Penalty kick: Fair or unfair?

Penalty kick: Fair or unfair?

ive hundred apartments, caught in a bind as the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) threatens dire consequences if they don’t pay a hefty penalty

Bellandur lake and the apartment complexes in its vicinity. Many have set up STPs while others have not done so, citing exemptions. (Credit: DH Photo/Shivakumar B H)

Five hundred apartments, caught in a bind as the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) threatens dire consequences if they don’t pay a hefty penalty. Cornered by the National Greens Tribunal (NGT), is this KSPCB’s only way to save its face and the Bellandur, Varthur lakes?

Here’s the problem: Most apartments in the Board’s radar have their own Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), while many don’t. But KSPCB says the quality of the treated water does not meet the prescribed standards. Crying foul, the apartment dwellers have questioned the water sampling methods, dubbing it arbitrary, opaque and unfair.

Spread across Whitefield, Bellandur and Mahadevapura, the apartments are in the catchment areas of the highly polluted Bellandur and Varthur lakes. The Board wants them to pay up since it claims the treated water fails to meet quality standards linked to Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), fecal coliform and more.

Tests questioned

But in reality, the issue is not so black and white, as DH finds after a visit to ground zero. Many apartment dwellers say the entire bases for the KSPCB action are tests purportedly conducted in April, 2019. Their question is clear: “Why did the Board not take immediate action then, why did they wait for eight months?”

However, KSPCB Member Secretary Basavaraj V Patil insists that they have been monitoring the STPs continuously. “This has been going on for seven-eight months. The NGT has directed that we levy Rs 5 lakh for every default. The Tribunal has asked us to act immediately,” he explains.

The quality of the treated water, Patil informs, is checked for seven main parameters. “We have sent notices to 268 apartments and small units, of whom 102 have come back saying they have complied.”

Also Read: Will penalties help stem the sewage flow to Bellandur lake?

Voluntary sample tests

For several apartments that had set up STPs, monthly, voluntary water quality tests have been part of their installation mandate. “These tests by NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories)-approved labs have all shown that the water quality is fine,” notes Bellandur resident and eco-activist Nagesh Aras.

So, what explains the conflict in the reports by these labs and KSPCB’s test analysis? The issue is with the water sampling process, says Aras. “The Board is supposed to take samples, give one sample to the apartments to send to a NABL-accredited lab of their choice. The Water Act has clearly laid down the guidelines. This was not followed.”

The Board has ‘unilaterally’ decided that everyone is a polluter, says a key office-bearer of the Bengaluru Apartments Federation (BAF). “They have gone berserk. They go to every apartment saying here is a report I have generated, and since I have generated, it is correct. The agenda seems to be to collect money.”

Pulled up by NGT

Finding no change in the status of Bellandur and Varthur lakes, the NGT had pulled up multiple parastatal agencies including the KSPCB, the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA). The BAF member wonders whether the Tribunal had asked to penalize everyone. “They just have to show some action,” he says.

But even if the water quality is below the prescribed standard, should apartment dwellers be penalized? This is the question posed by veteran water treatment consultant Dr Ananth Kodavasal, who gives an entirely different perspective to the whole debate. “Who is the polluter here, the builder, architect or the KSPCB itself. The NGT has to make a clear distinction.”

Citizens buy flats paying money to the builder, architect, the plumbing consultant and the Board. “Everyone has made money. Penalising the flat-owner goes against the principles of natural justice,” asserts Kodavasal.

Poor technology

He attributes the poor water quality to poor choice of STP technology adopted for use in apartments. “You need to choose the tech based on the scale of the STP. One size does not fit all. For small and micro STPs in use in apartments, the technology should be such that the operational and maintenance costs are low, the manpower costs are low,” he elaborates.

The Board should have had stipulated the right technology suitable for apartment complexes. There have been no defined parameters. Besides, architects are not competent to design or build STPs. Eventually, the citizens are penalized. Kodavasal says they should approach the consumer courts for being given poor, deficient products.

The KSPCB maintains it has sent notices only to apartments that have not complied with the rules. STPs are mandated for apartments with over 20 flats and commercial setups exceeding an area of 5,000 sqm. The Board also draws attention to several apartments that has failed to install their own treatment plants.

Compliance

A Bellandur resident, preferring anonymity, says the Board is right in penalising those who have not put up STPs at all. “A lot of these apartment dwellers don’t take the trouble to check if the builder has taken all the permissions, how compliant they are with the guidelines,” the resident contends.

Sonali Singh, a resident of Green Glen Layout in Bellandur, echoes the same view. “Citizens have certain duties to fulfill. If there are certain guidelines, we need to abide by that. Many are reluctant to spend money on STPs although KSPCB has had exhibitions on setting them up. People are adopting shortcut methods,” she says.

However, many among those without STPs insist that their buildings were constructed before January 19, 2016 and thus exempt from the mandatory STP rule. They have connected their sewage lines to the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB)’s underground drainage network.

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