SC takes suo motu cognisance of contamination of rivers

It is the duty of the State to ensure access to clean drinking water, it says.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday took suo motu cognisance of the contamination of rivers by sewage effluents through lapses committed by municipalities, saying “open surface water resources including rivers are the lifeline of human civilisation”.

“Deterioration of quality of fresh water has a direct co-relation with the quality of public health… The right to clean environment, and further, pollution-free water, has been protected under the broad rubric of the right to life,” a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Sharad A. Bobde said.

The Bench was hearing an urgent petition filed by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), represented by advocate Shadan Farasat, to “immediately stop” Haryana from discharging pollutants into the Yamuna river, which is causing an alarming increase in ammonia levels in the water. The Board said the increased ammonia levels have impaired its water treatment plants and a drinking water crisis looms large in Delhi.

“Ammonia and chlorine will cause cancer. We cannot release water to the citizens,” senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, arguing counsel for the DJB, submitted.

The petition triggered the court to step in to protect rivers in similar peril as the Yamuna.

Multiple responses sought

The court directed the registration of a PIL titled “Remediation of polluted rivers” and issued notice to the Centre, the Ministries of Environment and Housing and Urban Affairs and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

It also sought response from Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

“It is the duty of the State to ensure access to clean drinking water which is included in right to life… The mandate of law is clear as far as setting up of Sewage Treatment Plants and stoppage of sewage effluents in surface water are concerned, but it is often found that either the sewage is not treated through a plant before being discharged or the treatment plants are not functional,” the seven-page order said.

The court decided to turn its attention first on the Yamuna.

Directions to CPCB

It directed the CPCB to submit a report identifying municipalities along the river which have not installed total treatment plants for sewage as per the requirement or have gaps in ensuring that the sewage is not discharged untreated into the river.

The CPCB was ordered to highlight any other source of prominent contamination within the limits of the municipalities. It asked the CPCB to submit a priority-wise list of municipalities where river stretches were most polluted.

The Bench appointed Ms. Arora amicus curiae and scheduled the next hearing on January 19.

The DJB petition said the national capital’s woes have been made worse with Haryana not releasing the full quantity of water Delhi is entitled to at Wazirabad. Only 330 cusecs have been released instead of releasing at least 450 cusecs downstream.

“Due to lesser water being released, the concentration of ammonia in the water reaching Delhi has increased. The actions/inactions constitute a violation of the principle of co-operative federalism. It amounts to an upper riparian State taking undue advantage of a shared river for irrigation and industrial purposes while effectively not allowing a lower riparian State to access water for drinking,” the petition said.

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