Residents protest municipal bid to shift National Green Tribunal-mandated sewage treatment onus to RWAs

Writing about the battle that resident welfare associations in Bangalore and NCR are fighting against decentralized sewage treatment plants mandated by the National Green Tribunal’s orders on zero liquid discharge, E JAYASHREE KURUP explains why residents of housing complexes are opposed to such plants, and the role of municipal authorities in this dispute.


THE National Green Tribunal (NGT) has, in the past, ordered municipalities to clean up domestic and municipal effluents before releasing them into water bodies. Municipal authorities have been doing the same by mandating decentralised sewage treatment plants (STP) in residential complexes. Citizens have been campaigning against this and where possible, just let the STPs be. Can there be an integrated solution, which is a win-win for all in the spirit of the NGT order?

It is a case of two rights creating two wrongs and consumers struggling to find solutions.

NGT orders zero liquid discharge

In the NGT Order dated 24th April, 2017, in the M.C. Mehta vs Union of India (Original application no. 200/2014) case, the contention was that the Ganga was so polluted because of a host of industries that were not managing their effluents and discharging them into the river. A study revealed the validity of the complaint.

After a survey and study, the NGT ordered the industries to maintain Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD). Explains V Suresh, Chairman, Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) and former Chairman and Managing Director, Hudco: “The ZLD option is considered when treated wastewater is released into rivers or on land. If the sea is available nearby, the wastewater is allowed to discharge through outfall diffusers.”

In a similar ruling at about the same time in 2017, the NGT took cognizance of the toxic pollutants being discharged into the Belandur Lake in Bengaluru. After the lake caught fire from the noxious fumes emitted by the effluents, it passed a similar ZLD order.

This piece is not about corporate polluters. It is about the impact of corporate polluters on the domestic sector. Solid and liquid waste management has typically been a municipal function. And in the Ganga case in 2015, the NGT took suo moto cognizance of the pollution of the Yamuna as well. In this case, three state governments were indicted: those of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. They were directed to stop polluting the Yamuna by discharging domestic and municipal liquid waste directly into the river or through the Najafgarh Nullah.

Similarly, in the Bengaluru Belandur case, the NGT issued a retrospective order that sewage and sullage from complexes of more than 50 units, if they were built before 2012, and of more than 20 units in later constructions, had to have their own sewage treatment plants (STPs).

Despite citizen protests and public outcry, the law was implemented and RWAs had to go ahead and set up STPs.

Why RWAs are opposed to sewage treatment plants

However, it was found that there were serious capacity-building issues. First, the RWAs found it hard to find plumbers and contractors with expertise in installing and maintaining the STPs.

Secondly, about 70-80% of water was treated, as estimated by Suresh. The amount reused in horticulture and domestic flushing in toilets took care of only 30-40% of this treated water. The remaining water was discharged into the lakes as partially treated water.

All went fine till the second case of lake fires when the NGT banned the release of any water into the Belandur lake. Now the RWAs had a new problem – that of plenty. What were they to do with the excess water? After knocking on the doors of various government departments, finally, an RWA representative attended a public forum, the Municipalika, in 2020, where many of the senior officials were present, to place his story and to ask for solutions.

Also Read: BWSSB insists on penalty from January 1 if apartments in Bengaluru don’t follow STP rules

After plenty of media debate and residents’ agitations, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board has now created a much-awaited water grid through which the city will identify the local water availability and demand in each part of the city. By matching the two, the excess water from local STPs could be channelled into the construction or manufacturing industries. It could also help in horticultural requirements of the city, in chilling plants, or even to recharge aquifers to arrest falling water tables.

Explains Suresh from IGBC: “It is a major impact-producing decision. We must be less than 5% compliant in terms of real good treatment of sewage and sullage to the right level of safe effluent quality. No Indian city has full primary, secondary and tertiary treated STPs where treated water can be reused and recycled with no health hazard. NeWater of Singapore was the only way forward. We are still primitive in using the latest wastewater (sewage+sullage) treatment and reuse. ZLD and IGBC Net Zero Water rating will help all developers, city authorities and water and waste utility authorities.”

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board’s efforts in the 1990s to treat 16 MGD (millions of gallons per day) of sewage through tertiary treatment (around 15% of Bangalore’s wastewater problem) on a pilot basis was the first such initiative. None of the cities in India had earlier gone for real scientific sewage treatment and reuse for various purposes. A few initiatives such as the ZLD of NGT, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC), and the Green Building Rating of IGBC are changing that status quo now. Additionally, Namami Gange for Ganga rejuvenation has taken up projects in 93 cities on both sides of the Ganges for some transformation.

The Delhi Jal Nigam, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, and the municipal authorities in Pune, Kolkata, and Ahmedabad should make it compulsory to have tertiary treatment plants in STPs for wastewater treatment, and recycling and reuse. A majority of Chinese cities do this. Israeli and European cities do it too. If this is done, India’s daily fresh water demand will come down by 30 to 40%. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2030 provides a global framework to achieve this.

Also read: Untreated sewage in Mithi river: Bombay High Court directs extension of sewer lines 

80% of sewage treatment plants non-functional, not working optimally

However, there is another aspect to the STP story. In Bangalore, while a handful of RWAs has done a good job managing their liquid waste from apartment complexes, Suresh estimates that about 80% of STPs are non-functional or not working to optimum capacity. This is because they do not have any provision for operation and maintenance (O&M) costs. Most function with sequencing batch reactor technology, which incurs daily operational costs. With the municipal authorities making this function the responsibility of RWAs, it is a daily struggle for the residents.

Explains S Viswanath, Director of Biome and an expert in this matter: “There are various models of O&M to keep an STP running, including the latest hybrid annuity model. Here the STP builder and operator is paid the cost of installation and running over 10 years, based on the quality of the output water. Decentralized STPs become a viable proposition when the opportunity cost of water is considered. The O&M cost would be included as part of the water bill. The charge for residents can actually be lowered if the flats are metered and the true cost of water charged. When sewage costs are charged like in the case of water, people reduce demand and save money.”

However, there has to be a promise of better municipal governance before consumers bite the STP bullet. A few months ago, residents of South City 1, a 30-year-old 630-acre township in Gurugram, were agitated over a private contractor coming in and digging up all the parks and greens to install decentralised STPs. So much so that they got together and stopped the work. The contractor had to ultimately back off.

The contractor was engaged by the municipal body to retrofit STPs in established townships, which have recently been taken over by the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram from the private developers. With no promise of municipal backing or even any sops to consumers, let alone taking the public into confidence, the battle lines are drawn.

A Central Monitoring Committee is now taking monthly stock of compliance to the September 2019 NGT order, across states. The deadline for the National Capital Region cities to conform to the NGT order cannot be put off. In Noida too, residents of high-rise apartments have been complaining of a foul smell from STPs. Property agents say that apartments overlooking STPs command a lower price.

The municipal authorities are caught between the residents and the NGT order. Can there be a solution to this face-off? Decentralised STPs are here to stay. But the establishment cannot be clandestine or hope to work without community involvement. Incentives like those proposed in Bengaluru have to be the starting point.

Finally, there has to be a promise of cleaner water bodies like the Yamuna or Ganga rivers or even lakes. That entire process is yet to be worked out. In the interim, there are pitched battles between wary consumers and distressed municipalities, which want to shift the burden of the NGT order from their backs to that of consumers.

(E Jayashree Kurup is Director, Real Estate at Wordmeister Editorial Services LLP. She was former Editor-in-Chief, MBTV. The views expressed are personal.)