In a major blow for environmental activism, the Delhi High Court has sentenced three senior officials to three months in jail for their failure to prevent the flow of sewage into river Yamuna, a tributary of the mighty Ganges.
The river, the lifeline of the Indian capital region and its neighborhoods, is almost catastrophically polluted. Sewage flowing relentlessly into it is threatening to choke it for good. Repeated calls for repairing the damage have fallen on deaf ears.
But now the High Court is making an example of three senior officials from the water authorities, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) - including former CEO Arun Mathur.
Justice Shiv Narayan Dhingra lashed out at the officialdom, saying, "It is only in this country that citizens have to knock at the doors of court in order to get reliefs of the kind sought here. It only shows with what contempt normal citizens of this country are dealt with by authorities and essential facilities like sewage lines are not maintained by DJB despite repeated complaints of the citizen." He also denounced the DJB for "deep-rooted corruption in the department."
The Jal Board had assured the court two years ago that they would take steps to stem the sewage flow into the river, but, as is the case with all such assurances, it remained on paper. The undertaking has now come back to haunt them.
Only the Tuesday jail order will remain suspended for three months. This breather is for the Board to get its act together and "stop entire flow of sewage into storm water drain," said Justice Dhingra. At present, sewage is seeping into a 4-km storm water drain along Greater Kailash, Masjid Moth, EPR Colony and Chirag Enclave in south Delhi.
The three officers have also been fined Rs 20,000 each, to be deducted from their salary immediately. A fourth officer, ex-chief engineer B M Dhaul escaped HC's wrath as he has retired.
The extraordinary step to imprison then CEO Mathur, chief engineer (Drainage) R K Jain and executive engineer P Pant came on a contempt petition filed by aggrieved people in one part of the national capital.
Lawyers for DJB told court that fresh tenders had already been invited to mend sewer lines.
But the court said, "Excuses are always available for those who don't wish to work." It also trashed DJB's defence that the sewer lines of GK, Masjid Moth and Chirag Enclave were more than 35 years old and so susceptible to collapse.
"Main trunk sewer lines are meant to last not decades but centuries since they are life lines of cities and with them is connected the entire sewage system."
The judge added wryly that if a department meant to look after sewer lines is unable to stop the flow, the very utility of such a department is open to question.