The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has formed a committee comprising experts from the Central Pollution Control Board and the West Bengal Pollution Control Board to look into fly ash pollution in the rivers triggered by capsizing barges in the Hooghly river on National Waterway 97, also known as the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route.
The NGT's move earlier this week came following a petition by Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, a union of fishermen in south Bengal.
West Bengal's chief wildlife warden and district magistrate of South 24 Parganas are also in the committee.
"Barges transporting fly ash from Kolkata and Haldia in West Bengal to Bangladeshi ports of Khulna, Mongla and Chattagram often capsize in the Hooghly releasing tons of fly ash. This pollutes the river's ecosystem and adversely affects the fishing industry that thrives on these rivers and in the Sunderbans," said Pradip Chatterjee, president of the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum.
Everyday hundreds of barges moving along National Waterway 97, also called the Sunderban waterway, carry fly ash from West Bengal to Bangladesh for cement factories in that country. According to the forum at least five barges have capsized this year releasing tons of fly ash in the rivers.
While the Sunderbans' fragile ecosystem is a breeding ground of several species of fish and aquatic animals, the Gangetic dolphin and Hilsa fish are found in the Hooghly river which could be hit by the pollution.
The union ministry of environment and forest in its report titled 'Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India (2018)' released earlier this year had also said that India and Bangladesh should carefully use the water-channels in the Sunderban, so as not to disturb the free movement of tigers between the two countries.
"Even though cargo used to move through the Indian part of the Sunderbans, it has been stopped totally since 2011. Now the ships and barges take alternate water routes, avoiding the Sunderbans, to reach Bangladesh," said a senior official of West Bengal forest department.
The petition says that most of the barges that move through the rivers carrying fly ash have outlived their lives There is, however, hardly any mechanism in place to check them or make the owners pay on polluters-pay principle.
"We are satisfied that substantial question relating to environment arises in this case which requires
to be looked into by the Tribunal," the Kolkata bench of the NGT said.
The committee has been directed to verify the factual aspects after physical verification of the area and examine the factors giving rise to barge accidents, suggest measures to prevent occurrence of such incidents and also mitigation measures in respect of fly ash already spilled in the waterway.