 2016, seven of 24 Central Effluent Treatment Plants were not in conformity, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board’s own record shows.
Companies shirk waste treatment cost
The treatment of liquid waste is a costly affair for any factory, more so for a chemical unit, a former senior official of the pollution control board, on condition of anonymity, told IndiaSpend. A bribe could help keep costs low, said the official.
As many as 1,726 industrial units in Maharashtra that are prone to polluting water have only partial facilities to treat their effluents, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2011 report on the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board. The report said 356 units have no treatment facility at all.
The ministry of environment & forests has given a standing instruction to various state pollution control boards to examine the need for setting up Central Effluent Treatment Plants in their industrial zones.
The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board does not have a mechanism to refuse the factories the consent to operate, the CAG’s 2011 report highlighted.
“The most that may happen is that companies shut down for three days and then resume work. Or they pull down shutters but continue work inside,” said Jalal, the Raigad resident.
He doesn’t think much of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board issuing 5,000-odd notices to erring industrial units in five years. “Five thousand or five lakh, the problem is that there is no accountability,” he said.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.