Water pollution regulation in India


This article gives an overview of the current state of the Indian environmental regulation system. We mention the main relevant texts regarding the regulation of water pollution. We then describe the main elements of the institutional set up, that is the pollution control boards, and the existing tools at their disposition. Finally we discuss the role of informal regulation by local communities.

Water pollution – related legislation

Unless there have been some environment related acts in India as early as the nineteenth century, the first significant laws regarding the protection of environmental resources appeared in the 1970's with the setting up of a National Comimittee on Environmental Planning and Coordination, and the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Since then, three main texts have been passed at the central level, that are relevant to water pollution : the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977 and the Environment (Protection) Act (1986).

  • The Water Act 1974 established the Pollution Control Boards at the central and state level.
  • The Water Cess Act 1977 provided the Pollution Control Boards with a funding tool, enabling them to charge the water user with a cess designed as a financial support for the board's activities.
  • The Environment Protection Act 1986 is an umbrella legislation providing a single focus in the country for the protection of environment and seeks to plug the loopholes of earlier legislation relating to environment.

The law prohibits the pollution of water bodies and requires any potentially polluting activity to get the consent of the local SPCB before being started.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)

The CPCB has overshight powers over the various state boards. It sets emission standards, and lays down ambient standards. The CPCB also conducts nation wide surveys about the status of pollution, and of pollution mitigation.

Two programs of inland water quality monitoring have been set up so far, leading to the preading of 480 measurement stations over the main river basins of the country. These two programs are the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) and Monitoring of Indian Aquatic Resources MINARS). The ganga river is subject to a dedicated program called Ganga Action Plan (GAP) under which a water quality control network as been set up in the ganga basin.

The measurement are made in different kind of medium (river, wells, lakes, creeks, ponds, tanks, drains and canals) and 25 physico-chemical and biological parameters are monitored.

The State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB)

The implementation of the national environmental laws, and the enforcement of the standards set by the CPCB is decentralised at the level of each state, with the SPCB in charge of this role. The SPCB can demand information from any industry about the compliance with the Act. Non-compliance can be punished with fines up to Rs. 10000, and imprisonment up to three months. In case of continued non-compliance, an additional daily fine of 5000 Rs. can be imposed. Until 1988, the only enforcement tool of the SPCB was criminal prosecution. This was revised by the 1988 amendment to the Water Act of 1974. The boards now have the power to close non-compliant companies or to cut their water and power supply. The ultimate recourse remains public interest litigation in front on the supreme court. During the last decade, the supreme court has been involved several times in large scale environment related measures. In April 1995 for example, the Supreme Court of India, in a public interest litigation case, has ordered that 538 tanneries located in 3 clusters in Calcutta generating about 30 mld of effluents be shifted from the city to a leather complex and a CETP (Common Effluent Treatment Plant)be provided to treat the effluent generated from the complex. In 1996, it has ordered the closure of all tanneries in Tamil Nadu that had not set up pollution control systems.

However, control and sanction is not the only way of interaction between the boards and the polluting entities. Under the Water Cess Act of 1977 state boards may charge industries and municipalities with a water cess calculated on the volume of water consumed, and for consent fees. Nevertheless any fee levied by the SPCBs have to be sent to the central government. The central government is then supposed to return 80% of the fees to the SPCBs