Maharashtra’s Ulhas River has been losing a battle with pollution. Till now
For a long time, industrialists in Mumbai have been determined to destroy the water resources in Thane district in Maharashtra – namely, the Ulhas River, Waldhuni River and Thane creek.
Untreated effluents have made their way over the years into these water bodies in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region consistently despite repeated reprimands by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
Industrialists have even managed to evade paying hefty fines and managed to prolong the implementation of a 2015 NGT judgment by circumventing legal procedure.
But their run has now come to an end.
In an order issued on 5 July, the Supreme Court set aside earlier proceedings of the Bombay High Court, that had itself set aside an NGT order from July 2015. It directed industries and other civic bodies to either file a review application at NGT or appeal against the judgment at the Supreme Court within three weeks.
The order will hopefully bring an end to the blatant violation of environment protection laws in the area as two civic bodies and the an association of industries will now have to pay a sum of Rs 95 crore to breathe life back into the water bodies.
A circuitous route
In late 2012, Maharashtra was reeling from a severe drought, the worst in its history at the time.
Water sources were drying up, farmers were committing suicide by the dozens and livestock was dying.
Even as this long spell of human misery continued with most parts of the state suffering from acute water shortage, industrialists in Mumbai were busy polluting the longest river in Konkan region – the Ulhas River, a perennial source of drinking water upon which millions depend.
Not just the Ulhas, but its tributary, the Waldhuni River, too became victim of the industries at Dombivli, Ambernath and Badlapur in Thane district on the outskirts of Mumbai.
Going against the flow
Appalled by the destruction of these rivers, we at Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based environmental NGO, decided to save the river.
That is when the Save Ulhas River Project began. After surveying the Ulhas River from its origin up to its confluence with Arabian Sea at Thane creek, strategic locations were identified for the collection of water samples.
Samples were collected from the pipelines carrying industrial effluents within the industrial areas as well as other water bodies in the area.
These samples were then analysed at the laboratory of the Department of Environment Science, KJ Somaiya College of Science, Arts and Commerce, Vidyavihar, Mumbai.
The results proved just how high the level of pollution was 100 times more than the permissible limit.
The impact on health
As a result of over four decades of abuse, the aquifers too were contaminated. Residents of cities like Dombivli were forced to stop using water from their wells and bore wells. Effluents released from the industries had percolated deep in the ground and reached aquifers. It left the water unfit for human consumption.
Health became a major concern for residents in the areas. Many approached the state pollution control board and lodged complaints.
But the millions of letters of complaint from residents as well as legislators were relegated to the dustbin.
No action was taken, so much so that the officials concerned did nothing but wring their hands when several doctors practicing in Dombivli complained about the increase in life threatening ailments due to chemical pollution.
Fighting the long fight
When we started the project, our experience with the state pollution control board officials was no different. They were highly hostile to any complaints lodged against industrial pollution.
After a yearlong study of the river and pollution, we moved the Western Zone Bench of NGT at Pune in November 2013. After a prolonged hearing for two years, the NGT gave its judgment on 2 July 2015 - our first victory in the battle to save the river.
The NGT imposed a collective fine of Rs 95 crore on industries and civic bodies in the area. The amount was to be used for the restoration and restitution of the Ulhas and Waldhuni Rivers.
However, the joy was short lived as the industries and other civic bodies challenged the judgment at the Bombay High Court and it was stayed.
As per provisions, NGT judgment can and should be challenged at the Supreme Court. But the aggrieved entities went ahead and undermined the rule of law once again and filed a writ petition under Article 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India at the Bombay High Court.
Though we contested the maintainability of the writ at Bombay High Court, despite our please, the NGT judgment was stayed. Five years of hard work was ending in the most disappointing way possible.
But we still decided to move the Supreme Court to challenge maintainability of the writ petition at Bombay High Court.
The Supreme Court, after hearing the matter for a year, finally observed that the industries should have filed a review application at NGT or appeal at the Supreme Court within three weeks.
The order will be a major impetus to conservation efforts in the country. Or so we hope.
The writer is a project officer at the Save Ulhas River Project started by Mumbai-based NGO Vanshakti.