In the last couple of months, many apartment complexes in Bengaluru got notices from the state Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), asking them to pay a penalty of Rs 5 lakh, for discharging untreated sewage outside their premises. Many of these apartments were already running Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), and these were functioning well as per routine lab tests that the apartments used to get done.
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So, the apartments wrote to KSPCB instead of paying up. But the Board did not respond to the residents’ concerns. Instead, it issued them a ‘show cause’ notice, mentioning that they hadn’t paid the fines yet, and hence asking why it shouldn’t direct authorities to disconnect power/water supply to them.
According to Syed Khwaja, Senior Environmental Officer at KSPCB, the board has sent ‘closure notices’ to 268 apartments and individual houses since January. Thirty per cent of these are apartment complexes, mostly located in outer areas like Bellandur, Whitefield, Marathahalli and HSR Layout.
However, residents point to test reports from labs accredited by NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) which show that their treated water samples do conform to standards. They also allege KSPCB has not followed due process in collecting samples.
Now, 34 of the apartment complexes and layouts have gone to the High Court. On February 26th, a Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court comprising Chief Justice Shreeniwas Oka and Justice Hemant Chandangoudar heard three batches of writ-petitions and granted a 15-day stay for two apartments, Tata Sherwood and Purva Riviera.
Vikram Rai, General Secretary at Bangalore Apartments’ Federation (BAF), says, “The Court has stayed the financial penalties imposed on these apartments, and has directed that they should be given proper hearing before any orders are passed. HC also directed KSPCB that even if they’re taking measures as per court’s final orders, they cannot do so without giving 15 days of notice to the apartments.” BAF is a Federation of Apartment Owners’ Associations (AOA) and Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWA) in Bengaluru.
Vikram informs, “Around 100 more member apartments of BAF are similarly affected due to KSPCB’s actions and are at various stages of filing writ petitions and seeking similar relief.”
KSPCB issued notices based on an NGT order
Syed Khwaja of KSPCB said that the Board was only complying with orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on preventing sewage inflow into Bellandur lake. As per NGT orders in OA No. 125/2017 (on restoration of Bellandur lake), compensation can be collected from polluters through coercive measures like disconnecting electricity and water supply, says KSPCB in its notice to Sobha Primrose apartment in Bellandur.
Samples collected without our knowledge, say residents
- The official who takes a sample should serve a notice to the occupier.
- Further, the official should divide the sample into two parts and seal both of these. Both the officer and the occupant should sign the samples.
- One sample should be sent to a lab established or recognised by the KSPCB. The second sample, if the occupant requests so, should be sent to a State Water Laboratory.
However, in many apartment complexes, residents say they’d never been served notices on sample collection. Furthermore, they never signed off on the samples, or got the parallel sample for testing. As per KSPCB’s notices, issued in December, the samples were collected from apartments between April and July 2019.
Take the case of Sobha Primrose apartment in Bellandur. On January 16th, KSPCB shot off a ‘show cause’ letter to the apartment, mentioning that the Board had sent a notice to the apartment on December 4th, asking for ‘environmental compensation charges’ of Rs 5 lakh for violating treated water norms. Since it had not received this payment yet, the Board asked the apartment association to show cause as to why they should not direct BESCOM to cut off their power supply.
Residents had to respond to the show-cause notice within seven days. But Rajendra Agarwal, President of the residents’ welfare association, says that they got this letter only 12 days after its issue, on January 28th. Besides, the association says it never got the initial KSPCB notice asking payment of Rs 5 lakh.
The apartment did get a notice that KSPCB issued on December 19th, which mentioned that a sample was collected on April 9th and its testing completed on April 16th. Based on this, corrective measures had to be taken within seven days and reported to KSPCB, the letter had said. But the association got even this letter only in the first week of January, Agarwal said.
Agarwal asks why KSPCB should use samples collected in April, to issue a notice in December. Besides, the association’s own test results of the treated water for three consecutive months – October to December – show that the samples did conform to KSPCB norms. The samples were tested in BARC (Bangalore Analytical Research Center), an NABL-accredited lab in Peenya.
This pattern repeats with many other apartments too. Their own monthly test results, which indicate that the STPs are well-functioning, vary widely from the KSPCB report results. Though several apartments wrote to the KSPCB pointing this out, the Board did not respond to their concerns.
Many questions remain
Luke Jebakumar of BAF, who is coordinating with apartments in Bellandur on the issue, says, “If the Board did find problems with the functioning of STPs during inspections done between April and July, it should have informed the complexes about those issues and tried to get those corrected. Instead they sent notices directly, demanding Rs 5 lakh compensation.”
Jebakumar, who works with apartment associations on water-related issues, says that apartments do have the responsibility of operating STPs properly, but that KSPCB’s current actions are arbitrary. Disconnection of utilities that would force people out, should be the last resort, not the first, he says. In some apartments disconnection was done too, followed by immediate reconnection after residents’ reaction.
Penalty levied on the apartments for “faulty STPs” have been a uniform Rs 5 lakh, irrespective of whether the apartment has 50 dwelling units or 500.
He points out that the environmental compensation to be paid by all apartments for “faulty STPs” have been a uniform Rs 5 lakh, irrespective of whether the apartment has 50 dwelling units or 500. “The compensation should be proportional to the damage caused by the apartment, which in turn depends on the population of the apartment as well as the scale of pollution as per test results. If the penalty isn’t directly proportional to the extent of pollution caused by the complex, how can one call it “environmental compensation”?”
Rs 3 crore notices have been issued too
While many apartments were slapped with Rs 5 lakh penalty for faulty STPs, those that don’t have an STP at all have been asked to pay Rs 3 crore. Jebakumar says many of these are old apartments that have fewer dwelling units. “These apartments do have to set up STPs. But setting up these costs only Rs 25-50 lakh, hence the fine is excessive.” These apartments too are now gearing up to file court cases.
No irregularities, says KSPCB
KPSCB’s Khwaja dismisses residents’ allegations. “We have gone to apartments and tested the samples. What we have observed during our visits is what matters to us.”
He says that, of the 268 property owners who were served notices, 105 have already paid up. “The remaining ones will have to pay the fine soon, else the closure will be enforced as we have not prescribed any time limit for this. KSPCB has clearly said that the property owners will have to either pay the fine or go to court.”
Given that the court has already given stay to 12 apartments, it’s to be seen whether the final verdict will be in residents’ favour.
[Luke Jebakumar and Manoj Sharma also contributed to this article.]