Water pollution is a paramount problem in India as almost 80 per cent of its surface water resources are contaminated. Nearly 60 per cent of India’s ground water reserves are already contaminated with toxins – biological, organic, and inorganic pollutants. These contaminated sources have been declared unsafe for human consumption as well as for other activities, like; agriculture and industrial usage. The constant downward slope of degraded water quality in India can contribute to water scarcity in terms of human use, industrial purpose and for the effective functioning of ecosystem.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) first identified this alarming menace associated with water contamination in early 90’s. It categorically listed 18 major rivers in India as unfit for any domestic and industrial water usage. The water sources are mainly contaminated in and around of Indian cities, towns and other urban settlements. Indian urban space severely lacks customary water-resource recovery and pollution prevention protocols associated with industrial and domestic sector usage. Agronomic activities like unsustainable irrigation practices, extravagant application of fertilizers and pesticides has created a further negative spin-off. The groundwater table in nearly 23 states, including the national capital, are decliningat an alarming rate. Heavy mental and geo-genic contamination including salinity, iron, fluoride and arsenic have affected groundwater reserves in over 240 districts. The water contamination and scarcity, if not earnestly taken care, is going to affect India’s economic and social development in a very drastic way.
Water is a remarkable environmental resource which is regenerative and balances itself with self-regulatory cycles and mechanism. Water can absorb pollution loads to a certain threshold level without affecting its biochemical integrity and if pollution exceeds this threshold level then biochemical properties associated with water becomes counter-productive.
The economic attributes associated with balanced and quality water sources are huge; unpolluted water provides benefits such as reduced water-borne diseases, savings in the cost of supplying water for household, industrial and agricultural uses, control of land degradation and development of aquaculture related industries. Clean water can also contribute positive externality like better quality environment, aquatic life, better ecosystems and biodiversity enhancements.
Magnitude of Water Pollution in India
The status of water quality and monitoring results are mainly carried out by CPCB with respect to the indicator of oxygen consuming substances and pathogenic bacteria. Data collected that water quality has gradually degraded over the years. The number of observed sample with BOD values less than 3 mg/l were found to be between 59-70 per cent. The main cause for water contamination is the discharge from domestic as well as industrial bodies which are mostly untreated. Further, in urban India, pollution prevention lacks in every steps of the due process. The receiving water bodies also don’t have adequate water-fl ow for dilution. Therefore, the oxygen demand and bacterial pollution gets enhanced.
Household-borne effluents contribute a substantial proportion of water pollution in India. Untreated effluents from households radically pollute surface and ground water source. Local urban bodies like city corporations; municipalities and panchayats and are supposed to treat the effluents as per national water pollution standards or minimum national standards. But almost 85 per cent of the effluents are not treated and directly disposed off into the environmental media, say, river.
CPCB provides source specific pollution standards for industries with respect to pollution concentration of major water pollutants: (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), suspended solids (SS), and pH levels. CPCB launched a water pollution control program in 1992 for industries. It identified 1,551 large and medium industries, and gave a time schedule to these industries for compliance with prescribed standards. It was found that many of these industries did not comply with prescribed
pollution standards despite having effluent treatment plants (ETPs). Only 59 per cent of the large and medium industries have adequate effluent treatment facility. Agricultural run-offs carrying fertilizers and pesticides which severely affect groundwater and surface water sources have no treatment at all. Fertilizers have an indirect adverse impact on water resources through a biochemical process call bimagification. Also, India has a rickety infrastructure with respect to monitoring stations and apparatus for monitoring water pollution. There is an immediate need to upscale the number of monitoring stations.
Downshifts of Water Pollution
Lack of proper water, sanitation and hygiene directly results in the loss of 0.6 million lives annually in India. Water contaminated factors contribute to 60 years of ill health per 1,000 population in India. Around 1.5 million children under 5 years die each year due to water related diseases, 200 million man days of work are lost each year, and the country loses about Rs. 380 billion each year due to water related diseases. Poor water quality, sanitation and hygiene results in the loss of 30.5 million disabilities adjusted life years (DAILY) in India.
Groundwater contamination with chemicals is another big health hazard. Vast tracts of India are contaminated with fluoride and arsenic. Fluoride problem exists in 200 districts in 20 states in the country with Orissa and Rajasthan being critically hit with this problem. High concentration of fluoride in drinking water causes fluorosis resulting in weak bones, weak teeth and anemia. The presence of arsenic a cancer inducing agent in groundwater of the Gangetic belt causes health risks to 40-90 million people in Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh. If India had made efforts for mitigating these effects by providing better sanitation facilities and doing abatement of water pollution the required resources would range between 1.73 to 2.2 per cent of GDP.
Regulation of Water Pollution in India
Policy response with water pollution in India can be categorized into formal and informal measures. It is the duty of the government to stem negative externalities associated with water pollution through effective legislations.
The environmental policy in contemporary times has accepted the importance of the role of incentive based policy instruments
in controlling and preventing environmental pollution. Formal regulations may be classified into two categories. State intervenes in the form of legislations and policies, and public investments for environmental cleaning activities, such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) and the Yamuna Action Plan.
Laws for Controlling Water Pollution in India
The laws related to control water pollution in India is very straight jacketed and sharply directed to water pollution and related
activities. Water Act (1974) and Water Cess Act (1977 and 1988) are two foundational legislations in this regard. The Act related to water cess is more of a revenue generating legislation than measure to limit the unsustainable consumption of water by industrial units. Pollution control boards at the central and state levels are empowered to prevent, control and mitigate water pollution and to advise governments on water pollution and management.
Informal Regulation and People’s Participation
Economic mechanisms with command and controls are means of formal regulation. The designing and implementation of these means involves a top- down or a centralized approach. The success of these instruments in controlling pollution depends upon the quality of governance and its ability to incur high transaction costs. A bottom-up or decentralized regulation involving civic society and local communities and with a very limited role of the government could save transaction costs and get rid of political and bureaucratic corruption.
Collective action in industrial water pollution abatement is meant to bring about necessary institutional changes that are compatible with the choice of cost saving technologies. For example, a Combined Effluent Treatment Plants (CETP) can be adopted if necessary legislation is in place to define the property rights of the factories and the affected parties. A CETP for an industrial estate confers the benefits of saving in costs to the factories and the reduction in damages to affected parties. There are many incentives for polluters, affected parties, and the government for promoting collective action in industrial water pollution abatement.
Policy Propositions The policy recommendation can be segregated into four major components: Enhancement of monitoring and review water stations: measuring water pollution, estimating benefits from reduced pollution, and designing regulatory instruments for environmental improvements require interdisciplinary approach. There is an urgent need of increasing the number of monitoring stations in India to levels found in developed nations for effective monitoring. Revising the industrial water norms to be more stringent: An effective industrial water pollution regulation policy requires the use of a combination of regulatory instruments consisting of economic instruments of pollution taxes and marketable permits, informal regulation by local communities, and direct public investments for environmental improvements. But India still uses command and control regulatory instruments for water pollution abatement resulting in some big industries having effluent treatment plants and many industrial estates housing small-scale industries having common effluent treatment plants. The effectiveness of these facilities in reducing water The policy recommendation can be segregated into four major components:
Enhancement of monitoring and review water stations: measuring water pollution, estimating benefits from reduced pollution, and designing regulatory instruments for environmental improvements require interdisciplinary approach. There is an urgent need of increasing the number of monitoring stations in India to levels found in developed nations for effective monitoring.
Revising the industrial water norms to be more stringent: An effective industrial water pollution regulation policy requires the use of a combination of regulatory instruments consisting of economic instruments of pollution taxes and marketable permits, informal regulation by local communities, and direct public investments for environmental improvements. But India still uses command and control regulatory instruments for water pollution abatement resulting in some big industries having effluent treatment plants and many industrial estates housing small-scale industries having common effluent treatment plants. The effectiveness of these facilities in reducing water pollution is unclear.
Building capacity of local municipalities:
In India, municipalities have the treatment capacity only for about 30 per cent of the wastewater generated in urban areas. This evidently indicates a gloomy picture of sewage treatment, which is the main source of pollution of rivers and lakes. To improve the water quality of rivers and lakes, there is an urgent need to increase the sewage treatment capacity and its optimum utilization. Conditioning intergovernmental fiscal transfers from state governments to local bodies on the basis of wastewater treated could be an effective instrument for strengthening the financial position of municipalities. It will not only strengthen the financial position of local governments but also help in addressing the problem of domestic water pollution. India has defined wastewater discharge standards for the domestic and industrial sectors, there are no discharge standards for the pollution emanating from agriculture.
Setting review processes and procedures for agricultural water usage:
Agriculture is the source of non-point water pollution and agricultural water pollution is linked, among other things, to the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Therefore, corrections in fertilizer and pesticide and electricity pricing policies could be an instrument for addressing the non-point water pollution in India.
It is high time the policy makers do something about the deteriorating water quality of the country. The loss of life, health and ultimately economic and social costs are unimaginable and must be avoided by sensible and timely intervention.
Ritwajit Das | The writer is an international research consultant working in the area of environment, urbanization, climate change and sustainable development