Environment
The National Green Tribunal noted that government agencies have been “turning a blind eye” to rampant pollution in the Adyar and Cooum rivers.

The National Green Tribunal has slapped a fine of Rs 100 crore on the Tamil Nadu government for failing to control pollution and restore Chennai’s waterways. The NGT passed the order while disposing of several petitions on Wednesday. In the strongly worded order, the NGT not only criticised the state government for failing to take action against entities responsible for polluting the waterways, but also accused them of complacency and colluding with the polluters.

“It has been brought to our notice that it is widely reported that Adyar and Cooum are two of the most polluted rivers to flow through any major urban agglomeration anywhere in the world. Bearing the brunt of garbage, discharged sewage, defecation and encroachments on the banks, the Adyar river, once a thriving waterway, has been reduced to a stinking watercourse, with government agencies turning a blind eye to the damage meted out,” the order states.

“In view of consistent failure of the State so far, we are tentatively inclined to require the State of Tamil Nadu to pay a sum of Rs 100 Crores as compensation for damage to the environment with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the past failures in preventing damage to environment,” the order directs.

Further, the NGT ordered for the setting up of a joint committee “comprising of representatives of CPCB, Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, Madras School of Economics, NEERI and the State Pollution Control Board.” This committee has been tasked with assessing the causes and damage to the environment and the steps needed to be taken for its restoration that are not covered in the action plan. The committee will have to submit its report within three months; and the CPCB will be the nodal agency to coordinate and ensure compliance with NGT’s orders.

The state has been asked to prepare a performance guarantee to finish the work within the stipulated time period. The guarantee, which must be to the CPCB’s satisfaction, has to be submitted within a month.

The NGT has also summoned the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary to be present before the Tribunal on April 24, 2019. “We direct the Chief Secretary to be ready with the progress in the present matter as well which is impacting large number of inhabitants living in the catchments of these river systems,” the NGT said.

Non-compliance, complacency on part of TN govt

The NGT pointed out that the state authorities have had a history of non-compliance on the issue, even though the NGT has been making several observations and giving directions to restore, conserve and remove encroachments from the waterways since 2014. Pointing out that while Rs 600 crore were made available for the restoration of the project, the NGT noted that it has made negligible progress since the time of its launch in 2015.

The order stated that the “polluted reputation” of the Adyar river had encouraged public apathy as well. “When it enters the city, the river is basically an urban sewer receiving municipal and industrial wastewater and solid waste (especially near bridges) and refuse from slums. This results in the direct impact of polluted anoxic stretches, as well as raises public health (including from mosquito breeding in stagnant waters) and odour concerns and secondary groundwater pollution,” it said.

The NGT went on to even accuse the TN government of colluding with the polluters due to their complacency and failure to take action against them. "… [The principle of] ‘Polluter Pays’ which applies not only to actual polluters but also to those who collude with polluters or enable pollution to be caused and also for the negligence of public duties, adversely affecting the citizens," the NGT order stated.

The order names the institutions identified as polluters in 2016. The five educational institutions in this regard are Dr MGR University Research & Educational Institute in Maduravoyal, the Thai Moogambigai Dental College & Hospital in Mugappair, the Thai Moogambigai Polytechnic College in Nerkundram Village in Tiruvallur District, the gents and ladies hostels in phase II of Dr MGR University Educational and Research Institute University Phase II as well as its 1st year block in Adyalampattu Village in Tiruvallur district. The educational institutions were found to have been polluting up to 26 years, and authorities had taken no action.

Further, 12 industries were identified as well.

In October 2018, the NGT sought a report on removal of encroachments from waterways, among other things. Calling the reports submitted "vague" and "without tangible action," the NGT found that of the 26,300 encroachments, only 408 had been removed. The Chief Secretary was asked to look into the matter and the Public Works Department (PWD) was fined Rs 2 crore for the lapses.

Action being taken now

In January 2019 finally, a status report submitted said that the Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT) had taken strenuous efforts for revamping Cooum and Adyar rivers in Phase I and Phase II. “The action plan involved removal of encroachment, plugging of sewer in-falls, construction of pumping stations, sewage treatment plants, widening and deepening of waterways etc. for which a sum of Rs 104.74 crore had been allocated,” the NGT noted.

Recently, on February 11, the state government filed an affidavit “stating the Eco Restoration Plan had been prepared for restoration of the Cooum River which is to be implemented in three phases in eight years. Major activities will be completed in three years.” For this, Rs 604.77 crore have been sanctioned for 60 sub-projects. This plan has been named the “Integrated Cooum River Eco-Restoration Project”.