The Supreme Court’s decision to get an independent technical assessment on how the Yamuna can be revived from its deathly state is a deserved rebuke to the Delhi administration and equally, the Ministry of Environment and Forests for the manner in which they have been handling the issue of pollution control.

The Supreme Court’s decision to get an independent technical assessment on how the Yamuna can be revived from its deathly state is a deserved rebuke to the Delhi administration and equally, the Ministry of Environment and Forests for the manner in which they have been handling the issue of pollution control. For many years now, the Ministry has been aware of the torrents of untreated sewage that choke both the Yamuna and Ganga. The Central Pollution Control Board has produced detailed reports on the problem and attributed the Yamuna’s slow death between Hathnikund and Agra to the unmitigated discharge of effluents. Regrettably, in spite of constant monitoring by the CPCB and the worsening state of the river, the MoEF has pursued little more than incremental steps. Delhi’s civic agencies have also not delivered on the sewage treatment plants that are so vital for restoration. Clearly, mitigating river pollution enjoys low priority. Parliament was informed recently that the Ganga is so polluted with faecal coliform matter that it does not meet water quality norms all the way from Kanpur to Diamond Harbour in Kolkata. It will take another eight years under the Mission Clean Ganga for the flow of untreated sewage (exceeding 1,600 million litres a day) and industrial effluents into the river to stop. All this reflects an indolent approach to urban pollution control, which stands in contrast to hectic speculation in real estate.

A clean-up programme for India’s rivers requires vigorous application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Since much of India is inexorably moving towards urbanisation, the focus of policy must be on planned housing, water supply and sanitation. For New Delhi, the Supreme Court had ordered even in 1999 that a specific quantum of water flow be ensured in the Yamuna for its revival. That no salvage operation has proved successful is a telling commentary on the efficacy of the expensive Yamuna Action Plan, which is now into its third phase. It would be appropriate, therefore, for the court to put in place a review mechanism for the cleansing operation to follow, with clear reporting requirements. Accountability norms for official agencies are necessary for the restoration of many more rivers that have been killed off by pollution. Although the Environment (Protection) Act and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act are intended to protect India’s waterways, the CPCB and the State Pollution Control Boards are unwilling to use them effectively. Also, a more ecologically sound approach towards environmental flows in rivers is necessary. That would mean building fewer big dams, and making more life-giving water available to rivers.

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