Less than 20 per cent of the wastewater discharged by households, and 60 per cent of industrial wastewater, is treated in India. This situation has to change, say SHISHAM PRIYADARSHINI and AMISH SHROFF.
At present, out of the various environmental challenges that India is facing, water scarcity is one of the major challenges, which is mainly attributed to the lack of sustainable infrastructure, increasing growth of population and urbanisation. It is estimated that less than 20 per cent of the wastewater discharged by households and 60 per cent of industrial wastewater is treated in India. Metros and large cities are treating only about 30 per cent of their wastewater. Smaller cities treat about less than 4 per cent of their wastewater, which is a dismal situation.
The estimation also goes to suggest that the wastewater from urban India may cross 120,000 MLD (million litres per day) and that from rural areas may cross 50,000 MLD, by 2050.
The dearth of water is due to two reasons – one being the limited availability of freshwater sources and the other being pollution of existing water resources.
Considering the issue of water shortage, water and wastewater management in India are key areas of concern. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India has an installed capacity to treat only about 30 per cent of the household waste it generates, while the rest is released into open drains or straight into the ground.
The available statistics go to suggest that there is a huge disparity between wastewater generation and its treatment in India. Even the existing treatment capacity is not effectively utilised due to inefficient operation, and maintenance of existing plants and sewage pumping stations. Due to lack of wastewater treatment, the level of untreated wastewater increases significantly. The untreated wastewater contaminates the land and water bodies, where such water is disposed of, harming public health.
Objective and Process
The principal objective of wastewater treatment is to extract pollutants, toxins, pathogens, and harmful compounds such that the quality of the wastewater is improved to reach such permissible levels so that the treated water can be suitably reused.
Typically, any wastewater treatment undergoes preliminary treatment (removal of coarse solids and other large materials often found in raw wastewater) followed by the primary treatment (removal of organic and inorganic solids by sedimentation, and the removal of materials that will float by skimming), secondary treatment (removal of biodegradable dissolved and colloidal organic matter using aerobic biological treatment processes), and tertiary treatment (removal of nitrogen, phosphorus, additional suspended solids, refractory organics, heavy metals, and dissolved solids).
Under the Indian Constitution, water is a State subject and the Central government can only advise the states by issuing a non-binding National Water Policy. According to the National Water Policy, water is to be allocated according to the priority list, beginning with drinking usage, followed by irrigation, hydropower, ecology, agricultural and non-agricultural industries, navigation, and for other uses. Besides this, the National Water Policy also encourages private participation in the planning and operation of water systems.
Presently, there is no separate statue dealing with wastewater in the country, and the water sector is governed by environmental legislations, Pollution Control Acts, and rules and notifications – the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; the Water Prevention and Control of Pollution) Rules, 1975; the Water (Procedure for Transaction of Business) Rules, 1975; the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Second Amendment Rules, 1976; National Environment Policy, 2006; National Sanitation Policy, 2008, the Hazardous waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, the Municipalities Act; and the District Municipalities Act.
The Ministry of Water Resources (MOWR) is the principal body responsible for policy guidelines and programmes for the development and regulation of country’s water resources. MOWR is essentially responsible and oversees the planning and development of the resource from policy formulation to infrastructure support.
The other Central departments working in the area concerning water are the Ministry of Agriculture (watershed development and irrigation), the Ministry of Power (hydropower development), the Ministry of Environment and Forests (water quality), the Ministry of Rural Development (watershed development and drinking water provisions), the Ministry of Industry (industrial uses of water), the Ministry of Urban Development (urban drinking water provision and sanitation), the Central Pollution Control Board (water quality monitoring), and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (development of water-management techniques).
Within each state also, the water sector is fragmented, with separate agencies responsible for irrigation, household and industrial water supply.
Incentives and concession
The government provides incentives in the water sector by giving tax holidays for companies operating in water supply projects, water treatment systems, and sanitation and sewage projects. Knowing that the investment by foreign players plays an important role in any project, the government has allowed 100 per cent foreign direct investment in this sector under automatic route. Even soft loans are provided through IREDA, a public sector company of the Ministry.
Due to various incentives and concessions and also taking note of the potential of this sector, various global and local companies – with cost-effective technology and sophisticated methods to treat wastewater – have established their presence in India.
Measures to be considered
Although the legal framework and incentives are in place, sewage treatment plants (STPs) and common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) for treating municipal wastewater and industrial effluents are not complying with the standards ideally required to be followed to address the problems of wastewater management. The conventional wastewater treatment processes, which are a combination of physical, chemical, and biological processes and operations (to remove solids, organic matter, and nutrients from wastewater) are expensive, and require complex operations and maintenance.
Further, the process involving sludge removal, treatment and handling of wastewater has been the most neglected area in the operation of STPs in India. Moreover, due to improper design, poor maintenance, frequent electricity breakdowns and lack of technical manpower, the facilities constructed to treat wastewater do not function at their optimum level and remain closed most of the time.
There are also no deterrent measures for imposing heavy fines for polluted effluents or for improperly treated water being discharged into water bodies.
While there is no dearth of laws to regulate wastewater management, their impact is limited as they encompass a narrow field of environmental impact. The various statutes are often observed in their breach, since implementation of this highly specialised area of law is marred with lack of infrastructure facilities, jurisdictional conflict and lack of coordination amongst different agencies responsible for the implementation.
Due to these reasons, wastewater management has become an area of concern and a complex domain, legally, technically as well as commercially.
The Global Scenario
Reuse of treated wastewater is popular in several countries across the globe. Singapore’s success model using treated wastewater (referred to as ‘NEWater’) is a classic example. Singapore has very limited sources of water and it used to import water from Malaysia. Now, NEWater contributes one-thirds of the water supplied in Singapore. Even Beijing has actively invested in water reuse projects and, as a result, reclaimed water, which accounted for approximately 22 per cent of the total water supplied in the Chinese capital in recent years.
The Way Forward
The models developed by countries like Singapore and China to address the issue of wastewater are relevant for India, and the steps taken by these countries can be adopted by our country to mitigate the severity of the impending crisis facing this sector. Tackling the issue of wastewater in isolation may be a challenge. Hence, the government and private players should work hand-in-hand in effectively dealing and providing an integrated solution to wastewater treatment and reuse.
In order to achieve the desired goal, the government for its part should take initiatives and provide the required support by setting up a dedicated fund for research and innovative projects, initiating more waste management programmes, increasing budgetary allocation, encouraging more public-private partnerships through risk sharing, tax holidays, minimum committed revenue and such other economic incentives to private players. Besides this, the major challenge is to create awareness and general acceptance amongst the urban and rural populations of alternative uses of treated wastewater.
Over the past few years, technological advancements have led to the development of more sophisticated instruments for water treatment across the world. Depending upon the potential revenues, India should also consider adopting modern technologies that treat wastewater and which can perhaps be synchronised with the existing infrastructure, thereby having a lower cost implication.
There is also a need to have an overarching regulation and effective water and wastewater management plan, governing this sector. The timely measures taken by the combined efforts of the government and private players coupled with an effective implementation plan will go a long way to cope with the challenge faced in Indian wastewater management.
(The article has been authored by Shisham Priyadarshini, Partner, and Amish Shroff, Associate Partner, Rajani Associates).