Remedying contaminated rivers

Muneeb Rashid Malik
Water is profusely vital for all forms of life and is the chief constituent of Earth’s hydrosphere. According to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, fresh water is a finite resource essential for use in agriculture, industry, propagation of wildlife and fisheries and for human existence. India is a riverine country. It has 14 major rivers, 44 medium rivers and 55 minor rivers besides numerous lakes, ponds and wells which are used as primary source of drinking water even without treatment. Most of the rivers being fed by monsoon rains, which is limited to only three months of the year, run dry throughout the rest of the year often carrying wastewater discharges from industries or cities or towns endangering the quality of our scarce water resources. In Narmada BachaoAndolan v. Union of India, the Supreme Court observed that water is the basic need for the survival of human beings and is part of the right to life and human rights as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India and can be served only by providing source of water where there is none. The resolution of UNO in 1977 to which India is a signatory, during the United Nations Water Conference resolved unanimously inter alia that all people, whatever their stage of development and their social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantum and of a quality equal to their basic needs. World Water Day is observed on 22 March every year to focus on the importance of freshwater. World Water Day raises awareness of the people living without access to safe water. World Water Day’s main focus is to support the achievement of sustainable development goal of water and sanitation for all by 2030. As per the United Nations, 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services, over half of the global population or 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services, 297,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene, or unsafe drinking water, 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, 90 per cent of natural disasters are weather-related, including floods and droughts, 80 per cent of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused, around two-thirds of the world’s transboundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework, agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global water withdrawal, and roughly 75 per cent of all industrial water withdrawals are used for energy production.
On 13th January, 2021, the Supreme Court in Delhi Jal Board v. The State of Haryana &Ors., Writ Petition(s) (Civil) No(s). 8/2021, directed registration of suo moto writ petition (civil) with regard to remediation of polluted rivers and decided to start with the issue of contamination of river Yamuna. A Bench comprising the Chief Justice SA Bobde, Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian issued notice to State of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India and Central Board of Pollution Control. The Bench directed the CPCB to submit a report identifying municipalities along the river Yamuna, which have not installed total treatment plants for sewage as per the requirement or have gaps in ensuring that the sewage is not discharged untreated into the river. The Bench also directed the CPCB to highlight any other source of prominent contamination within the limits of Municipalities and submit priority-wise list of Municipalities, river stretches adjacent to which have been found to be most polluted. The Bench appointed Ms. Meenakshi Arora, Senior Advocate as Amicus Curiae to assist the Court in the Suo Moto petition. This step by the Supreme Court is commendable and we sincerely hope that it yields desired results as the Constitution provides for right to life and right to live with human dignity. The right to clean environment and water has been protected under the right to life guaranteed under the Constitution.
According to Article 48A, the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country. H.M. Seervai, an eminent jurist, lawyer and author, has aptly enunciated that Article 48-A reflects an increasing awareness of people all over the world of the need to preserve the environment from pollution, especially in urban areas. Smoke, industrial waste, deleterious exhaust fumes from motor cars and other combustion engines are injurious to the health and well-being of the people and foul the atmosphere. The preservation of forests and their renewal by afforestation has long been recognized in India as of great importance both with reference to rainfall and to prevent erosion of the soil by depriving it of forests which protect it.Article 48-A rightly emphasis the fact that the State should try not only to protect but to improve the environment. As per Article 51A (g), it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures. Thus, there is a constitutional pointer to the State and a constitutional duty of the citizens not only to protect but also to improve the environment and to preserve and safeguard the forests, the flora and fauna, the rivers and lakes and all the other water resources of the country. The neglect or failure to abide by the pointer or to perform the duty is nothing short of a betrayal of the fundamental law which the State and, indeed, every Indian high or low, is bound to uphold and maintain, as was rightly observed by the High Court of Himachal Pradesh.
The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 was enacted to provide for the prevention and control of water pollution and the maintaining or restoring of whole someness of water. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has also been constituted under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. Its functions are to promote cleanliness of streams and wells in different areas of the States by prevention, control and abatement of water pollution, advise the Governments of Union Territories with respect to the suitability of any premises or location for carrying on any industry which is likely to pollute a stream or well, lay down standards for treatment of sewage effluents, evolve efficient methods for disposal of sewage effluents on land, develop reliable and economically viable methods of treatment of sewage, assess the quality of ambient waterand inspect wastewater treatment installations,to take steps for the prevention, control and abatement ofwater pollution. CPCB has also been entrusted with the powers and functions under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. CPCB in association with State Pollution Control Boards and Pollution Control Committees, has already established a water quality monitoring network which comprises of 3000 stations in 29 states and 6 union Territories. 2101 locations are monitored on monthly basis whereas 893 locations on half yearly basis and 6 locations on yearly basis. Time series data of water quality is being analysed periodically and the issue of indiscriminate sewage discharge in 302 polluted stretches of rivers has also been addressed. Polluted river stretches in India have been identified and measures are being taken for restoration of water quality through identification of sources of pollution and interventions through treatment of municipal as well as industrial effluents.
Despite legislative and executive efforts, water pollution in the country is still increasing at full tilt and there is a growing need for fresh water as we are witnessing tremendous population growth, industrialization, human activities, etc. The contaminated water has an adverse effect on public health and the aquatic life as well. Also, pollution of water bodies by sewage effluents is another cause of various diseases. A duty is cast upon the State to ensure access to fresh water and to take steps for prevention of water pollution. It is high time for setting up of sewage treatment plants and such places must be prioritized which discharge industrial pollutants and sewer directly in rivers. The Supreme Court has held that the onus to operate the effluent treatment plants, rests on municipalities and other local bodies, and they cannot be permitted to shy away from discharging this onerous duty. Mass awareness programmes on the prevention, control or abatement of water pollution must be organized and information related to water pollution, its prevention and control must be disseminated frequently.We, as responsible citizens of the country, also, have to take concerted and coordinated steps to prevent water from being polluted and protect the environment to save the generation by remembering the words of Justice Ranganath Mishra, Former Chief Justice of India, when he stated that preservation of the environment and keeping the ecological balance unaffected is a task which not only governments but also every citizen must undertake. It is a social obligation and let us remind every Indian citizen that it is his fundamental duty as enshrined in the Constitution of India.