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Above: Cooum river/Photo: Peter Fristedt/wikimedia.org

The NGT has asked the state government to pay a fine of Rs 2 crore for delay in removing encroachments along the Adyar and Cooum rivers. But this is easier said than done  

By R Ramasubramanian   

In a hard-hitting order with far-reaching consequences, the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) principle bench in Delhi recently directed the Tamil Nadu government to pay a fine of Rs 2 crore for inordinate delay in removing encroachments on the banks of Adyar and Cooum rivers in Chennai.

The NGT headed by chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel passed strictures on the state government for its poor pre-monsoon preparedness and also asked the state Public Works Department (PWD) to deposit Rs 2 crore within 15 days with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). It was hearing a bunch of petitions relating to the pollution of Adyar and Cooum rivers and Buckingharm Canal in Chennai.

The petitioners charged that there was uncontrolled discharge of effluents from different industries and untreated sewage was directly getting into the water bodies. In addition, they said that there was massive encroachment on the banks of the rivers due to construction.

The bench said: “On 24.09.2013, we (NGT) had deprecated the pace of the work being undertaken by the authority for addressing the serious environmental issues. It would be relevant to note that this case has been going on since 2013. Considering the inordinate delay in addressing serious environmental questions, we had directed the concerned authorities to file an affidavit placing before us the present status of the action taken for mitigation.

“But on perusal of the reports of the Principal Secretary, Public Works Department, Tamil Nadu, we find that it is replete with vagueness and no instances of tangible action taken for mitigation of the problems having been stated.”

It added that “we are now of the view that the matter needs to be dealt with at the highest level and accordingly direct the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu, to look into the matter directly and ensure that the steps are taken on an urgent basis in the interest of the environment and the people”.

The bench then said that due to the inordinate delay by the PWD, a penalty of Rs 2 crore would have to be deposited with the CPCB. “The amount shall be deposited within 15 days from hence (from October, 31, 2018). If the department again fails to comply with the directions contained in the order dated 24.09.2018, an additional penalty of Rs 50,000/- per day shall be imposed until such report is filed,” the bench said. It posted the case for further hearing to December 12.

The issue of river encroachments was seen tragically during the December 2015 floods in Chennai. The city was then was battered by heavy rains, resulting in the loss of some 422 lives and destruction of property worth crores. It was after this deluge that debate started about what caused the disaster.

Environmentalists said it was massive encroachments on the banks of three rivers—Cooum, Adyar and Kosasthalai—that caused this disaster. This, along with the callous way that Buckingham Canal was maintained led to it. The Canal, incidentally, is where part of the water from these three rivers is di­ver­ted before it goes to the sea.

“The destruction of water bodies of Chennai was the main reason for the 2015 Chennai floods,” M Vetriselvan, an environmental activist and lawyer, told India Legal.

Vetriselvan said the truth is contrary to populist perception. “People generally think that encroachment means huts on the river banks where poor people live. But that’s not the main problem. We can relocate them. The main stakeholders in this issue are the buildings of big corporate houses, engineering colleges, commercial complexes, private hospitals, etc. Many are, to a large extent, built on encroached lands and water bodies.

“In fact, a report by CAG in 2015-2016, and one by a parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Environment and Forests condemned the state government’s lackadaisical attitude on this issue. Over 90 percent of the IT corridor of Chennai is built on encroached lands and water bodies,” he said.

Governments at both the central and state levels, he alleged, prefer to let businesses construct their buildings on top of water bodies as it relieves them from land acquisition hassles.

Effluents have been flowing into Chennai’s rivers for years despite laws to prevent this. P Sundararajan, an environmental activist and a litigant in several environmental issues in the Madras High Court and Supreme Court, told India Legal: “There are laws which make effluent treatment a must before they are allowed to flow into rivers. These deal with bio-medical, industrial and domestic waste. But these laws are ignored.”

He said it was important to decentralise investments as economic growth was one of the reasons for Chennai’s 2015 floods. “Every investment is being done only in Chennai. But an IT company can be started anywhere in Tamil Nadu. All you need is computers and buildings unlike other sectors. So why are investments being made only in Chennai?”

There are at least four lakh IT professionals in Chennai alone. Almost all the major IT companies such as Cogni­zant, Wipro, TCS, Infosys, HCL, Tech Mahindra and Verizon, and hundreds of medium and small players have their offices here. And many of these offices are sitting on water bodies.

Jawaharlal Shanmugam, one of the petitioners in the case pending in the NGT, said he had shown over 100 photographs in the Tribunal to prove that concerned governments have done little to clear the encroachments and protect the water bodies.

“It’s high time for governments to wake up as one more flood-like situation will devastate Chennai and resurrection may not be easy,” he said.

Sane words but there are few takers for them. A state minister asked: “How can we relocate four lakh IT professionals. While the opposition says the government is not doing anything for job creation, the media targets us saying we are least bothered about environmental degradation. What can we do?”

Undoubtedly, this age-old tussle between job creation and protecting the environment will go on and governments will need to find a balance between the two.

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