The story so far: The Lok Sabha this week passed the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Amendment Act, 2024. The legislation, which was introduced and passed in the Rajya Sabha on February 5, makes important changes to the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
What is the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974?
This Act as the name suggests, was the first piece of legislation in independent India that identified the need to have an institutional structure to address contamination of water bodies. This led to the creation, in September 1974, of the Central Pollution Control Boards (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) that were charged with monitoring and preventing public water resources from getting contaminated by sewage and industrial effluents. This Act made it mandatory for industrial units to get permission from their respective State boards before setting up factories and submitting themselves to checks on whether their manufacturing and other processes were complying with prescribed norms.
“The Parliament of India in its wisdom enacted the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in 1974 with a view to maintaining and restoring wholesomeness of our water bodies. One of the mandates of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is to collect, collate and disseminate technical and statistical data relating to water pollution,” the website of the CPCB notes. While the CPCB is empowered to conduct checks and provide guidance on technical standards to be adhered to, the SPCB files cases and is expected to enforce compliance. Violating the provisions of the Water Act can mean industries being shut down; monetary fines as well as imprisonment of up to six years. That said, there have been no instances of companies or people in India having been imprisoned due to environmental violations.
What are the amendments?
Water is a State subject, and the Centre cannot directly pass legislative laws influencing water management. However, the Centre can create legislation, if two or more States demand it, and this can be made applicable by States over their territories if they adopt the legislation in their Assemblies. The amended version of the Act, passed by both Houses of Parliament, will currently apply to Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan and the Union territories. The original Act, passed in 1974, is applicable in 25 States. The most important change is that it removes the provisions of imprisonment for several violations, deemed “minor”, and replaces them with fines, to the tune of ?10,000 extending up to ?15 lakh.
The amendments also give the Centre greater authority to over-ride SPCB in some instances. As per the original Act, the SPCB’s permission is needed for establishing any industry or treatment plant, which could discharge sewage into a water body, sewer, or land. In the amendment, the Bill specifies that the Centre, “... in consultation with the CPCB, may exempt certain categories of industrial plants from obtaining such consent....”
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However, operating or establishing an industrial unit without SPCB consent can still land you in jail for six years along with a fine.
The Bill also adds that the Centre may issue guidelines for the grant, refusal, or cancellation of consent granted by the SPCB. Under the Act, establishing and operating an industry without obtaining such consent from the SPCB is punishable with imprisonment up to six years and a fine. The Bill retains this. It also penalises tampering with monitoring devices used in determining whether any industry or treatment plant can be set up. The penalty will be between ?10,000 and ?15 lakh. The amended Act also empowers the Centre to frame rules to select the chairpersons of SPCBs and frame guidelines that States can follow on matters relating to the grant, refusal or cancellation of consent by any State board for establishing industries and new operating processes.
What has been the response?
Explaining the rationale behind the amendments, Environment Minister, Bhupendra Yadav, who steered the Bill, said outdated rules and regulations caused a “trust deficit.” The imprisonment provisions for minor violations, which are simple infringements and did not lead to any injury to humans or damage to the environment, often caused “harassment” to businesses and citizens and was not in consonance with the spirit of “ease of living and ease of doing business,” he added. In discussions on the Act in the Lok Sabha, Members of Opposition parties raised concerns that the amendments weakened the laws that protected rivers and water bodies from industrial pollution. They argued that the fear of imprisonment acted as an effective deterrent to industrial units that were lax with complying with strict regulations.
- This Act as the name suggests, was the first piece of legislation in independent India that identified the need to have an institutional structure to address contamination of water bodies.
- Water is a State subject, and the Centre cannot directly pass legislative laws influencing water management.
- Explaining the rationale behind the amendments, Environment Minister, Bhupendra Yadav, who steered the Bill, said outdated rules and regulations caused a “trust deficit.”