Leather pollution is the third largest pollution threat in the world. May be that's the reason why when the issue of massive pollution generated by 538 leather tanneries in Kolkata was raised, the Supreme Court was quick to order shifting of these units to a dedicated effluent treatment plant. However, even after 15 years, the plant is yet to become fully functional. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) lays threadbare the tenacity of bureaucratic and political system on the issue which also forced the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to pull up the state government for unsatisfactory work on the project.
It was in 1995 that the Supreme Court of India, while hearing a public interest litigation, had ordered shifting of 538 leather tanneries generating 30 million litre of cancer-causing effluents per day in Kolkata to an integrated complex with a dedicated effluent treatment plant.
It was in 1995 that the Supreme Court, while hearing a public interest litigation, ordered shifting of 538 leather tanneries generating 30 million litre of cancer-causing effluents per day in Kolkata to an integrated complex with a dedicated effluent treatment plant.
Though the state government was quick to propose shifting of the tanneries to the city outskirts, the project is yet to become fully operational even after the concerned authorities overshot the deadline of November 1997 by 13 years and has already spent Rs 135 crore, more than double the original estimated cost of Rs 65 crore. Meanwhile, the discharge of toxic industrial effluents and solid waste from the tanneries continues unabated resulting in immense groundwater contamination causing serious ailments among the local population, including cancer and renal failures.
However, it’s not only the implementation delay that has raised the alarm bells. The whole process starting from sanctioning of funds to planning for the project, maintenance of equipments and hiring of personnel has been a sham.
How the cost escalated
After the Supreme Court order, the West Bengal government showed its earnestness on the project by sending a proposal to the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) to set up 30 mid common effluent treatment plants with a total estimated cost of Rs 65 crore. NRCD agreed to bear half the cost and the state government matched the amount with an interest-free loan from the Centre.
The deadline decided: November 1997.
Within two years, the ‘city of joy’ was supposed to have considerably reduced level of pollution from leather tanneries. However, it was not to be. The project planners had overlooked various crucial components. Effluent transportation system, common chrome recovery system, safe solid waste disposal system and treated effluent sump and pumping station are essential for any common effluent treatment plant but they were missing from the drawing board. It took 12 years for the concerned authorities to include them in the project and approve the new estimated cost of Rs 135.44 crore with NRCD’s share at Rs 67.22 crore.
The new deadline: March 2010.
NRCD released Rs 42.24 crore to the West Bengal government of which Rs 39.52 crore was spent on March 31, 2009. March 2010 came and went but the project is yet in limbo. As of June 2010, the authorities had sanctioned only four out of seven components of the project.
The agencies handling the project are not only inept in planning, they also skipped the necessary procedure for sanctioning of funds. According to the Government Accounting Rules 1990, provision for the release of grants-in aid and loans to state and UT governments under Central plan schemes and Centrally-planned schemes should be made in the Union Budget. It was noticed during the audit that NRCD did not make any budgetary provisions for the project and released interest-free loan of Rs 42.24 crore to the West Bengal government under its Grant-in-Aid head. Instead of being apologetic about it, the NRCD told CAG the account under the load head would be created and funds released so far would be adjusted as loan amount accordingly.
The agencies handling the project are not only inept in planning, they also skipped the procedure for sanctioning of funds. NRCD did not sign a loan agreement with the state government so the terms and conditions of loan including repayment are not yet clear
In addition, the CAG also found that NRCD did not sign a loan agreement with the state government so the terms and conditions of loan including repayment terms are not yet clear which is in violation of the General Financial Rules 2005. Further, the state government had signed an agreement with CLC Tanners’ Association five years ago whereby the tanners had agreed to return the cost of construction of the effluent treatment plant.
However, the association is now reluctant to pay and requesting that the loan be converted to a grant. This raises a doubt whether the state government will be able to return the amount to NRCD. The NRCD also failed to monitor the project on a regular basis. The steering committee headed by Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, was supposed to meet at least once in three months but it was found that the committee had only six meetings during 2002-09.
A visit to the site by the NRCD director in April 2008 revealed that even the in-place components of the project were either not being put to use or were poorly maintained. Most of the industries were not doing pre-treatment of the waste leading to choking of the effluent transportation system (ETS). Few tanneries were bypassing the ETS releasing the waste in storm water drains thereby contaminating the ground water. The common chrome recovery system constructed at a cost of Rs 5.96 crore more than two years ago was not yet functional.
CLC Tanners’ Association, which was managing the operations, had hired unqualified persons which resulted in poor functioning of the project. End cuts of finished leather products, fresh linings and trimmings containing high levels of chromium were found dumped on the roadside while some tanneries released effluents into open and did not use common drains set up for the purpose.
It has taken more than 15 years for the concerned agencies to set up a dysfunctional pollution control unit which is a mockery of the rules and regulations. Did anybody talk about international scrutiny?