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New paradigms needed for effluent assessment

This economic growth has imposed tremendous pressure on India’s water bodies, which have already been heavily polluted. Nearly 70 per cent of the total available surface water in India is polluted and is unsuitable for human consumption, agricultural and industrial uses.

DEBAPRIYA MUKHERJEE | New Delhi |

Walk around any industrial town, populated city, river or pond and you are bound to witness emission of smoke from the flow of offensive- smelling wastewater through drains carrying various substances on the surface.

The Indian economy has experienced unprecedented growth in the last decade. India’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew to US$2.3 trillion in 2015, approximately a five-fold increase compared to US$480 billion at the beginning of the century according to the International Monetary Fund. During the same period, average income nearly doubled. India was the seventh-largest economy in the world. This economic growth has imposed tremendous pressure on India’s water bodies, which have already been heavily polluted. Nearly 70 per cent of the total available surface water in India is polluted and is unsuitable for human consumption, agricultural and industrial uses.

Our environmental policy is too complex to control and prevent pollution. Beyond the laws, regulations, and court rulings on the subject, it is strongly affected by agency officials who are charged with implementing and enforcing environmental law. Their decisions, in turn, are influenced by a range of political and economic forces, including the policy beliefs of elected officials, the health of the economy, anticipated costs and benefits of laws and regulations, Union-state relations, public opinion, media coverage of environmental issues, and efforts by corporations, environmental groups, and scientists to influence public policy.

Governments, regulators and politicians often demonstrate their concern to make the environment pollution free by sanctioning millions of rupees of tax-payers’ money towards various projects. Many of these projects are primarily to monitor the state of the environment and to formulate the action plan to promote the cleanliness of the environment that does not pose any threat to the well-being of human health and the ecosystem.

Despite huge financial involvement in the name of cleaning the Ganga (as an example), the river is far from clean. Large volume of data has been generated, but adequacy and reliability of monitoring this data is questionable because mere interpretation of data cannot help in augmenting the knowledge of environmental processes. Resultantly, monitoring has become just a data collection exercise.

The main reason is that data, generated by spending crores of rupees, is often arbitrary and illogical and thereby actual behaviour of pollutants remains elusive.

Several objective evidences can be cited in this respect. The necessity of harmonising science and policy is often neglected. Lack of proper understanding among scientists and policy makers acts as the main obstacle in the path of effective transfer of pertinent information to citizens. On the one hand, policy makers are seldom concerned with policy-oriented scienti?c information because their interest lies only in focussing on vastness of the projects (large water/air quality network, number of wellequipped laboratories or number of accredited laboratories) with huge ?nancial investment.

On the other hand, scientists demonstrate their potential in generating large volumes of data by different laboratories with colourful graphical presentations to satisfy policy makers and to justify the ?nancial investment. Presentation of such reports to policy makers serves as the “proof” of the government’s focus and concern about maintaining cleanliness of rivers.

The Indian legal system is also not adequately equipped to effectively handle cases of transgression of existing laws on river pollution, such as the Water Act (1974), the Water Cess Act (1977 and 1988), and the Environment Protection Act or EPA (1986), to name a few. These laws only cover water pollution from industrial sources, while pollution control for domestic or agricultural sectors is governed by Minimal National Standards (MINAS). There are no specific standards of monitoring for pollution resulting from runoffs from industry, mines or agricultural fields. The overlap and ambiguous responsibilities of multiple agencies involved in dealing with river pollution further complicate the problem. Despite criticism of existing environmental policies and doubts about the capacity of the EPA and states to achieve the objectives outlined in these policies, reform has proved to be difficult. Studies continue to find fault with conventional pollution control policies and urge the adoption of new approaches. Most importantly, environmentalists and the corporate brigade usually are in substantial disagreement over most reform proposals, from greater reliance on benefit-cost analysis to increased dependence on the states for environmental enforcement.

It is pertinent to mention that pollution in the Ganga River imposes significant threats to drinking water safety as the basin is densely populated. For example, because both water intake and sewage discharge are mainly performed at river-banks in the urban sections of the mainstream, the safety of drinking water sources is at risk. In fact, there are many more water intakes along the river mainstream, and all of them have been exposed to pollution to varying degrees, posing a potential threat to the safety of drinking water.

Though the water quality monitoring network system has gradually increased at the cost of public money including procurement of sophisticated instruments (necessity, rate of use and reliability of data is questionable and poor), yet interpretation of the data often remains a matter of controversy. Despite denuding the public coffers of money, nobody involved in the project has cared a bit to spend a small fraction of money to evaluate the effectiveness of the project.

We all decry corruption as being the biggest obstacle to national progress. Obviously, corruption at all levels of the polity is a heavy financial burden on the country. But the final straw that breaks the camel’s back is not the graft, but sheer inefficiency – the innate inability to get things done in a systematic manner with requisite technical input. As a result, we are launching multi-crore rupee projects, but failing to ensure a pollution-free environment.

In India, monitoring of organic substances, nutrients, metals, pesticides and coliforms are carried out at huge expense by the Central Pollution Control Board but discussions are restricted only to a few parameters. This monitoring has been carried out since the last three decades but levels of contamination of nutrients, metals and pesticides in a river and their behaviour have often been assessed using restricted datasets that mask many important dynamics of these pollutants. Whether the river is contaminated by acid mine drainage, limestone excavation, metal industries or any other factor, the same monitoring methodology is being implemented.

The investigation with reference to metal pollution in the Hooghly river clearly demonstrates that statistical tools for trend analysis can reveal ?aws in the data. The long-term trends in measured metal ions concentrations explored that sampling and laboratory practices significantly influenced actual changes in the state of the environment.

On being questioned about the reliability of the measured value through RTI, the concerned authority, instead of providing any objective evidence, simply informed that since the laboratory is accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories, there lies no question of any error.

On a more general level, there is an emergent need for a new paradigm for environmental monitoring and assessment with special emphasis on reliability of measured value. In India, the regulator namely Central Pollution Control Board is quite reluctant to do so.

The writer is former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board.