Calling for both civil and criminal action against Pollution Control Boards’ officials shielding the violators, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the Chief Secretaries of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh to constitute Special Task Force (STFs) to clean the Ghaggar River.
The river originates in the Shivalik Hills in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh and flows thereafter through Punjab, Haryana before finally reaching Rajasthan where it disappears after traversing some distance. Once a perennial river, Ghaggar has now become a seasonal river and a carrier of sewage and industrial effluents. The river has a stretch of about 291 kilometres, with a catchment of about 42,200 square kilometers. Two its tributaries, Kaushalya and Markanda, which are also polluted aggravate the situation of Ghaggar River.
The STFs -- the first ever of its kind, conceived by the tribunal, so far -- shall comprise the District Magistrate, Superintendent of Police, Regional Officer of the State Pollution Control, Boards in the concerned district and a person who shall be nominated by the District Judge in every district in his capacity as Head of the District Legal Services Authority.
At the state level, the STF, which has a mandate to identify persons responsible for violation of law, would comprise of the Chief Secretary, Environment Secretary, Secretary of Urban Development and the Secretary of Local Bodies. The STFs are required to be constituted within a month.
The environment court passed the order on a case received on March 17, 2016 from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that had taken Suo-Motu action on the basis of a news item “Stench Grips Mansa’s Sacred Ghaggar River”, appearing in English daily, The Tribune, on May 12, 2014.
Katyayni, Amicus Curiae, in her report, stated that the banks of the river at Sardulgarh town in Punjab’s Mansa district had a pungent odour. The river at that point was black in colour and had foam on its surface.
“When we went to the banks of the River to take a closer look, the stench became unbearable and nauseated. There was no water in the River at this point. The water level was around one foot. The stream seemed like containing only discharges from industries and sewage from the villages, towns and cities,” the report stated.
“No aquatic life or ecology was seen in and around the water body. Municipal solid waste and plastics were dumped on both sides of the River,” it said. In Ratia town in Fatehabad district, the Amicus Curiae’s report observed, “On reaching the River, we observed that there was no water and only black colour effluents were flowing. Froth was floating on top of the stream along with plastics and other waste.”
“I have seen many rivers but never before have I seen such bad a river as this one,” Katyayni told the bench headed by Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel.
On further noting the values of various parameters of water quality to be much higher that the permissible limits as recorded by a joint inspection team, the bench, also comprising Justice Jawad Rahim, Justice S.P. Wangdi and expert member Dr. Nagin Nanda, said, “It is thus fully established that there is failure on part of the statutory authorities specially the Pollution Control Boards to perform their duties.”
“They have failed to uphold the rule of law in spite of adequate powers given to them. It is high time that their composition and manning is considered by the higher authorities and their accountability fixed by taking civil and criminal action against not only violators of law but also those responsible for failure of their duties in taking action or shielding the culprits and thereby adversely affecting the environment and health of the inhabitants,” the NGT said, while disposing of the matter.
Before passing the directions, the court also noted that there was “utter failure of the authorities” in spite of pendency of the proceedings for the last four years with “no evidence of action taken against persons responsible for the violation of law at large scale”.
While the district level STFs are asked to submit a monthly action taken report to the State STFs, the latter have to submit a three-monthly, action taken report before the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The reports shall have to be uploaded on the websites of the State Pollution Control, Boards as well as the Environment Departments of the states.
Calling for an “action plan with firm timelines”, which is realistic and provide for speedy mechanism, to abate pollution, the tribunal has directed closure of polluting units, wherever required.
For ensuring compliance of its order, the tribunal has also constituted an “Executing Committee” comprising Justice Pritam Pal, former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, a senior Scientist from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and a senior Engineer or Scientist from the CPCB. Justice Pal would chair the panel, whose object would be to restore the standards of the river water quality.
The committee, which has been asked to submit its interim report on or before January 31, 2019, may also consider the “need for getting organized heath camps and need for providing clean drinking water for the affected inhabitants”.
The tribunal would take up the report on March 5, 2019.