Polluter pays, which NITI Aayog has just endorsed, is a good principle. Indeed, it is also the core of the draft amendments the government had proposed to Environment (Protection) Act and the National Green Tribunal Act in 2015. The draft Bill which has received the law ministry’s approval provides for graduated levy of penalties that could pinch violators hard. It divides violations into ‘minor’, ‘non-substantial’ and ‘substantial’—the penalty for ‘substantial’ violations ranges from Rs 5-20 crore depending on the area over which the pollution spreads while those for ‘minor’ and ‘non-substantial’ violations are fixed at Rs 1,000-10,000 and Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 crore; the penalties are to be used for remedial action. It also prescribes jail terms for substantial violations.
What prevents this being the ideal regime, however, is the fact that the government has failed to create adequate pollution mitigation infrastructure, critical if industries are to adhere to pollution norms. The pollution of the river Ganga, and the mitigation efforts mounted by successive governments, bears this out. Industrial effluents are indeed one of the primary pollutants of the Ganga—764 grossly polluting industries (GPIs) have been identified along the river by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Sugar, pulp, paper, distilleries and tanneries are the worst offenders—according to Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), 90% of these industries are located in just one of the four states (Uttar Pradesh) that the river flows across. Tanneries may release a lower load of waste water into the river, but they contribute the largest quantum of toxic pollutants.
In Jajmau, a suburb of Kanpur located on the banks of the Ganga, there are more than 400 tanneries. The Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) that caters to the cluster can treat just 9 million litres per day (mld) of industrial waste-water, but the tanneries generate 50 mld, as per the Central Leather Research Institute. While it is easy to blame the tanneries, the fact is that the CETP came up some three decades ago, with the aim of catering to the waste-water treatment needs of just 175 tanneries. There has been no addition of capacity by the government ever since—surely the government is more to blame than the polluters?
Worse, the Namami Gange initiative, that was announced in 2014, has received just Rs 1,775 from the Centre in FY16 and FY17 while it was to spend Rs 20,000 crore over five years. Thus, against the sanctioned 1,048 mld of sewerage treatment capacity, just 149 mld has been created so far. Under the National Clean Ganga Mission, no untreated sewerage is to be released into the river by 2020 and over 3,600 km of sewer lines are to be created/rehabilitated, apart from 1,089 mld of existing treatment facility being rehabilitated. A little less than a year ago, only a fifth of the required work on the sewer network had been completed. Delhi generates 3,700 mld of sewage, as per CPCB data, while it has treatment capacity of just 2,330 mld, brought down further by the suboptimal functioning of over 80% of the treatment plants. If the penalty provisions were to be implemented justly, that would mean the Delhi Jal Board must fork out massive sums. Punishing a tannery with a Rs 5-20 crore fine will ensure that it shuts down—much against what NITI Aayog would like—but that doesn’t address the real problem.