‘Civic bodies harassing us over sewage, levying heavy fines’: Bengaluru residents

Residents living near Bellandur-Varthur lakes have alleged that the civic authorities are slapping heavy fines, to the tune of lakhs, after being pulled up by NGT over the pollution of the two lakes.
Residents of many apartment complexes in Bengaluru, primarily those in Whitefield, Bellandur, HSR Layout and Bommanahalli, are alleging that they are being harassed and made scapegoats by authorities who were pulled by the National Green Tribunal recently over the pollution of lakes in the vicinity.
Bangalore Apartment Federation (BAF), a collective of apartment residents across the city have alleged that officials of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) and the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) are levying fines and resorting to other coercive measures without following due process. The NGT, in December 2019, had pulled up the KSPSB and the BWSSB over pollution in the Bellandur-Varthur lakes and stated that sewage water cannot be allowed to flow into lakes. Residents say that the KPSCB and BWSSB are now trying to show the NGT that they are taking coercive action against polluters, even as part of the BWSSB’s underground sewage network still empties into lakes.
The apartment residents say the KSPCB, from the first week of January, started levying hefty fines to the tune of lakhs of rupees, citing non-compliance of output quality norms for STPs (sewage treatment plant), and fines to the tunes of crores citing the non-installation of STPs. 
In other cases, BWSSB is disconnecting underground drain connections from apartments while letting out treated sewage into the sewage network. This despite the apartments paying huge sums of money to get those connections and regularly paying sanitation charges.
‘Non-compliant’ STPs
Vikram Rai, the General Secretary of BAF, said that these fines were levied in a violation of norms based on allegedly ‘cooked-up’ reports. 
“In some cases, they are telling us that they had collected water samples from April and based on that they are going to impose penalties on us now. And in some of the cases, they have never collected any samples to our knowledge,” Vikram said. 
He added, “First of all, if there is any truth in that, why was the KSPCB waiting for this long to correct this anomaly, why weren’t we fined earlier? Secondly, this is devoid of any norms. According to the Water Act, the KSPCB has to first serve us a notice before collecting a sample and after collecting that they have to divide the sample into two parts equally, one which they can take themselves and the rest should be given to us. In these cases, there were no notices and no intimation.”
Another apartment resident and member of the BAF told TNM that this is a clear case of harassment of apartment owners.
The resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the KSPCB had imposed hefty penalties, as high as Rs 1 crore, failing which power and water connections will be suspended based on faulty reports.
“We ourselves do a regular test to check the quality of treated sewage in NABL (national nodal agency for labs), the accredited lab to check if our STPs are functioning or not, and we use it for gardening or washing our cars. So there is no doubt that these reports stated by the KSPCB are false,” he said.
Issue of excess treated sewage out
While the NGT order states that treated sewage should not be allowed to flow into the UGDs, there is no specific guideline in the NGT order over the disposal of excess treated sewage either. 
“Now, it is not practical for many apartments to re-use this treated sewage. So after using it for flushing, gardening and other usages, we have no option other than to let it out. It is not possible for us to supply these excess treated water into industrial units or construction sites ourselves,” the resident added. 
Another apartment resident, Sajiv Subramanian, and who is also the secretary of Sethna Power Tower in Horamavu, said that even after paying close to Rs 95 lakh for their sewage and water connection, and a monthly fee of Rs 65,0000 for the same, apartment residents are subjected to harassment.
Many apartment dwellers TNM spoke to said that they are considering going to court collectively against the civic authorities to settle the matter. 
‘Not the first instance’
However, this friction between apartment dwellers and the civic authorities over sewage management is not new. 
Around the end of 2017, there were large protests by the members of the BAF, following which the BWSSB went back on its order to set up STPs for old residential complexes (constructed before 2016).
Nagesh Aras, a lake activist advocating for the setting up of STPs, said the problem of treating sewage has been there for years and the NGT orders have brought the matter into the fore only now. He criticised the KSPCB for issuing fines to apartments based on samples collected from April and its refusal to follow due process.
He added the KSPCB currently does not have any existing norm for giving consent to establish or operate STPs. 
“Instead, they usually sanction each and every STP design without much scrutiny. Moreover, the KSPCB is mandated to train or have a certification process for STP operators under the Water Act, but that is also lacking in practice. So apartment residents are unaware whether the STP installed by the builder is good, nor is there a mandated third-party audit before the apartment residents take over the operation of the STP from the builders. Normally, the STPs are handed over to the residents once the residents form an association and start managing other common amenities,” Nagesh said.
The official word
Meanwhile, Syed Khaja, Environmental Officer in the KSPCB, has denied allegations of any wrongdoing by the board. He told TNM that they are acting as per NGT orders and 10 teams of the KSPCB are carrying out sample collections in apartments, which are built in the catchment area of the Bellandur lake. When asked about impropriety alleged by the apartment dwellers regarding sample collection, he claimed that there are two types of sample collection— one which is legal sample collection and another is “grab” sample collection. He said that legal sampling is done only when there is a dispute. He also alleged that the apartment residents are crying foul now as they are made to pay fines. 

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