March 24, 2024

Amended Water Act Permits Pollution by Corporates

Tapan Mishra

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THE government has secured the latest in a series of enactments seriously diluting earlier legislation on environmental issues, this time on water pollution.  As has become customary with the Modi government, objections by the opposition were brushed aside, and there was virtually no discussion in either house of parliament. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Amendment Act, 2024 (hereafter Water Act 2024),  amending the earlier Water Act 1974, was tabled in the Rajya Sabha earlier this year on February 5 and passed the very next day on February 6, and tabled in the Lok Sabha on February 8 and passed shortly thereafter.  Since 2014 the BJP government has amended almost all policies meant to protect our environment and forest resources with the explicit purpose of facilitating the “ease of doing business.” Major changes have been made to the Forest Conservation Act, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) enactment, guidelines and rules for environment clearances, the Coastal Zone regulations and so on. The common thread in all these amendments has been dilution of regulations, relaxation of conditions for obtaining environmental clearance, and major reduction in penalties for violations, all enabling plunder of natural resources and freedom to pollute by corporates, with hardly any responsibility to conserve or protect them.

WATER ACT (1974)                      

The Water Pollution (Control and Prevention) Act of 1974, was not about water alone. For the first time in India, the Act directed the union and state governments to establish institutional frameworks through creation of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB). These boards were to be responsible for monitoring and preventing contamination of public water resources by sewage and industrial effluents. Gradually, these institutions were given the responsibility of pollution of water, air, land and many other aspects of our physical environment. 

 Before these boards were set up, there was no technical institution in India to set standards for permissible levels of different contaminants in and their harmful effects.

The CPCB’s role includes collecting and disseminating data on water pollution and setting technical standards, whereas SPCBs has the responsibility to monitor industrial units in their respective jurisdictions, enforce compliance of such standards, and imposing penalties for violations including factory shutdowns, fines and even imprisonment of up to six years. Perhaps the most important feature of the original Act is that it requires industrial units to obtain permission from state boards before setting up factories or mines and discharging effluents into water bodies or on land, and to comply with specified environmental norms.

THE AMENDMENTS                    

Water is a state subject as per constitutional provisions. Yet, given the Modi government’s centralising tendencies, the centre has acquired special powers via this amendment through a clever stratagem. Normally, the union government’s legislative power is limited unless requested by two or more states. So, it leveraged resolutions passed by Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Water Act (2024) will apply initially only to these two states, and the union territories. The original Water Act of 1974, however, applied to all states as guidelines, with implementation in the hands of states.  Other states would now come under the Amended Act as and when they pass resolutions to that effect.

At the same time, the amended Water Act (2024) contains strict guidelines and provisions which have two objectives. First is to exempt certain categories of industries from having to seek approval of the SPCB   for operating and discharging effluents into water bodies and other restrictions under the Act. The idea of exempting a wide range of industries from environmental regulations was earlier mooted, along with several other major de-regulation measures, in the EIA (Amendment) 2020, which the government was forced to keep in abeyance due to overwhelming criticism by experts, environmentalists and civil society organisations. Similar proviso is now being introduced under the amended Water Act.

Second is to undermine the autonomy of states, and establish control by the centre. The amendments now stipulate that exemptions to unspecified categories of industries would be granted “as may be prescribed by the central government,” with guidelines for consent to operate, withdrawal of such consent, and other stipulations to be given by “the central government in consultation with the Central (Pollution Control) Board by notification in the Official Gazette.” The central government is also given authority to frame rules for selecting SPCB chairpersons, bringing these state boards under the administrative control of the centre.

In the name of decriminalising “minor” violations of norms and thus promoting better compliance, the amended Act replaces imprisonment for violations with fines. As pointed by critics when earlier proposed under EIA 2020, this is nothing but granting industries the liberty to   ‘pollute and pay.’  

In an egregious provision, the amended Act also provides for exemption such as depositing “non-polluting” materials on the bank of water body, such as depositing soil for reclaiming land. While not being a pollutant as such, this proviso gives freedom to reduce the size of water bodies or encroach upon them.

All in all, these amendments pervert the purpose of environmental regulations, converting them from instruments for conservation and protection of the environment as required by Articles 48-A and 51-A of the constitution into instruments for granting permission to destroy it.


The corporate agenda was made explicit by Lakshmikant Bajpai, the chief whip of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha. He said that these amendments would facilitate ease of doing business, and “free businesses from the inspector raj and provide a better mechanism. It will allow the government to provide certain exemptions….”

While the amended Act provides for some penalties, the fines ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 15 lakh maximum are meagre especially for large corporates who would be happy to pay such paltry sums and continue polluting. It may be recalled that National Green Tribunal (NGT) found Ravi Shankar's Art of Living responsible for causing damage to the Yamuna flood plains by erecting structures and holding large gatherings there, and directed the organisation to pay a penalty of Rs 5 crore so as to act as a deterrent. Imagine if a limit of only Rs 15 lakh had been set. The “city of lakes,” Bengaluru, has gone dry this year. Experts have stated that if pollution and encroachments of water bodies continue, Bengaluru will become ‘zero water’ by 2030. Delhi alone contributes 79 per cent of the pollution load of the Yamuna river.  The CAG has found that Yoga “guru” Ramdev's ‘Patanjali' is one of the many industries along the river Ganga discharging untreated effluents into the river. The Ganga and Yamuna figure among the top 12 most polluted rivers in the world.

Articles 48-A and 51-A of the constitution require the protection and improvement of our natural environment. The amended Water Act of 2024 encourage corporates to do just the opposite.



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