MoEF's notification on common effluent treatment plants ends up giving carte blanche for industrial pollution

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has issued a shocking notification on 21 June, 2018 pertaining to common effluent treatment plants (CETPs). According to the notification, “EC (environment clearance) for CETPs set up for or within projects or activities which do not require EC are exempted.”

Apparently, this proposal is based on ‘requests’ received by the ministry. This is as good as a clear exemption for CETPs from the environment clearance process. While this terse one-liner, without any substantial explanation, can be interpreted and stretched to avoid going through the environment clearance process, it also means that environmental regulation has lent its shoulder to violation of environmental laws, by its own notification. Many proposed industrial estates avoid a prior environment clearance process, which itself has been diluted, circumvented and obfuscated by the combined lobby of politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists. This exemption would mean whatever controls were achieved in the establishment of CETPs have been lost.

In the past, civil society in India has flagged many issues related to CETPs, including procedural delays in approvals, ownership structures, cost overruns, sludge management, government subsidy policy, membership fees and charging systems, risk management, enforcement of standards, lack of comprehensive standards, lack of monitoring and lack of punitive action on CETP managers. CETPs have become tools that exonerate individual industries from the liability principle. By exempting CETPs also from the EC process, the MoEF is clearly abdicating its responsibility to enforce ‘polluter pays’ principle.

In the age of Sustainable Development Goals, and when economic benefits and economic instruments are becoming the most important driving force to achieve environmental goals, exempting a potentially hazardous method of common effluent treatment externalises the costs, with much larger impacts on the ecology and economy of India. Despite reservations among the civil society and scientists, CETPs have become an integral part of the effluent management system in India. Its exemption would give a carte blanche clearance for all polluting actions.

 MoEFs notification on common effluent treatment plants ends up giving carte blanche for industrial pollution

Pollution in the Yamuna river. File image. Reuters

State Pollution Control Boards have always been hesitant in monitoring CETPs. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has sent a number of directions in this regard, but to no avail. Thus, participating in the environment clearance process was the only tool available for local residents to prevent the establishment of CETPs. The draft notification takes away such participation. In a letter dated 23 September, 2015, to all CETPs, the CPCB wanted them to install an online continuous effluent monitoring system. This has not been complied with. Later, in a letter date 22 June, 2017, the CPCB asked all SPCBs to provide compliance status on 6 aspects related to CETPs, including performance status, action taken reports on non-compliance, online uploading of information, setting inlet standards, and stopping untreated effluents from flowing into streams.

Interestingly, MOEF did not elaborate wherefrom and who has sent requests for exemption of CETPs from the environment clearance process. The MOEF should be transparent in discussing these requests. It should develop a Status Report on CETPs, with evaluation and review of environmental, regulatory, financial, managerial aspects included, with a clear enunciation of the outcomes achieved through the instrument of CETPs in combating effluents and water pollution in India. This report should be the basis for discussion and debate on the future course of regulatory measures, with regard to process and action, to be taken for controlling pollution and specifically locating CETPs in pollution prevention efforts. Monitoring of CETPs, treatment plant performance, and discharges is an integral part of the operation of the environmental regulatory system. Information gathered from online monitoring should be utilised to develop the Status Report on CETPs.

CETPs were originally promoted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 1984 with the purpose of minimising waste water treatment costs for a large number of small and medium scale industries. However, CETPs were included in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006, issued on l4 September 2006. This was and will be a landmark regulatory step, which has included 39 projects under the environment clearance (EC) process. The environment clearance process itself was notified under the EIA Notification in 1994. Prior environmental clearance was defined under the EIA Notification 2006, which was further categorised as A or B based on their capacity and likely environmental impacts. CETPs come under Category B, unless their location is near ecologically sensitive areas. In such a case, they will come under Category A. All new CETP projects, including expansion and modernisation, require prior environmental clearance as per this 2006 notification. Based on pollution potential, these projects irrespective of the capacities are classified into Category B. Most CETPs are established for the highly polluting Red Category industries such as tannery, textile, electroplating, chemicals and pharma.

This EIA Notification in 2006 and the inclusion of CETPs is based on a long struggle by the civil society to enable citizens’ participation in developmental decision-making, based on an assessment of the potential environmental threat of the particular project. CETPs were also included after research, experience, studies and struggles in this notification, signifying the recognition of the state.

Environment clearance process was always based on the basic tenet of potential pollution from the particular project and also on the need to make the prior environmental clearance process quicker, transparent and effective. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a critical step in this clearance process. EIA is a method of identifying, predicting, evaluating projects and the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals, prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.

The concept of CETP was adopted to achieve end-of-the-pipe treatment of combined wastewater to avail the benefit of scale of operation. In addition, the CETP also facilitates in reduction of the number of discharge points in an industrial estate for better enforcement and also to make the skilled workforce available for proper treatment of effluents.

Ulsoor late in Bengaluru. File image. Reuters

Ulsoor lake in Bengaluru. File image. Reuters

As of January 1998, there were 77 CETPs in India approved by the MoEF. As per a CPCB Report in 2006, a total of 130 CETPs have come up in the country, either established or in the process of establishment, to cater to the needs of the industrial clusters/group of industries, of which 91 CETPs are in operation. Later, the CPCB carried out a study during 2011-12 for assessment of actual need for common effluent treatment plants in the country and to know the industrial clusters to be serviced by these CETPs. The study has revealed that 193 Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) have been installed in the country, which serve 212 industrial areas/estates.

Way back, in 1994, we struggled against Patancheru Effluent Treatment Limited, which was one of the earliest CETPs in the country. The initial promise was that PETL would be a secondary level treatment, after primary treatment was done by each of the contributing industries. We quickly found that none of the industries have undertaken to treat the effluents in their own premises to the required standards as prescribed by the rules. They enlisted themselves with PETL only to shed their responsibility of treating the effluents. Further, it has become convenient for the pollution control board to cite CETP as the best answer in the circumstances. Such a situation helped the SPCB in covering up its lapses in monitoring pollution treatment measures in individual industries, as long as they are members of the CETPs.

Consequently, PETL became an industry by itself, receiving industrial effluents with varied composition as raw materials and releasing effluents, whose nature and composition is a mystery. Undeniably, CETPs are also major contributors of pollution and contaminants. This is corroborated by various CPCB reports in the past 20 years or so. As recently as in 2017, the CPCB addressed a letter to Haryana Pollution Control Board cautioning it to rein in management of CETPs at Kundli and Panipat, for neglect in releasing only treated water into the Yamuna river, after high levels of ammonia were found by Delhi Jal Board in its supplies. A CPCB report in 2014 has listed 10 critically polluted areas, across India. All these sites have running CETPs, indicating that we cannot take CETPs as a solution. They are part of the problem.

Most industries before or even after setting up of CETPs have polluted and affected agriculture and water bodies, resulting in huge compensation claims and legal cases. There is no doubt that all the members of CETPs across India individually as well as cumulatively are discharging almost untreated effluents into streams, contaminating precious drinking water sources. The net result is pollution of staggering dimensions, which inflicts untold suffering on innocent rural humanity. To say the least, this action amounts to a centralised, collective criminal act. Pollution regulation has been a party to this act, by projecting CETPs as an answer before the judiciary and top decision-makers. Only after a long struggle did CETPs come to be included in the environment clearance, requiring EIA of all new CETP proposals.

Most promoters, if not all, have received 50 percent grant (25 percent from the Centre and 25 percent from state) from the MoEF for setting up of CETPs. This was later increased to 75 percent (50+25). By 2014, CETPs also began to be funded under the ASIDE Scheme (Ministry of Commerce) for up to 50 percent. At a particular point of time, Rs.57 crores was given under this scheme for setting up CETPs, out of which Rs.54 crores has been for Tamil Nadu alone. Tamil Nadu leads in the number of CETPs across India. Almost 33 percent of CETPs are in that state alone.

CETPs have been best in enabling transfer of pollutants from effluents to sludges (one medium to another), which appealed to regulators as a simplification process. But, CETPs did not solve the disposal problems of an industry. An integrated approach should be adopted towards management of pollutants to ensure that the overall treatment and disposal solution is the most appropriate. Further, it is known that pollution prevention is preferable than to rely on end-of-pipe pollution controls, including CETPs. Establishment of CETPs should be discouraged, by making the environment clearance process and EIA process more stringent and rigorous.

Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 15:37:05 IST