How a dysfunctional pollution watchdog is affecting Bengaluru’s water scene

world water day

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Treated wastewater flowing in. The smell of chlorine is in the air. Pic: Vishwanath

Today (22nd March) is the World Water Day, devoted to sustainable management of freshwater resources. On this day, events are held world-over, to assess the current state of freshwater and to make strategies for the future.

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The World Water Day is of critical importance to the Bengaluru city in particular, because it should remind us that we will be running out of water this year. This grim knowledge should drive us with a sense of urgency and desperation.

But our authorities have done nothing: While all our fresh water sources have turned to cesspools, there is an air of complacence across the state. No agency has made any effort for our water security!

What is the matter??

In Karnataka, KSPCB (Karnataka State Pollution Control Board) is given the overall responsibility to protect our fresh water sources. Specifically, The Water (Prevention And Control Of Pollution) Act, 1974 defines the specific duties of KSPCB. Let’s assess how KSPCB fares in each of its duties, and how that affects the availability of water to Bangaloreans.

Note: In the following text, the numbers on the left refer to the Section number in the Water Act, 1974.

17(1)(a)    to plan a comprehensive programme for the prevention, control or abatement of pollution of streams and wells in the State and to secure the execution thereof;   

KSPCB has never made such comprehensive programmes. Finally the courts have intervened in the form of the N K Patil Report (2011) and the NGT Expert Committee Report (2016). Even that has failed to evoke a comprehensive plan.

In absence of such plans, 20 lakes are listed as ‘dead lakes’. And yet KSPCB has neither made any plan to revive/rescue them nor secured the execution of such plans. It is very probable that these lakes will be converted to buildings. In future, more lakes are likely to join this list.

Worse, there is no master list of lakes anywhere in the State (either with KSPCB or with KTCDA). Different lists are available from different agencies.

17(1)(a)     to advise the State Government on any matter concerning the prevention, control or abatement of water pollution;   

See above. No such action is apparent.

17(1)(c)    to collect and disseminate information relating to water pollution and the prevention, control or abatement thereof;   

At present, information related to water pollution is not available for any waterbody (lakes, wetlands, and stormwater drains).

17(1)(d)    to encourage, conduct and participate in investigations and research relating to problems of water pollution and prevention, control or abatement of water pollution;

No such investigation or research seem to be conducted under the aegis of KSPCB, based on what the board has shared publicly so far. Even the most basic pollution statistics for the city are not available.

17(1)(e)    to collaborate with the Central Board in organising the training of persons engaged or to be engaged in programmes relating to prevention, control or abatement of water pollution and to organise mass education programmes relating thereto;   

No such programmes. Some activists have proposed a training programme for Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) operators, but KSPCB has not invited participants from across the state.

17(1)(f)        to inspect sewage or trade effluents, works and plants for the treatment or sewage and trade effluents and to review plans, specifications or other data relating to plants set up for the treatment of water, works for the purification thereof and the system for the disposal of sewage or trade effluents or in connection with the grant of any consent as required by this Act;   

The STP-related processes including Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) are weak — they have not been documented formally by the board. As a result, it is not effective in controlling the STPs and Effluent Treatment Plants (ETPs).

Many large industrial estates are operating around Bengaluru city without a Common ETP (CETP). Some of them are several decades old, and yet KSPCB has not driven a time-bound plan to establish CETPs.

One moot point is, how have these industries managed to continue operations without KSPCB’s permission in the first place? A second question would be, why are they not shut down, given their severe environmental impact?

17(1)(g)    lay down, modify or annul effluent standards for the sewage and trade effluents and for the quality of receiving waters (not being water in an inter-State stream) resulting from the discharge of effluents and to classify waters of the State;

In the context of Bengaluru, the “quality of receiving waters” means that of stormwater drains (SWDs), wetlands and lakes. KSPCB has not laid down any water quality standards for these bodies. Only a loose categorisation exists, and the KSPCB’s role is reduced to periodic reporting of which lake belongs to which category. However, KSPCB has not shared any plans to improve these ratings.

17(1)(h)    to evolve economical and reliable methods of treatment of sewage and trade effluents, having regard to the peculiar conditions of soils, climate and water resources of different regions and more specially the prevailing flow characteristics of water in streams and wells which render it impossible to attain even the minimum degree of dilution;   

During the dry season, all SWDs, wetlands and lakes in Bengaluru do not have any dilution of pollution. Yet KSPCB has not made any attempt to evolve economical and reliable methods of treatment of sewage.

On the contrary, under pressure from NGT, KSPCB has used coercive methods to force small apartments to retrofit STPs in their premises; thus impinging upon their right to avail of economically-justifiable methods of pollution treatment.

17(1)(i)    to evolve methods of utilisation of sewage and suitable trade effluents in agriculture;

Currently a large amount of treated sewage is being diverted to Kolar and Chikkaballapura, without conducting an Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) of such diversion on the local ecosystem. Furthermore neither KSPCB nor any other body has done the due diligence to set up a water budget for the city.

A water budget can help establish water balance for any area, matching the amount of incoming water to the amount of outgoing water. Only then can we ensure that we won’t have water shortage.

When we do not have a large amount of incoming water, we must rely on recycling of our used water (sewage). The amount of recirculated sewage makes the whole difference.

But while the government has not planned the water budget for the city itself, large amounts of sewage are being diverted to various destinations, leaving no water to be recycled in the city itself. This will create an artificial shortage of water in Bengaluru, which is already slated to run out of groundwater in a year.

17(1)(j)    to evolve efficient methods of disposal of sewage and trade effluents on land, as are necessary on account of the predominant conditions of scant stream flows that do not provide for major part of the year the minimum degree of dilution;

At present, the environmental experts agree that bypassing the sewage at the lakes is a bad idea (Ref: Report of NGT-appointed expert Committee). Yet, KSPCB has allowed lake custodians to build sewage bypass drains.

Further, no attempt is made to ensure that each of the upstream lakes gets tertiary-treated water with bioremediation (to remove the NPK load); which is essential to ensure that each lake remains clear of macrophytes and algae, and sustains aquatic life.

The only way to provide bioremediation to the water is by passing it through a constructed wetland. As a thumb rule, each lake needs a wetland that is at least 15% of its own surface area. This wetland would be just enough to feed the lake with clean water through the year, by compensating its daily water losses through evaporation, infiltration and transpiration.

However, no such planning is made. When a lake dries out, its carrying capacity is reduced to zero! Logically all the activities in its catchment area must cease. This is why careful planning is needed to maintain a certain minimum level of carrying capacity, by ensuring that we have an adequate base level of clean water.

17(1)(k)    to lay down standards of treatment of sewage and trade effluents to be discharged into any particular stream taking into account the minimum fair weather dilution available in that stream and the tolerance limits of pollution permissible in the water of the stream, after the discharge of such effluents;   

Each lake or stream has an inherent carrying capacity, based on the quantum of water in it. In other words, you cannot discharge more than a certain amount of pollutant in it. Thus it is the responsibility of KSPCB to monitor the current level of pollution, and ensure that all the activities in the catchment area of the lake do not exceed that limit.

If any limit is exceeded, KSPCB must shut down the activity that is responsible for that particular pollutant, or at least re-locate it to a place where its discharge can be tolerated by the new landscape.

However, KSPCB has not released any table that sets the maximum permissible pollution for each lake. KSPCB neither monitors this level, nor tries to track down the violators who have caused the limit to be exceeded.

17(1)(l)    to make, vary or revoke any order –

(i)    for the prevention, control or abatement of discharge of waste into streams or wells;

(ii)    requiring any person concerned to construct new systems for the disposal of sewage and trade effluents or to modify, alter or extend any such existing system or to adopt such remedial measures as are necessary to prevent control or abate water pollution;   

Instead of working with realistic limits and abatement measures, KSPCB has resorted to a utopian policy called ‘Zero Liquid Discharge’ (ZLD) policy, which calls for complete recycling and reuse of effluents within each industry and apartment. This ill-advised method calls for evaporation of large quantities of water, which is neither energy-efficient nor economical.

Despite several attempts to get this policy revoked, KSPCB has kept flip-flopping on the issue, creating a huge headache for hapless apartment residents and industries alike.

17(1)(m)    to lay down effluent standards to be complied with by persons while causing discharge of sewage or sullage or both and to lay down, modify or annul effluent standards for the sewage and trade effluents;   

17(1)(n)    to advice the State Government with respect to the location of any industry the carrying on of which is likely to pollute a stream or well;

Municipal drain networks and lakes carry a lot of effluents. From the nature of pollution, we can easily infer that the source is not domestic sewage but industries. The obvious implication is that there are many hidden industries operating within the city limits, and discharging their effluent illegally in the drain system. But KSPCB has no information about the source of this pollution. Therefore, it is not in a position to advise either BBMP or the Government of Karnataka.

It may be noted that once the pollution levels are measured systematically in the drainage system, it is fairly easy to track down the source of pollution and catch the culprits. However, it needs will to accomplish this task. But such resolute professionalism is missing from KSPCB.

17(1)(o)    to perform such other functions as may be prescribed or as may, from time to time be entrusted to it by the Central Board or the State Government.   

17(2)    The Board may establish or recognise a laboratory or laboratories to enable the Board to perform its functions under this Section efficiently, including the analysis of samples of water from any stream or well or of samples of any sewage or trade effluents.

Although KSPCB has allowed NABL-accredited labs for this purpose, often there is a difference in the readings of such labs and KSPCB’s own lab.

On these occasions, KSPCB gives no credence to such labs, and issues legal notices to the STP operator. Thus the very purpose of having such labs is defeated!

Worse, KSPCB holds that the test results at its own lab are the only correct ones, and that the test results provided by all other labs in the city are wrong!

Well, when all the labs are accredited by NABL, their readings must be within the specified measurement error limits, and they also must be consistent with each other. So, if it’s the test results of KSPCB’s own lab that does not match with any other lab, then obviously we must suspect the KSPCB lab and not all the others!

Conclusion

The current pathetic state of our water system is directly ascribable to the dysfunctional KSPCB. Our water system may already be in a non-reversible state, given the excessive load on its groundwater, and the presence of heavy metals and other pollutants in its lakes.

If we hope to save our water system, we must demand a major revamp of our pollution control boards urgently.


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About Nagesh Aras 19 Articles
Nagesh Aras is a resident of Bellandur. He works on urban governance issues like mobility, lake and water management, and STPs.

3 Comments

  1. Would be interesting to know how much money KSPCB (Karnataka State Pollution Control Board) spends annually . This will be direct indicator of whether it is to categorized as truly dysfunctional (low spend) or truly a corrupt organization (high spend).

  2. What can one say? Mr Nagesh’s analysis lays bare the sheer callousness displayed by KPSCB and other departments like BBMP, in matters related to storm water collection and management of STPs.When viewed in the context of the Covid 19 pandemic, which has a clear link to the environment, as citizens, we can only despair. However, we have a duty to educate society and raise our collective voice, to set the process right. There is no time like today!

  3. Very interesting article & an eye opener. There is credence to the argument that no sewerage should bypass a lake. Efficient methods of treating the sewerage has to be put in place locally thus recharging the lakes well.
    The article doesn’t say anything about what KSPCB themselves have to say.

Comments are closed.