- Current case being heard by NGT was originally filed in 1985 by M C Mehta
- NGT has passed judgments on two of the five phases of the case
- Latest judgment bans waste disposal 500 metres from the river
At first glance, 71-year-old Mahesh Chandra Mehta does not seem any different from an ordinary man, as he exchanges pleasantries with humility. A gentle speaker, Mr Mehta loves spending his evenings sipping on a cup of tea at his South Delhi residence. But self-admittedly, he does not get enough time to spend doing this, as he is busy in his quest for justice on some of India’s raging environmental issues, especially the state of the river Ganga. One of India’s most decorated environmental lawyers, Mr Mehta has taken on government authorities and industries in the last 30 years for their questionable roles in failing to clean the Ganga.
Mr Mehta’s fight for a cleaner Ganga began in 1985, when he filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, that despite legislations in place, industries were flouting norms which resulted in the pollution of Ganga. The principal violators were identified as the leather tanneries of Kanpur, which disposed of large amounts of waste into the river. Subsequently, the petition was bifurcated into two parts, one dealing with the tanneries and the other with the municipal corporations and their roles in the river’s pollution. The case was transferred by the Supreme Court to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 and in July 2017, the NGT gave a landmark judgment which prohibited waste disposal within 500 metres of the river and designated that 100 metres from the river as a ‘no-development zone,’ from the stretch of Haridwar to Unnao. Speaking to NDTV, Mr Mehta talks about the NGT judgment, how successive governments have failed the Ganga and the sad state of India’s rivers today.
Question: The NGT judgment is being considered a landmark one as it has set several guidelines to ensure that pollution in Ganga is tackled. What is your opinion on the judgment and its positives? Are there any downsides to the judgment?
M C Mehta: The judgment is very important because the judgment not only sets guidelines to be followed to tackle the pollution in Ganga, but also highlights the several problems the river is facing today. The biggest positive of the judgment is that it identifies the problem of waste disposal near the river and has demarcated an area of 500 metres from the river as a no-disposal zone. The judgment has also asked the Uttar Pradesh state government authorities to speedily relocate tanneries from Kanpur’s Jajmau, the principal cause of pollution in that stretch. These two are the biggest positives of the judgment.
While there is no downside as such, the only concern about the judgment is whether it will be adhered to or not. Before this judgment, a 1987 Supreme Court judgment had also directed the then Uttar Pradesh government to relocate the tanneries from Kanpur to somewhere else. Not only was the judgment not adhered to, but since then, the number of tanneries has grown from 70 to 700. It remains to be seen how the state government will complete the relocation within six weeks.
Question: This writ petition was filed in 1985. What prompted you to file the petition and where does the case stand 32 years later?
M C Mehta: I had filed the case in April 1985 when I found out about a section of the river catching fire in Haridwar. This surprised me because I had never heard of such an incident before. On investigating more, I found out that in Bahadarabad in Haridwar, an open drain was dumping toxic effluents into the river and their accumulation had resulted in the river become inflammable. Someone had thrown a lit matchstick in the drain, which resulted in the toxic effluents to catch fire. It took nearly 30 hours for the authorities to douse the fire which had spread over a kilometre. I visited the place to find out more about the incident and on speaking to the locals, found out about the state of the river in Haridwar, hailed as one of India’s most sacred places. This arrested my attention and I spent some time in the adjoining areas and found out that in the holy places, the river was most polluted and mistreated. In Rishikesh, a pharmaceutical factory owned by Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd. would follow the same process of disposing untreated medical waste directly into the river. These two instances made me realise that industries along the Ganga belt had zero regard for environmental norms.
I had filed the writ petition demanding only that industries situated near the Haridwar and Rishikesh belt of the river be relocated. But 32 years later, the case has become about ensuring overall cleanliness of the river and getting to the bottom of the expenditure incurred in cleaning the Ganga and why none of it has reflected till now.
Question: Exactly how much do you think has been invested in Ganga cleanup so far?
M C Mehta: The precise amount is difficult to determine, as even the government has not been able to give exact data on expenditure during the hearings. Rs 7,000 crore is what can be accounted for, and this is a combined figure spent by Central and state governments, as well as civic bodies and panchayats. The actual figure is definitely much more as Ganga cleanup programmes at Central and state levels have existed since the 1980s.
Question: But why have successive governments, as well as local bodies failed to clean the Ganga despite the allocation of thousands of crores?
M C Mehta: It is clear that some level of corruption has existed across the ministries, pollution control boards and civic bodies which had been part of Ganga cleanup projects. The Ganga Action Plan launched by Rajiv Gandhi was one of the most expensive programmes at that time. The subsequent plans have also seen allocation of amounts no less than hundreds of crores. But the corruption angle apart, there are several other reasons why the Ganga cleanup plans were utter failure.
Firstly, there has been absolutely no accountability on anybody’s part as far as Ganga cleanup plans are concerned. Not only do concerned authorities have no idea about the expenditure, but they have also failed to adhere to court judgments and hold accountable officials who have been part of Ganga cleanup programmes. The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board had declared in 1991 that it had just two employees and hence, was unable to execute its duties properly. This shows the apathy of public offices responsible for cleaning the Ganga.
Secondly, the increasing presence of industries across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal has also contributed to the failure of the programmes. In the past 30 years, the number of tanneries has increased from 70 to over 700 in Uttar Pradesh alone. Apart from tanneries, pharmaceutical and chemical industries have also been guilty of polluting the Ganga. The understanding between these industries and authorities has resulted in the river’s status becoming even worse in terms of pollution.
We have existing legislations which clearly prioritise the environment. Be it the Environment Protection Act of 1986 or The Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act of 1974, none of these are adhered to by the authorities or industries at any level. So how can any cleanup programme be successful, if the basic legislations are not adhered to?
Question: The current Ganga cleaning programme, Namami Gange has tried to be more innovative by focusing on STP construction, funding STPs for 15 years, de-silting of the river etc. Do you think this programme is better structured and better performing than the previous ones?
M C Mehta: The Namami Gange has an enormous budget of Rs 20,000 crores, significantly more than earlier programmes. Uma Bharti has been vocal about the Ganga’s state for many years now and I am hopeful that she will do a good job. But the project faces challenges of such immense stature that despite its features and structure, it will be very difficult for the programme to achieve its aim.
If we take into consideration the focus on constructing more sewage treatment plants, the Namami Gange programme has its focus right. But where will they get the land or power supply for such STPs? Land is anyway a highly contentious issue in India and its acquisition is a complicated process. Does the programme have a plan of acquiring land in thickly populated states such as U.P., Bihar and Bengal? What happens if like earlier programmes, no one is held accountable for the unkept promises. Merely renovating ghats or constructing crematoriums will not be enough if the Namami Gange programme is to achieve its objectives. All the programme needs to do immediately is to stop the flow of untreated sewage and pollutants into the river. I don’t want to comment on the 10-year deadline of the programme.
Question: If we look at the Yamuna, it is in a worse state than the Ganga. Are the reasons similar to Ganga? The NGT recently banned open defecation on the Yamuna floodplains and also announced a fine on violators. How much will these impact the Yamuna cleanup?
M C Mehta: Yamuna is the second largest tributary of the Ganga. I had also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 1997 regarding the polluted state of the Yamuna. The 18 STPs installed in Delhi were because the Supreme Court had directed the Delhi Jal Board to do so. But post that, the STPs have struggled with regular functioning and the municipal bodies of Delhi and U.P. have been even more lacklustre in their handling of Yamuna. The regions near Agra, Mathura, Vrindavan need immediate attention. The NGT orders will be highly helpful for Yamuna, but who will keep a check on open defecation or waste disposal along the river’s bank? There is no provision of river police in these stretches. If the authorities themselves do not show any interest in implementing the orders, the river cannot be expected to be kept clean by itself. The biggest problem is Delhi is several illegal industries have been relocated, despite which Delhi manages to dumps nearly 2,000 million litres of sewage per day into the river. If such an amount of untreated sewage continues to be dumped in the river, is there any order which can change the river’s state?
Question: Are there any other rivers in India which are facing similar dangers?
M C Mehta: Today, all of India’s major rivers are facing the dangers of slowly dying due to pollution, state and public apathy. Ganga and Yamuna get most of the attention but the other major rivers of India such as Narmada, Godavari, Cauvery are also in bad shape. The Narmada Seva mission was launched in 2017 by the Prime Minister himself after it was found that in many areas of Narmada, water was not fit for bathing. Cauvery has also bore the brunt of rapid urbanisation. More settlements meant that more people were involved in waste disposal, and hence the sad state of the rivers. In fact, most of India’s water bodies such as lakes also face similar dangers as more and more habitations and industries are coming up, choking waterbodies.
Question: So doesn’t that create a pressure on groundwater resources? Especially given that more people are becoming dependent on groundwater for drinking purposes?
M C Mehta: Not only does the pollution of waterbodies create a pressure on groundwater resources, but it also exposes people to chemicals such as arsenic and fluoride, which are deadly in nature. Depletion of groundwater is an equally serious challenge. But people are themselves to blame for this scenario, as exhaustive exploitation of water from rivers and lakes has forced people to resort to groundwater. Groundwater is a limited natural resource and over-exploitation will only lead to its end sooner. If rivers are unclean and polluted, and groundwater is exhausted, what will people do then?
Question: Lastly, can India learn from international examples as far as conservation of river bodies is concerned?
M C Mehta: There is much to learn from how famous rivers of the world have been treated by their respective countries. The Thames in UK has been declared as an example of successful river restoration by not just tackling waste disposal in the river but allowing the growth of flora and fauna alongside the river. In the United States, there have been many instances of industries being shut for five or seven years, when found guilty of disposing waste into a river. Along with political will, these examples show that people there are also aware of the importance of rivers and those guilty of tampering with them are held accountable. This is the example we must follow here as well, if we are to restore our rivers to their previous state of glory.