Macro problem, myopic solution

Macro problem, myopic solution

You call a lake polluted beyond repair when you let in untreated sewage through 11 out of its 12 inlets. That’s Bellandur lake for you, frothing menacingly, its lather in monstrous proportions exposing a system gone horribly wrong. Cornered by this dirty picture, shaken by this dangerous tide unfolding in lakes across Bengaluru, the civic agencies are scrambling for solutions.

But the existing network of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), -- some functioning, some not--, are clearly inadequate to arrest the flow. In desperation, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) wants STPs to be installed even in small apartments with five or more flats. Is that proposal fair? Can the small flat-owners bear the high cost of setting up and maintaining the treatment plants?

BWSSB officials say cheaper, smaller STP options are available. But since a market for such equipment is yet to take shape, flat owners are confused and wary. They feel the high recurring and maintenance charges in the future could be prohibitively expensive.
For big apartment complexes, rules are in place for mandatory installation of STPs since 2010. The State Government had then notified that apartments with 50 or more flats had to instal the treatment plants. But several buildings older than 2010 are without the STPs.

Random inspection
To get a clear picture of apartments, old and new, violating the norm, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) is on a random checking drive. Owners of apartments without STPs and dysfunctional treatment plants are liable to be booked under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. The Board could also cut off the power supply for non-compliance.

Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI) president Nagaraj Reddy insists that all associated builders have installed running STPs. “Unless the plant is installed, KSPCB and BBMP do not issue the necessary approval and occupancy certificates. Lakes are getting polluted not because of apartments. Ninety per cent of water getting into lakes is untreated. There are no STPs or sewage pipes in the 110 villages under BBMP,” points out Reddy.

At the 132-flat Chitrakoot Environs apartment complex in Basavanagar, the STP maintenance is outsourced to a private firm. “The annual cost is about Rs. 3.5 lakh. Although the STP was installed by the builder and its cost shared by flat owners, the running charge is certainly high,” explains the flat owners association president, Goutam Dutta.

Costly proposition

Electricity and other chemical charges to maintain the plant running 24/7 add to the costs. “Running a 5 HP motor day and night is a very expensive proposition. I don’t think it would be economical for flat owners in smaller apartments,” he notes.

The treated water at Chitrakoot is recycled for use in flush tanks. “Typically, most of the water is consumed there. Although theoretically, the water can be used for gardening and car wash, it is not always of consistent quality. STPs require very high and regular maintenance. If there is any shortcoming, the water will stink.”

If BWSSB gets serious about the mandatory STP rule for small apartments, the latter could get jittery. The proposal itself has not gone down with many. Suresh Babu, a flat owner in Murugeshpalya questions why apartments should be targeted when individual households let their untreated sewage directly into BWSSB drains. Talking economics, he reasons that less number of flats would mean higher cost per head for setting up and maintaining a STP.

Joint meeting
However, cheaper options such as greywater treatment and other filtration technologies are now available. KSPCB Member Secretary, S Shanthappa informs that the Board would soon call a joint meeting of apartment owners associations and STP manufacturers. “Cheaper technologies are there, but they are not yet popularised. We hope these could be adopted in smaller apartments around the Bellandur lake to start with,” he says.  

But before targeting smaller apartments, shouldn’t BWSSB and KSPCB ensure greater compliance from big flat-owners? Raising this question, retired BWSSB Chief Engineer Thippeswamy seeks a coordinated effort from all the agencies concerned -- BBMP included--, so that anyone flouting norms are strictly dealt with. The existing norms lack teeth. Clear rules mandating STPs for apartments with a certain number of flats should be formulated by all the three agencies.

As Thippeswamy points out, if poor maintenance plagues half of the around 330 STPs set up in private apartments across the City, there is something seriously wrong with the regulation and monitoring mechanism. Unless this critical issue is addressed, maybe the small apartment owners should be allowed to wait.

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