Effect of environmental policies on reducing water pollution

A study finds the actions undertaken in the 1987 ruling in Mehta vs Union of India resulted in reduced pollution levels and infant mortality.
Sunset at Garmukteshwar on the river Ganga (Source: India Water Portal)
Sunset at Garmukteshwar on the river Ganga (Source: India Water Portal)

There is a severe crisis plaguing the rivers in India. Going by a study by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2013, the number of contaminated rivers in the country has more than doubled over the past five years. This is mainly due to the deposition of untreated sewage and industrial effluents into the rivers.

River pollution and health

This working paper, Environmental policy, river pollution and infant health--Evidence from Mehta vs Union of India published by International Growth Centre (IGC) informs that water pollution is found to contribute to a host of illnesses. For example, a study by Brainerd and Menon in 2011on the correlation between water contamination and illnesses has found a 10 percent increase in the agrichemical levels in Indian rivers has led to an 11 percent increase in mortality among the population in a year. The high concentration of nitrate, chloride and fecal coliforms in its water where river Ganga flows through the city of Varanasi is found to have a direct link to the prevalence of enteric diseases in the city.

The largest river, worshipped by millions of Hindus, Ganga has been experiencing a significant reduction in the water flow and a steady rise in pollution levels in the last two decades. The section of Ganga that flows near the city of Kanpur is the most polluted from the toxic waste from the city’s domestic and industrial sectors, particularly from the tannery industry.

A step in the right direction

One of the important steps undertaken by the government to reduce river pollution is the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP), a national, top-down programme targeting the domestic pollution that goes into the surface water. Launched in 1985, NRCP started its work with the Ganga Action Plan. Now, it covers 190 towns and 41 rivers across India. Since 1987, its goal has been to restore the Ganga river to the ‘bathing class’ standard, as defined by India’s Designated Best Use (DBU) classification system. This classification is aimed at restoring and maintaining natural water bodies or sections of it to a quality suitable for their best uses ranging from drinking and irrigation to swimming, bathing, and more. The work of NRCP is done at various levels, from interception and diversion to the treatment of sewage.

Since its inception, around 4704 million litres of sewage is getting treated per day. The NRCP, however, has been criticised for lack of co-operation between different implementing bodies, funding imbalances across the sites, and inability to keep pace with the growing sewage load. Studies have also found that NRCP has not helped improve the water quality. 

Mehta case paves the way

Although ambitious action plans are made by various governments such as the Ganga River Basin Management Plan launched in 2015 assuming a policy can be an effective tool in reducing pollution, very few policies have been impactful.

This paper discusses one policy that played a significant role in reducing pollution in rivers. A matchstick tossed into Ganga in Haridwar by a smoker resulted in the river catching fire due to a toxic layer of chemicals from a pharmaceutical firm on it. In response, environmental lawyer and social activist M.C. Mehta led a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India charging the government authorities with negligence for not doing anything to prevent pollution in Ganga.

Following this, the court requested Mehta to narrow his focus from the entire river to a small area, so that a systematic case study on cause and effect could be identified. He focused his attention on the city of Kanpur, a major centre for India’s tannery industry that was found to deposit its highly toxic effluents into the river. In his petition, Mehta named 89 respondents--including 75 tanneries of the Jajmau district of the city, the Union of India, the chair of the Central Pollution Control Board, the chair of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, and the Indian Standards Institute. The petition also claimed that the municipal corporation of Kanpur was not fulfilling its responsibilities. The court bifurcated the petition into two parts--the first dealt with the tanneries of Kanpur and the second with the municipal corporation.

By October 1987, the court had invoked the Water Act and Environment (Protection) Act as well as Article 21 of the Indian Constitution to rule in Mehta’s favour and ordered the tanneries of Jajmau to clean their waste water within six months or shut them down. A judgement was passed on January 1988 that asked the Kanpur local municipal bodies to take immediate measures to control water pollution that included relocation of 80,000 cattle housed in dairies,the safe removal of animal waste from these locations, the cleaning of the city’s sewers, the building of larger sewer systems, the construction of public latrines and an immediate ban on the disposal of corpses into the river. The court also directed schools to devote one hour each week to environmental education and awareness.

Effect of legislative measures on pollution

This paper highlights the findings of a study conducted to explore the effectiveness of these Acts and legislations on reducing pollution levels in the river and its impact on infant-mortality levels in Kanpur, Unmao and Rae Bareli districts, located near the tanneries of Jajmau. The study used pollution data collected under India's national water quality monitoring programme culled from CPCB online and print records. It used Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), as a primary indicator of pollution levels of the river along with other indicators such as calcium, sulfate, chloride, and fecal coliform (FCOLI) levels in the water. Data related to infant mortality was derived from the Reproductive and Child Health II (RCH-2) survey.

Findings of the study

The study found that, while river pollution was the cause of increased mortality risk earlier, the actions taken after the 1987 ruling in Mehta vs Union of India that included shutting down of tanneries and others, led to a drop in pollution levels (as measured by Biochemical Oxygen Demand) in the river and infant mortality from water pollution.

Though the drop in pollution and infant mortality were localised to the districts where the ruling applied, it was found to be long lasting. The paper ends by arguing that efforts at regulation that start at the ground or micro level, as opposed to blanket efforts on a pan India level, can produce desirable environmental and health outcomes.