EIA 2020

The impression I get with the protests over the proposed amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment 2006 rules is that everything was going so very well for a decade or so, we had built up a great environmental governance framework since the last modification in 2006, projects were being vetted properly, EIA studies were top notch and were able to filter out harmful projects and mitigate where required, industry could not longer go unchallenged and was on a tight and proper leash and then suddenly in 2020 came this effort to dilute the EIA and all peace has been disturbed in paradise.

The reality is otherwise. Whether you keep the EIA process exactly as it is or allow the dilution to go through one way or the other the projects have been going through and the damage happening. The other way of looking at it is that the environmental movement and community have really become so ineffective and incidental over a period of time that the dilution was inevitable.

Why is it that over the past decade when EIA has been reduced to a joke we have not seen similar effort to raise concern? Have we gone through every EIA and EC provided since 2006 and are sure that the EIA process was the best?

Have amendments to the EIA 2006 been kept track of? If through the years amendments were taking place which were anyways removing teeth from the EIA then should those not be challenged at each instance? I have hardly seen any such nationwide uproar. I would like to believe that we are in changed times.

There was much uproar at the time the amendments to EIA were introduced in 2006. A few of the same names which we see today could be seen writing back then also. Curiously with the same energy levels. I also wrote an article then. What happened? My focus has all along been Think Global, Act Local and I can say with conviction that there is zero improvement in the ability to bring outcomes on any environmental issue in Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Should people from this region who are part of the current noise and protests not be spending some time going over half a dozen MMR specific issues and understand where they stand and what has been their participation there? Understandably a lot of the current noise might be from 20 year olds and historic baggage cannot apply to them (the learnings should). But is this the best avenue for them to apply their energy?

In the picture the dumping ground at Diva – you can see the smoke – situated on top of mangroves, surrounded by illegal housing again on mangroves. These are the estuarine areas of Ulhas River. This is one of my favourite mangroves areas in the Mumbai region and I have helplessly seen it being sliced and diced through urban pressures. What is the EIA of the dumping grounds in Mumbai region? Where if their EC? These are the questions to be engaged by those who go after EIA 2020.

Then comes the complaint from the industry and business that a number of environmental rules and guidelines are needless red tape and just a part of the corruption endemic in the process of procuring permissions. It is equally the business of the environmental community to be concerned about this aspect whether those complaints are genuine or stale rhetoric. If environmental regulations can be sidestepped with graft and there is no oversight then the damage is not as much to ease of doing business as much as to our commitment to safeguard the environment.

To me what it says is that there will be much hue and cry to achieve a positive environmental outcome through a legislation or rules or a PIL (an easy way out and a great intellectual exercise) but once it is achieved then the same community stops activity and involvement about how that rule or legislation or order is performing. That is left to the same bureaucracy which is otherwise reviled. Those short term bursts of energy with glitz are appealing but then come the daily chores. EIA 2006 or EIA 2020 (if it goes ahead with the modifications or does not) the reality will not change. Fixing that reality is the real environmental battle which no one wants to take on.

Every metro city has some form of eco housing guidelines for more than a decade now, somewhere waste management is a focus, else rainwater harvesting or grey water treatment or solar rooftop. Housing projects get passed after ticking all the check boxes. There are no numbers available but it is anybody’s guess that less than 5 percent of housing complexes having anything to show on the ground after completion. What is the recurring environmental impact of the solid and liquid waste being discharged from thousands of such complexes around the country? EIA has happened for some of the projects. Hear the struggles of solution providers and innovators who thought that with rising eco consciousness green entrepreneurship opportunities will open up and they could provide themselves a stable financial existence while doing something they are passionate about.

The state of any of our institutions is so third grade, forget the environmental ones. Everything runs on mai baap culture rather than with strong, courageous individuals willing to stand upright for what they believe is right and uphold rules.

Look at our democracy. I would say the real environmental issue is how in spite of the hue and cry over MLAs deflecting political parties and subsequent introduction of an anti-deflection law, we till today have a robust system in place for trading of MLAs? At the most fundamental link in the chain trust is broken. A political system which runs with some basic modicum of integrity and accountability is not available and we vainly discuss issues like amendments to EIA.

Outside a number of crematoria in Mumbai there can be a set of people who are professional mourners. The moment a dead body come for cremation they are either paid by the dead persons close ones to mourn or start mourning on their own as a means of getting something. Remove the payment part but the environmental scene and community in the country seems like those mourners to me. Every few weeks a new issues arrives and unfailingly the digital mourning starts.

There is desperation evident in fights like EIA 2020; every environmental matter currently in the country. That desperation creates more noise and heat than any worthwhile outcome. I would say stop being desperate. Let the situation slip out of hand completely. Lets do away with fig leaves. Let everybody introspect and revisit the state of environmental spirit and movements before we decide to pick fights. Let everybody figure out what they are doing about environmental or fundamental administrative issues at the cellular level – their immediate 1-10 kms radius.

In numbers I don’t think all the petitions and emails against EIA will come to even 1 crore (10 million). How does that show for a nation of 130 crores? The important topic in June was the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput and China.

Magic at Nasik

I had a very momentous trip to Nashik on 17th July 2009. Shantaram Shenai (Shantu) was the gracious host and the purpose was to showcase to Dr. Rebello and myself the ‘immense’ progress made in treating the sewage of Nashik city by using the Biosanitizer technology. [within the same link do read about the US patent that the product has got, which is a proud achievement]

We were joined by Yogesh Bhardwaj, resident of Nashik, who has actually implemented the application of the Biosanitizer process and Dhimant Joshi from Mumbai who is a friend of Shantu and a brilliant engineer who has himself followed the biosanitizer over the years and is skilled at understanding and deploying it.

The trip became even more interesting in the background of the recent climate change talks at the MEF G8 summit at L’Aquila, where confusion reigned on the 2 degree limit above pre-industrial levels of temperature and the apparent lack of a road map to achive the same. What I saw at the Nashik STPs clearly has the potential for revolutionary change and providing a very objective and measurable road map to contribute to cutting GHG emmissions.

I have known Shantu since 1993-94 when as a teen still in college I followed his appeals to segregation and experiments with decentralised waste management at Andheri(W). I contacted him around 1995 and literature from the Green Cross Society was among my first building blocks in my deep interest in decentralised waste management. So here I was again with my Guru on a trip to another of his projects.

I had been hearing a lot of praise about the work being carried out at the Nashik Sewage Treatment plants since 2 years. Virat Singh from Westside Plus had covered the experiment extensively (Andheri Innovation a success in Nashik).  Last year in May 2008, I also had the opportunity to visit the work being done by Shantu for the golf course at the US Golf course where sewage water was being treated and used for watering the golf course. In the process the Biosanitizer effects had permeated the surrounding ecology and we had witnessed fresh water in the middle of the golf course which is surrounded by the sea.

And on 17th I finally got to be in Nashik to see the efforts.

The first plant I visited was the Tapovan plant which treats 78 mld [million liters per day] of sewage from Nashik before releasing it into the Godavari. The second facility was Morvadi [4.5 mld] and the third was Panchak. It is important to remember that this is the stuff generated in our toilets and in our bathrooms and kitchens – excreta and urine – the bath water, washing of clothes and utensils. All of it travels via a network of pipes and aggregates at such facilities.

At Tapovan the largest of the facilities the sewage treatment has been split into two streams. One stream is treated using the conventional method of huge aerators churning the turbid sewage and in the process creating a whirlpool which throws the sewage upto two feet above the surface, exposes it to oxygen and corrects the BOD levels.

In the second stream the treatment primarily comprises of letting the sewage be exposed to a correct quantity of the Biosanitizer, which is placed in pouches in various parts of the holding ponds. As the sewage is continuously exposed to the biosanitizer a large amount of oxygen is released from the biosanitizer thus correcting the BOD levels. The pictures below indicate what is happening. We began the trip by seeing the large holding ponds which were using the biosanitizer and ended with seeing the ponds treated with the conventional aeration technology. And the results can be called nothing short of phenomenal.

The sewage treated by the conventional method even after treatment and in the final holding pond before being discharged into the Godavari was extremely alkaline and corrosive. Froth was being whipped up as the wind created wave action. The froth was then flying away from the ponds and was completely burning away all the neighbouring vegetation, metal fences and anything else in the way.

Previously in the holding ponds holding the sewage treated with the bio sanitizer we could see thousands of small fishes, some of us dipped their feet into the water, all of us held the water in our hands and smelt it and Shantu even applied some in his eyes to show us that there was nothing to worry. It is important to remember that this is the outcome from what is sewage in the first stage.

After visiting the Tapovan plant we travelled 6 kms downstream to see what can only be called magic. The purpose was to see first hand the quality of water downstream.

We reached the destination and along the way also passed a sugar factory whose effluents are released into the Godavari.

At the designated spot we had a very beautiful view of the Godavari and did a tasting of the water. It was a most refreshing taste. We were told that almost 300 mld of drinking water is being observed available as a result of the bio sanitizer properties which have been introduced into the water. Once the treated sewage water is introduced upstream it is also impacting other effluents which join the stream. A missing piece of data was the amount of effluent being discharged by the sugar plant, which if not treated well would most certainly be very toxic and we were down stream of the same. But that apart the visible and the felt effects were most pleasantly surprising.

We left exhilarated from the site to visit even more magic at the Morvadi plant.

At the Morvadi plant 4.5 mld of sewage is treated only through the biosanitizer method. No aerators are used and the only energy requirement is for pumping the sewage to  a height from where by gravity it flows through a series of tanks containing the biosanitizer. The plant must have once been the outskirts but is now surrounded by urbanisation. Even at the primary inlet chamber of the plant, where the sewage is allowed to enter there is only faint smell of the dark turbid liquid being sewage (the exposure to biosanitizer starts here itself.) As we came to the first pond we were greeted with a dense mass of vegetation, which had formed a green carpet over the sewage. Underneath, the sewage was continuously being worked upon and flowing into the secondary and tertiary ponds. Instead of any offensive smell of sewage the place had a feeling of freshness to itself and a number of vegetables were seen growing. The lack of any smell indicated that no CO2 or methane – potent GHG gases – were being produced. The lack of any mechanical aerator clearly leads to enormous savings in electricity bills and consequent emissions from power plants. The whole combination is more than win-win.

We finally came back to our hotel room for a break. We still had to meet Satish Magre the Chief Engineer who took the initative and the risk two years ago to use the bio sanitizer. Thankfully around 6:45 pm he indicated he was free and we were quickly into the car and off to Panchak STP which Mr. Magare wanted to show us. Panchak is the latest STP set up by the NMC. It was great being with the eco-hero himself. Mr. Magare had taken a big risk in going for a technology which eliminates capital expenditure in the current form and makes the requirement for certain kinds of human resource redundant. Being a mechanical engineer himself he had to face the wrath of peers for using method which made mechanical engineering less important.

At Panchak, which a new plant we could see numerous improvements in design and the same marvelous results with the added benefit of a passionate guided tour by the man himself.

I have previously seen the effects and working of the bio sanitizer in Dec 2005 where Dr. Bhawalkar himself had come to apply a dose to the Lokhandwala Lake which I have been involved in saving since a decade. Around that time the lake had a very bad bloom of red algae as a result of the persistent washing of clothes on one of its sides. Over a period of six months we had seen the red algae disappear completely.

As I understood better on this trip the Bio sanitizer crystals (four come in one pouch) are in effect a whole rain forest in themselves. Just as in a forest you dont get any offensive smells even though a lot of death and decay is taking place, the bio sanitizer has in effect powerfully packed the properties of one whole forest in itself and releases need based oxygen, which is an important ingredient for correcting a number of situations. Those tiny, silent, life less crystals doing so much is nothing short of amazing.

While more tests and assessments are certainly required along with peer review, it is quite clear that the bio sanitizer represents a quantum leap in our understanding of handling numerous environmental problems and places at our disposal a corrective means, which clearly removes excuses for inaction.

The challenge is to understand whether current climate change policy will recognize such technologies, analyse them better and  if proven beneficial how soon will the scale up happen. The challenge is to understand whether our current institutional structures are tuned towards responding proactively towards climate change mitigation?

End Notes:

1. Even as we approach COP15 one of the most important data sets will be the accurate estimates on the GHG  emissions resulting from the complete life cycle of the sewage treatment process. Also what are the changes if any in the emissions arsing from the mechanical process vis-a-vis the bio sanitizer process.

India’s super stupid position on climate change

Response to Down to Earth editorial


Dear Sunita,

Another nice but particularly stirring editorial, which moves one to respond. I am sure you agree but as the heading for this post goes, I think India really has a very bad position on climate change. I have been of the opinion for a good many years now and only now getting to write about it. This post is not about your editorial alone but the general Indian position that the developed world needs to do a lot more before India will do something.

While there is truth in your castigation of the developed countries, I think the single biggest point of contention I have with you is about your statement Fact remains our constraint is the making of the rich world.”

The same has been the pathetic, sympathy seeking stance of the government of India for the past whatever years, a fig leaf over its complete disregard for taking a responsible position.

I think each and every constraint of ours is of our own making. In fact I would go ahead to say that our ability  to make constraints for ourselves is in fact responsible for the constraints of many other developing countries and also developed countries. Which in essence means that we have for half a decade been in a situation where we could have shown leadership on many issues thus paving the way for many others to emulate.

I get reminded about numerous small to big decisions which have a clear impact on climate change and resource consumption where there is absolutely no application of mind from an environmental perspective in India.

Smaller roads and streets in Mumbai are being paved with paver blocks made from cement. Previously the roads were made from asphalt bitumen and would keep developing potholes, arguably because of flooding but mainly because of corruption which leads to compromise in quality. All this while I am aware of well made asphalt roads in Mumbai itself which have easily lasted a decade. While I don’t have the number here but cement clearly must be having more embodied CO2 and accordingly the decision to pave the streets with millions of paver blocks is completely anti-climate change? No discussion in the city about this.

The Bombay Municipal Corporation saw great revenues in the past few years as a result of the economic boom and so the councilors decided to have a splurge. How much discussion on climate change takes place in the BMC? Now we will head for a recession, revenues will go down and then we will look for doles from developed countries. Squander your wealth and then beg in the streets of Switzerland?

Very much linked to the issue is what we do with the huge amount of construction debris we generate. Since 2003 I am aware of perfectly sound processes to convert the debris into BIS quality paver blocks. But the Municipal Corporation and authorities keep side stepping the issue. In the past 5 years massive amount of debris has been generated and disposed off (many in sensitive coastal ecosystems) which could have been reiutilised if not for roads then footpaths.

Another issue is of waste disposal. We continue to follow a super stupid method of pick and dump – thus running millions of truck trips every years, generating emissions, besides landfill emissions. All this could have been changed. But the SWM department is alleged to be the most lucrative thus inhibiting any progressive move. All this while 100s of people wait with alternate solutions and thousands of green jobs would be created by following decentralised and intelligent means.

These examples are just for supporting evidence. There could easily be a hundred such areas where your statement does not apply – Fact remains our constraint is the making of the rich world.”

I keep reading of the approximately 1.5 trillion dollars of Indian money stashed in Swiss Banks and wonder where is the funds shortage? Maybe we do not deserve a rap from the developed countries but we deserve a rap all the same – an even harder one from within.

The BIG constraint is in our intention.

I think that the time has come to substantially disengage from an ‘only global’ engagement policy and come to a very strong local engagement policy whereby we don’t wait for the Bali’s and Poznan’s and Copenhagen’s but are very strongly engaged within the country to coordinate efforts towards mitigating climate change. How often have we engaged meaningfully within the country to discuss climate change mitigation? How many of our bureaucrats and politicians understand or show the inclination to solve even the most basic of our problems – leave aside climate change. I have somewhere completely lost interest in what developed countries do or do not.

Hope you agree to some degree and consider it worthwhile to carry my views in the next issue.