Water Pollution & the Laws

Author- Janvi Vishnani


The environment is a priceless gift from God to all living and non-living species. The 5 main components of the – earth, fire, air, space, and water. These resources must be conserved for the benefit of current and future generations. Our Indian culture taught us to worship nature, the worship signifies the recognition of our reliance on the natural world.

People’s life was centred on living in harmony with nature. It was considered a sacred obligation of every individual to safeguard plants, trees, and water and other surroundings. Homo Sapiens and the environment were considered to be connected from ancient times.

Water” is a life-giving element, as there is no life without it. Throughout the history of civilisation, man has resided in areas with an abundance of water, but the population grows and natural resources are exploited for personal gain. Water supplies are rapidly decreasing. Water, which has traditionally respect for society in India, has been contaminated to the point of no return.

In India, it is estimated that 70% of all accessible water is contaminated. This situation is concerning. Water would become severely contaminated and unfit for a variety of human

Meaning of Water Pollution

Indian Acts interpret the word “water pollution” in various ways. Some called it ‘nuisance,‘ while others called it ‘negligence’. Some actions have been regarded as making water “less suitable” or “unfit” for human and animal use. Another method of defining water pollution was interfering with or altering the flow of water to take away the trash or causing water to become contaminated to harm, harm, or render it less valuable.

Almost all the legislation placed a greater emphasis on how pollution is caused rather than describing pollution itself. Water pollution is defined as the addition of any material to water physical and chemical features in any way that prevents it from being used for lawful purposes.

Water pollution, as per the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, is regarded as “any contamination of water or alteration of the physical, chemical, or biological properties of water, or any discharge of any sewage or any other liquid, gaseous, or solid substance into water (whether directly or indirectly) that may or is likely to create a nuisance or render saline water unfit for human consumption.”

Statutory Provisions for Water Pollution

The constant depletion of natural resources and the inevitable environmental crises have forced the legislature to enact a slew of environmental laws. The Indian Constitution is maybe the first in the world to include specific measures for environmental preservation. Most significantly, the Indian court is playing a critical role in enforcing these requirements.

The Preamble to the Indian Constitution states that our country is built on a “socialistic” model of society in which the state prioritises social concerns over individual concerns. The primary goal is to ensure “a reasonable quality of living for all,” which can only be achieved in a pollution-free environment.

India also has central legislation called The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. This is the first act passed by the legislature which is solely dedicated to water pollution. The act focuses on controlling the discharge of pollutants from domestic households and industries into the water bodies such as river and lakes. The act also paved way for the establishment of Pollution Control Boards both at the central and state level. These two authorities have different functions the State Pollution Control Board looks after the streams, river and lakes and monitors the cleanliness of these bodies whereas the Central Pollution Control Board has the authority for advising the state on a variety of issues relating to water pollution prevention and mitigation.   

To achieve the objective of checking water pollution, Section 24 of this act states that an individual is required to abstain from releasing anything dangerous or toxic substance, as defined by the Central Pollution Control Board’s guidelines, into any river, canal, etc. As per the Section, anyone who breaches or flouts the provisions of this Section is subject to a sentence of 1 year and 6 months in jail, which might be extended up to 6 months.

The legislature has also enacted the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess (Amendment) Act, 2003. A major reason for the pollution of a large number of water bodies is the discharge of industrial effluent in these rivers, thus to encourage industries to reduce the discharge of these effluents in streams this act was formulated. Section 4 of the said Act exempts the industries from having to pay a water cess if their water consumption is below a certain threshold. On the other hand, for any industries which releases hazardous or non-biodegradable chemicals while processing certain materials then the industries have to pay the levied water cess under this act.

Apart from these legislations the Indian Penal Code’s Section 277 also provide for the sentence to be applied to an individual who knowingly fouls the community reservoirs or a common well, the sentence is 3 months imprisonment or a fine of 500 rupees, or both.

Contribution of Judiciary

To minimize water pollution, the Indian judiciary has taken a significant step. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has been interpreted liberally by the Indian courts. The Supreme Court made it crystal clear in M.C.Mehta v. Kamal Nath that if the hotel discharge untreated effluent into the river Basin, thereby disturbing aquatic life and causing water pollution, and this cannot be allowed any disturbance of the basic environment elements, namely air, water, and soil, which are necessary for life, would be hazardous and a clear violation.

Further In the case of General Public of Saproon Valley v. the State of H.P., limestone mining in the Saproon valley in Solan, Himachal Pradesh, caused significant harm to the field and the environment, resulting in water pollution, soil erosion, and ecological imbalance. The High Court ordered the State to adopt a long-term perspective planning approach to achieve a balance between the exploitation of natural resources for socio-economic growth and the preservation and conservation of the environment. It would also be a breach of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, according to the Court.

It was contended in Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India that the development of a big project such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam would cause ecological calamity and violate Article 21. In light of the growing population’s demand for water and power, the Supreme Court held that there should be a balance between the project’s environmental impact and national or public interest.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution gives everyone the right to “life and personal liberty.” Article 21 is at the heart of basic rights, and its meaning has evolved through time. If there is no healthy environment, mention about fundamental rights, particularly the right to life, becomes worthless. The Supreme Court of India has broadened the scope of Article 21’s basic right to life and personal liberty to include environmental preservation. Article 21 was enhanced by the Supreme Court’s inclusion of the right to a healthy environment. 

The Supreme Court established the responsibility of municipal governments toward environmental conservation in the case of Municipal Council v Vardhichand and introduced the statute of public nuisance in the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 as a powerful tool for enforcing their obligations.

The Patna High Court found in Deshi Sugar Mill V. Tupsi Kahar that the statute of nuisance under Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code would apply to a case of water contamination.

Covid 19 and the Water Pollution

The Covid 19 pandemic has created havoc in almost every part of the world. The effects of this pandemic are widespread and have impacted almost every aspect of life. Right from reporting the first case to a widespread fear of this deadly virus to a nationwide lockdown has made us experience every possible thing. Thousands of migrant workers heading to the villages with heavy loads of luggage and several days of walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their destination. These images have now permanently been engraved in every Indian’s heart. But apart from all the suffering and pains, the positive that came out from nationwide lockdown was the reduction of pollution in the lifesaving rivers of the country. The quality of water in these rivers improved as the harmful effluents from the industries were not discharged in these rivers as economic activities came to standstill due to the lockdown.

After the lockdown, the water quality of river Ganga was being assessed through the satellite. This assessment was done at 7 specific places in the course of Ganga. The reports that released provided a major relief to many of the people who are directly or indirectly dependent on Ganga. There was around a 55% reduction in turbidity during the lockdown phase.

But a few months later the country was hit by the worst phase of this deadly virus as the second wave of coronavirus arrived in India. The country saw a sudden rise in daily reported cases and a much higher mortality rate than the first wave. With growing deaths each day, a new problem was waiting before the country as many of the dead bodies were reportedly being thrown in Ganga in the states of Bihar and U.P. These increasing number of dead bodies thrown in the rivers instead of cremating raised many questions both on moral as well as a legal ground. Dumping the bodies of Covid infected person may have a big impact on people who live around the river.

Recently, lawyer Pradeep Kumar Yadav and Vishal Thakre had approached the Supreme Court over this issue as the river is a water source for many people living in these two states and decomposed bodies in the river may have serious health implications for them. This action was against the constitutional mandate under Article 21 which says that the right to life also includes the right to dignity and the question of the right to dignity to a dead person was answered in the case of Parmanand Katara v Union of India where the Supreme Court ruled that the rights to life, fair treatment, and dignity guaranteed by Article 21 apply not only to living beings but also to the dead bodies. Also, the dumping of bodies violated the directions under the River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection, and Management) Authorities Order, 2016 which directs that “no person shall do any act or carry on any project, process, or activity which, whether or not mentioned in this Order, has the effect of causing pollution in the River Ganga”.

There has been a recommendation given by the National Human Rights Commission to formulate a dedicated law for protecting the right of the deceased person and performing the last rites of these people with dignity and as per their respective religion.         


Water is such an important aspect of our everyday lives and relationships that we tend to take it for granted, expecting that it will always be plenty. India’s rapid population increase has resulted in a slew of water-related issues that have implications for public health. Also to add to the misery was the deadly second wave of Covid 19 which took the issue of water pollution to a next level. No one would have imagined the day when the bodies of a deceased person would float on our rivers. This has compelled every individual to ponder upon the increasing levels of pollution which are deteriorating our rivers. The government can only enact laws and implement them but it is us who need to make an extra effort to make sure that every river can get back to its original beauty.     

Janvi Vishnani is a first-year law student at Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) Navi Mumbai campus, currently pursuing a BA.LL. B (Hons).

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