Kolkata: The Tribunal has constituted an expert Committee to probe the frequent fly-ash barge capsize incidents in the eco-sensitive Sunderbans involving Bangladesh registered vessels.
The application filed by Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum of fish workers in south Bengal and represented by Ritwick Dutta and Meera Gopal advocate claimed that the riverine ecology has been disturbed due to old, worn out and dilapidated barges being plied in Sunderbans in violation of CPCB guidelines issued in 2013.
Small scale and artisanal fishing communities depend upon the Hooghly river and the Sundarbans for their livelihood. Frequent capsizing of barges carrying fly-ash on the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route which flows through the highly eco-sensitive and fragile Sundarbans in the State of West Bengal, has been the direct cause of adverse impact of such incidents.
The Tribunal held the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) and owners of the capsized barges responsible for the environmental damage and liable to paying damages in accordance of The ‘Polluter Pays’ principle under section 15 of the NGT, Act, 2010.
IWAI is responsible for ensuring safe and proper transport of cargo on the said route. No measures have been taken to identify the responsible barge owners and initiate appropriate legal action against them as there is no mechanism to deal with such increasing incidents. Concededly the development of NW 97 (Sundarban waterways) has an adverse impact with regard to which the IWAI has recommended detailed study to be undertaken including sediment transport, siltation and environmental impact assessment.
Although Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is stated to have been undertaken for the Sundarbans Waterways and e-tender released by IWAI in 2018 for consultancy services for the EIA for National Waterway-97, no clearance had been obtained under the provisions of the CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) Notification, despite the fact that the entire Sundarbans area falls under the CRZ 1A and, therefore, ecologically highly sensitive.
It is stated that even when there are frequent accidents leading to discharge and release of millions of tonnes of fly ash into the river and estuaries forming part of the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route, no action has been taken by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board or the IWAI for prevention of such incidents. Also no action has been taken against the polluters/the barge operators and owners.
The Apex Court deemed it essential to constitute a Committee comprising of representatives from Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the State Pollution Control Board, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Wildlife, the Government of West Bengal and District Magistrate, South 24 Parganas to conduct physical verification on the factual aspects set out in the plea and submit a report within two months.
The Committee may examine the factors giving rise to the situation and suggest measures to prevent the occurrence of such incidents and also mitigation measures in respect of fly ash already spilt in the waterway.
The State Pollution Control Board shall be the nodal agency.