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Yellow-coloured water gushes out of the 61-metre deep tubewell at a Ghazibad-based dyeing factory
What goes down must come up

It is a crime. Numerous factories deliberately inject untreated effluents directly into the ground, contaminating underground aquifers. Samples of groundwater were collected from eight places in three states and tested for concentrations of some known pollutants. All samples had high levels of the heavy metal mercury, which caused the Minamata disaster in Japan in the 1950s. One sample had more than 268 times the mercury than is considered safe. Groundwater in the industrial areas of India is unfit even for agriculture.

In february 1999, a Delhi newspaper reported that a tubewell sunk to a depth of about 200 feet (61 metres) by Suruchi Dyeing Udyog, a factory south of the G T Road in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, was yielding yellow-coloured water. Arun Agarwal, the factory’s owner, was quoted in the report as saying: “Initially, we thought it was surface impurities that came up with the water. But then we found it was the groundwater itself. It is pure poison.” The Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) found para-nitrophenol, an organic compound, in the water in a concentration of 0.54 milligrammes per litre (mg/l). The permissible limit of the compound is 0.001 mg/l. Obviously, some factory in the area that was pumping untreated effluent into the groundwater.
Earlier, in January 1994, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Delhi, had undertaken the first major groundwater quality monitoring exercise. The report published in December 1995 identified 22 places in 16 states of India as ‘critical’ sites of groundwater pollution. cpcb found industrial effluents to be the primary reason for groundwater pollution.

Considering that 80 per cent of the country’s drinking water needs are met by groundwater, Down To Earth sent its reporters to some areas where groundwater contamination has been reported. They brought back samples from eight places in three states: Haryana, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The samples were analysed at the Facility for Ecological and Analytical Testing (FEAT) of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. The results were shocking. There were traces of heavy metals like iron and zinc in all the samples, cadmium in five samples and lead in three. But all the samples had one striking similarity: the levels of mercury were dangerously high.

Mercury is implicated in a range of health problems, including Minamata disease (characterised by impairment of brain functions), neurological disorders, retardation of growth in children, abortion, disruption of the endocrine system (which controls hormone levels in the blood stream) and weakening of the immune system. “High levels of mercury in drinking water can severely impair the nervous system, causing neuropathy. Moreover, it affects lever and kidney functions,” says S K Wangnoo, senior consultant and endocrinologist at the Apollo hospital, New Delhi.

The concentration of mercury in the sample taken from a tubewell near an industrial area in Panipat was 0.2683 mg/l, more than 268 times the permissible limit of 0.001 milligrammes per litre (mg/l) set by the World Health Organisation for drinking water. The chemical oxygen demand (cod, which is the amount of oxygen required by chemicals in the water to oxidise
and stabilise themselves) of the water was 360 mg/l. The maximum permissible cod level even for industrial effluents is 250 mg/l. The groundwater is as bad or worse than untreated industrial effluents.

Wellwater from Lali village, about 15 km from Vatva in Gujarat, showed 0.211 mg/l of mercury, again more than 200 times the permissible limit. And the residents of the village drink this water besides using it for irrigation. The COD level of the sample taken from a borewell in Chiri village of Vapi, Gujarat was 263 mg/l, indicating the overbearing presence of chemicals. Among other sources, mercury can enter the environment from units dealing with smelting, pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, chemicals and petrochemicals.

“Of all the commonly occurring metal pollutants, mercury is the most toxic,” writes Padma S Vankar of feat, Kanpur. “The indiscriminate discharge of mercury along with industrial pollutants... may result into significant build-up of the metal in the aquatic environment,” she points out. “No guideline exists for mercury in irrigation water. A nationwide approach to solve mercury pollution needs to be taken up. A balanced strategy which integrates end-of-pipe control technologies with material substitution and separation, design-for-environment, and fundamental changes in approach,” she notes. She suggests that more tests should be conducted on groundwater to find out the extent of pollution, especially with regard to cyanide, arsenic and banned amines.

In all the places visited by the Down To Earth reporters, residents of the surrounding areas were unaware of the danger in groundwater, though they could see that something was wrong. As for the government authorities, the pollution control boards are either unwilling to deal with the offenders or are simply ineffective at implementing the anti-pollution laws. Then there are the all-too-familiar complaints of connivance with rogue industry.

On December 10, 1996, the Supreme Court directed the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) to empower the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) under the ministry of water resources to initiate penal action under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, against overexploitation of groundwater. This led to the creation of cgwa. But in the past three years, cgwa has invited a lot of criticism. It is quite clear from the Down To Earth case studies that pollution control authorities are not capable of dealing with the groundwater crisis.

The only solution is to involve the local people and civil society in checking further pollution of our groundwater as they are the most important stakeholders of the country’s natural resources and are the worst affected by pollution. This is all the more important in light of the fact that once polluted, cleaning up groundwater is next to impossible. It is a tough task for our bureaucratic establishment, which completely lacks transparency. The case studies are presented here with the hope that policymakers and the general public alike awaken to the crisis

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Disasters in the making?
Groundwater contamination in India is verging on disastrous proportions, especially with regard to mercury

Down To Earth reporters met the pollution control authorities in some industrial areas of the country, spoke to the local people about the effects of pollution and met representatives of the civil society to gauge the extent of the problem on the socio-economic level. They also got in touch with industrialists, but this exercise was largely fruitless as industry is very wary of coming out in the open to discuss its problems, all the while proceeding with irresponsible practices. Some case studies are presented here.

Paks Trade, a Patancheru-based company, was apprehended for pumping arsenic-laced effluent into the ground through borewells

A man shows the
quality of water in a
well in Patancheru
Patancheru: Andhra Pradesh
The DTE/IIT test conducted on a water sample from a handpump in Pocharam village of Patancheru Industrial Area (PIA) in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh showed that the level of mercury was 115 times the permissible limit. A study conducted by National Geophysical Research Institute, (NGRI), Hyderabad, found that arsenic levels in villages in and around PIA are as high as 700 parts per billion (PPB, as against the permissible 10 PPB recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The study also found that the manganese level in the groundwater sample from Bandalguda area was 15 times the permissible limit, whereas the concentration of nickel was 4-20 times the permissible limit.

“We caught Paks Trade, a Patancheru-based company, for pumping arsenic-laced effluents into borewells,” says Tishya Chatterjee, member secretary, AP Pollution Control Board (APPCB). “We have also found high levels of cadmium in the groundwater samples in AP’s industrial areas,” he adds. It is common knowledge in Patancheru that most of the 400 industrial units cannot treat effluents properly and that they dump them in the open or inject them directly into the ground. Chatterjee points out that there are several other industrial units that also indulge in such practices, but there are no clear-cut rules to stop such polluters (see box: Killers at large).

ITW Signode, another Patancheru-based company, was discharging toxic, strontium-laced effluents into a nearby drain. An NGRI study found high levels of strontium in the groundwater. “We located this industry and closed it,” says Chatterjee.” A study by the groundwater department of the state government confirms that the pollution level is very high and has endangered human lives, animals and agricultural activity.

The NGRI study says that most of the industrial units deal with pharmaceuticals, paints, pigments, metal treatment and steel rolling. They use inorganic and organic chemicals as raw materials, which are reflected in appreciable amounts in the effluents. Units in Patancheru and Bollaram discharge about five million litres of effluents everyday. A major part of the untreated effluents ultimately goes into nearby tanks and streams. A certain part is clandestinely disposed of in dry borewells.

K Subrahmanyam, scientist at NGRI, says the total dissolved solid (TDS) levels in groundwater have been reported to be as high as 2,310 mg/l in Patancheru borewells. The permissible limit for TDS is 500 mg/l, and the TDS concentration in the natural groundwater (from aquifers that have not been affected by human activity) in the area is 300-350 mg/l. The characteristics of these effluents are alarming. Independent studies show that various parameters, such as COD levels, are exceeding the prescribed limits. “The common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) at Patancheru and Bollaram do not work up to the required efficiency. So, effluents with TDS levels of more than 20,000 mg/l are only treated up to 8,000-9,000 mg/l levels. And many a time, these CETPs discharge the effluents in the nearby streams without treatment,” Chatterjee reveals.

The state government’s assessment observes that between 1984 and 1989, total land affected due to industrial effluents in terms of crop loss is 560 hectares in Patancheru and Bollaram. A 1991 survey by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, estimated the affected land area at 695 hectares belonging to 581 farmers. The survey revealed some unusual signs. People of the area complained of a plethora of diseases such as epilepsy, skin and throat problems, respiratory diseases, cancer and paraplegia (paralysis of both the legs), while pregnant women are giving birth to still-born children, says the NEERI expert.

N Ramdas Goud, 46, of Pocharam, says: “The colour of the groundwater became yellow 7-8 years ago. Our crops started getting damaged whenever we used water from the borewell. Cattle have died in the past after drinking the effluent water from a stream flowing near the village. This is why we launched an agitation against pollution and took the matter to the Supreme Court (SC).” Goud says that in its interim order, SC directed supply of clean drinking water and compensation to affected farmers (see box: Tankers from hell). “But, even today, many industrial units comply neither with judicial directives nor with administrative orders in establishing ETPs,” says K Purushotham Reddy, who heads the department of political science at the Osmania University, Hyderabad. He is the president of Citizens Against Pollution, an environmental activists’ group.

An employee at a dyeing unit in Panipat says the factory has built a toilet above the mouth of a borewell to inject effluent into the

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In a Panipat locality, a
sign says in Hindi that the
water from the handpump
is unfit for drinking
Panipat: Haryana
When IIT, Kanpur, tested a sample of groundwater from Panipat, the mercury level was found to be 268 times the permissible limit. The presence of chemicals was found to be more than what is permitted for industrial effluents. “Groundwater in Panipat stinks, sours milk, corrodes containers and can take life instead of giving it,” says a housewife living in the Tehsil Camp area of the town, describing the water from her tubewell. There are numerous dyeing industries in the surrounding areas. “Chemical effluents pumped into a borewell by some of these industrial units mixes with our tubewell water,” explains Janak Singh, her husband. Although the family stopped drinking the water from the tubewell some four years ago after complaints of stomach disorders, the Singhs still use the water for washing and bathing.

However, J C Yadav, administrator of the Haryana Pollution Control Board (HPCB), Chandigarh, says the practice has been discontinued: “Earlier, say a decade ago, it was widespread. And that industries were doing it was public knowledge.” But it is common knowledge in Panipat that the industrial units involved in dyeing and dye-related operations pump effluents into the ground.

In 1994, R H Siddique of the environment study project at the Aligarh Muslim University, on behalf of dte, tested effluents being dumped into the aquifer. According to his findings, effluents with cod levels as high as 2,400 mg/l were pumped into the aquifer. M C Gupta, director of the state’s groundwater directorate, says the effluents already pumped in would definitely show up in the quality of the water. In fact, it has already shown up. M Mehta, regional director, CGWB, Chandigarh, says: “Water samples we collected are coloured. It implies that the quality is no more fit for drinking.” CGWB is now testing the samples and one of its scientists says, “Preliminary studies show that the water is not even fit for agriculture, forget about drinking purposes.” But Yadav defends his point, saying, “Though the injection of effluents into the aquifer has stopped, the groundwater remains vulnerable to the highly toxic effluents that run through a open channel through the city. This toxic water can percolate and pollute the groundwater.”

Till 1994 it was common practice among industrial units to pump effluents into the ground. But in 1994, HPCB started enforcing pollution control measures. “But nothing has changed. These industrial units still pump in effluents, though clandestinely,” says Anil Kumar, a laboratory assistant in a local college, adding that the groundwater of Panipat was clear and fit for drinking a decade ago. His handpump, hardly half-a-kilometre away from a cluster of dyeing units, gives pink- and yellow-coloured water.

The field visit of the Down To Earth reporter to some industrial areas belies the claim that factories have stopped injecting effluents into underground aquifers. Dyeing units are pumping their effluents into the aquifers through bore wells in Tehsil Camp, Jattal Road and the Sector 29 industrial areas even today. An employee of a dyeing unit in Tehsil Camp points out, “This unit has been doing it for 15 years. Earlier, it was public knowledge. But now it does the same thing in a rather clever manner. Three years ago the owner of the unit built a toilet just above the borewell. In place of the commode, you have the mouth of the borewell. Nobody would doubt it.” It is not easy to believe that hpcb does not know this.

Local residents confirm that the designs of industrial premises have been altered to cover up the nefarious practice. More factories have built huge concrete walls around the premises and entry is restricted. “Even for us it is very difficult to enter the factory. We know they have clandestine mechanisms to pump in the effluents,” says a scientific officer of hpcb in Chandigarh.

“Ludhiana city’s groundwater is just short of poison”
— M Mehta, regional director, Central Ground Water Board,

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Ludhiana: Punjab

Before making any mention of the status of groundwater in this industrial nerve centre known as ‘Manchester of India’, it is important to remember that groundwater is Ludhiana’s only source of water. The largest city in Punjab with about one million people, its annual drinking water requirement is 44 million cubic metres (cum), against an estimated annual replenishable groundwater of 23 million cum. So, to meet the demand-supply balance, deeper aquifers are being accessed and overexploitation is rampant. In order to provide assured water supply, the municipal corporation is exploiting groundwater resources through 80 extraction points. Besides most residents and industrial units also extract groundwater. And no prizes for guessing the status of the groundwater.

“Ludhiana city’s groundwater is just short of poison,” says M Mehta, regional director, cgwb, Chandigarh. The culprits are 1,311 thriving industrial units that are engaged in producing cycles and textiles, among other things, and include foundries. According to a CGWB report, the units are discharging about 50,000 cum of industrial effluents — mostly of toxic contents — each day into the Budha Nala, a stream that recharges the groundwater of the city. The stream travels through the city to the point of its confluence with the Satluj river 20 km downstream.

The pollution of groundwater reached such a proportion in 1993 that the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) wrote to the state government asking for signboards to be put around shallow tube wells stating ‘water unfit for drinking’. However, six years down the line, you can go round the city and not find a single signboard. Rather, people are still using water from shallow aquifers. “The first aquifer is already polluted. If not checked it would percolate down to the deeper aquifers,” says R Nath, who was professor of biochemistry at Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Chandigarh, before he retired.

To identify the industrial units pumping effluents directly into aquifers, the ppcb put a series of advertisements in newspaper declaring a cash award to informants. “Not a single person informed us about it though there have been reports that some industries are doing it for years,” says D K Dua, member secretary, ppcb, Patiala. Yet, Dua insists, that pollution is reducing: “The pollution level in the groundwater is declining, as our studies show.”

But studies by CPCB, and more recently by CGWB, contradict Dua’s statement. CGWB’s report on Ludhiana’s groundwater status affirms that many industrial units are deliberately pumping effluents into the aquifers. The groundwater is a cocktail of heavy metals, cyanide, alkaline content and pesticides. The groundwater board found that levels of heavy metals such as cadmium, cyanide, lead and chromium were all above permissible limits in the shallow aquifers, while traces of arsenic were within the permissible limit. Small quantities of these heavy metals were also traced in the deeper aquifers.

“It has been a common practice in Gujarat to pump effluents into the ground”
— A Gujarat-based environmental activist

“During heavy rains, production levels increase greatly in Gujarat as effluent is dumped to be washed away with the water”

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Gujarat: industrial estates

“It has been a common practice in Gujarat to pump effluents into the ground directly through borewells, a deliberate attempt to kill people,” says Rohit Prajapati, an activist of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), a network of activists working in Bharuch, Vadodara, Surat and Valsad districts. Groundwater within a range of 30-35 km of the Vatva Industrial Estate (VIE) in Ahmedabad district have been contaminated. In the absence of suitable modes of disposal, indiscriminate discharge of effluents has caused serious pollution of groundwater.

The DTE/IIT test on a sample of groundwater taken from Lali village, about 15 km from Vatva, showed that the mercury level was 211 times the permissible limit. The concentration of the heavy metal in a sample from Machua village near Vatva was more than 70 times the permissible limit. Residents of Lali are forced to drink contaminated water and use it for irrigation. The village is adjacent to a seasonal river Khari, which comes through Vatva and has been reduced to a sewer and only carries industrial effluent. Other villages along the bank of the stream face similar problems. People suspect leaching of effluents into the groundwater for the contamination.

“The groundwater has become so polluted that we get red-coloured water even at a depth of 400 feet (122 metres). Crop production has been gradually reduced to half of what we used to get 30 years ago. Earlier, we used to produce around 1,200 kg of paddy in one bigha. But now, we can grow only 600-800 kg in the same land,” says Kantibhai N Patel, 75, a farmer from Lali. “All our attempts to report the groundwater pollution to the authorities have been in vain,” says K K Patel, 68, another farmer from Lali. “Recently, two young people lost their lives after entering my well. It shows how polluted the groundwater is in the area,” he adds.

For years, about 1,500 industrial units in Vatva, manufacturing chemicals such as H-acid, dyes, sulphonic acid and vinyl sulphones, have dumped chemical wastes on their premises or by the roadside. “We cannot use the groundwater even for washing as it causes skin problems. We are completely at the mercy of the local industry for drinking water,” says Kalosinh Bihala, 29, of Machu Nagar in Vatva.

ANKLESHWAR: The DTE/IIT test conducted on water from a well in Sarangpur village in Ankleshwar Industrial Estate (AIE), Bharuch district, revealed that the mercury level was more than 100 times the permissible limit. Water from a borewell in Bapunagar village near Ankleshwar had 170 times more mercury than is considered safe. The 1,605-hectare aie has about 1,500 industrial units, which manufacture dyes, paints and pigments, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and pesticides, among other things. Effluents from these units have severely contaminated the underground aquifers.

When the Down To Earth reporter visited a well in Sarangpur village, the colour of the water from a tubewell was red. “We are using this water for the past six years to cultivate wheat and cotton crops in around 2.5 hectares of land. We do not have any option,” says P T Patel, the owner of the well. In Bapunagar village, water from a tubewell is yellow in colour. This borewell draws water from 150 feet (46 metres). “In the past seven years, the water has become so polluted that we cannot even wash our clothes with it,” says Samar B Yadav, who owns the borewell. Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) officials have taken the water samples many times but have not taken any action so far, he complains. Villagers say GPCB officials have acknowledged the extreme toxicity of groundwater. “But we think they are as helpless as we are,” he adds. “The state and central governments are silently watching our pitiable conditions,” says Ziya Pathan, 39, of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

PSS has found that of the 65 handpumps and borewells in the slums of Shantinagar, Bapunagar and Miranagar on the fringes of aie, 55 yield coloured water. The colour varies from red to yellow to brown. As most borewells have been closed due to toxicity, there is little water for irrigation. Farmers in villages such as Dhanturia, Pungaman and Amboli use effluents for irrigation. “My entire crop was destroyed when I used water from the Piraman nala (a nearby stream that carries untreated effluents from aie to the Narmada river),” says J M Patel, 75, a farmer from Dhanturia, which is about 20 km away from gidc, Ankleshwar. He lost Rs 2,00,000 in the process.

VAPI: The situation in Vapi Industrial Estate (VIE) in Valsad district is no better than other industrial estates of Gujarat. More than 1,900 industrial units have jeopardised the groundwater resources of the area mainly by indiscriminate disposal of hazardous wastes and effluents. A fair share of the effluents is also being dumped into the ground. The DTE/IIT test conducted on a sample of water from a borewell in Chiri village near Vapi showed that the cod level was even more than the permissible limit for industrial effluent, and the mercury level was about 90 times the prescribed limit.

Factories in vie deal with some very hazardous chemicals, including pesticides and other agrochemicals, organochlorine chemicals, dyes, acids like H-acid, liquid chlorine and chlorine gas. Most of these substances have been banned in developed countries. “In fact, a ban in the industrialised countries is accompanied by a rise in manufacturing capacities of such chemicals in countries like India,” says Michael Mazgaonkar of PSS.

Gulab B Patel, a local leader in Chiri, says residents of the village are using red-coloured water for the past seven-eight years. “We have been drinking this water till recently. But we launched a major agitation against gidc and forced them to supply drinking water,” he says. For most other purposes, people in villages near vie use contaminated groundwater. Nearly 32 handpumps and 65 wells in the area reveal the presence of chemicals, Patel observes.

Local people say the major source of groundwater pollution is Rata Khadi, a seasonal stream near Chiri that carries effluent from Vapi to a CETP. The effluents carry organochlorines, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Patel says the colour of the groundwater is the same as that of the effluents. In 1996, the villagers fought a case against gidc in the Gujarat High Court, Ahmedabad, on the issue of groundwater pollution. The verdict went in favour of the villagers. But, till today, the situation remains the same, says Patel. In the past 15 years, CPCB and GPCB have taken groundwater samples from these villages on several occasions. But no action has been taken so far.

Polluted water from a
Nandesari handpump

NANDESARI: The Nandesari Industrial Estate (NIE) near Vadodara is a major production centre for highly toxic chemicals, like h-acid, which are not easily biodegradable. “Disposal of untreated mercury-contaminated effluent from caustic manufacturers has heavily contaminated groundwater in the Nandesari,” says a report submitted by the Union ministry of environment and forests to the World Bank.

NIE is situated along the Mini river, and has about 250 industrial units dealing with chemicals, pharmaceuticals, dyes, pesticides and plastics, among other things. A recent environment impact assessment conducted by the National Productivity Council (NPC) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, says the groundwater has been severely contaminated down to a depth of about 60 metres. Water samples from a borewell dug by GIDC in Nandesari show 14.82 mg/l of lead, whereas water near the GIDC dump in the area had 38.25 mg/l of lead. The permissible limit for lead in drinking water is a mere 0.05 mg/l.

Reckless dumping of effluent and hazardous waste is as common here as in other industrial areas of the state. About 80 companies send their effluents for secondary treatment at the cetp in Nandesari. Says a chemist employed at the plant: “Whenever we find that effluents are not as per the required standards, we do not allow them to discharge the effluents into the CETP.” But there are more than 267 industrial units in the area. The chemist says he does not know where other companies send their effluents.

Kiritsinh M Gohil, sarpanch (head of the village council) of Nandesari village, says: “Bad government policies have made the area hell for the poor villagers. In the past, several animals have died after drinking the polluted water, whereas people have faced serious health problems.” Udaysinh R Gohil, a resident of Nandesari, recalls that in 1965, GIDC told farmers that once the industrial area is set up, their earnings will increase by leaps and bounds as they will get jobs and other benefits. But soon after a few chemical industries were set up, crop production started decreasing, says Udaysinh R Gohil, adding that most of the land in Nandesari is barren now. He recalls that in 1982, severe water contamination was reported in the area for the first time. But no effective steps have been taken so far.

Ironically, instead of solving the pollution problems in the region now, there are plans to increase the number of units in the industrial area. “Authorities from the industrial area have approached us several times to buy our lands,” says the sarpanch of Nandesari. Pollution is bound to increase in the absence of effective pollution control measures.

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Killers at Large
There are several industrial units in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh (AP) that have directly or indirectly polluted groundwater. AP Pollution Control Board (APPCB) officials reveal that Reliance Cellulose is releasing effluents with very high chemical oxygen demand levels into a nearby stream. Standard Organics of Patancheru used to pump untreated effluents into a nearby stream. Birchow, a pharmaceutical company, was dumping sulphomethazole in the open. Today, say APPCB officials, all these companies are meeting environmental norms. “In fact, Birchow has acquired ISO 14001 certification,” they point out.

Durichan Textile Mills was dumping untreated effluents with high levels of sulphuric acid in an open stream 1.5 km away through a pipe. On July 17, 1999, APPCB found hexa-valent chromate dumped alongside the roads in Patancheru. After seeping into the groundwater, such pollutants can be lethal to those who drink the water. There are five units in the area that produce this waste, out of which three have internal landfill sites. Tishya Chatterjee, member secretary of APPCB, assures that the board will soon catch the culprit.

APPCB officials also reveal names of some other rogue units. They include Vantech Pesticides, Borin Laboratories, Kaikule and Reddy Labs. Two companies, Global Drugs and Saraka, were caught pumping effluents into a pond in Kazipally. Saraka is still sending effluent tankers to a nearby pond. Another company, Hetero Drugs, was caught dumping effluents near a pond.

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How did it go wrong?
The corrupt and inefficient among pollution control authorities have surrendered India’s groundwater to unscrupulous industrial units.

“Industrialists believe it is cheaper to purchase the regulators than abide by the regulations,” says K Purushotham Reddy of the Hyderabad-based ngo Citizens Against Pollution. “If I am not wrong, more than 90 per cent of gpcb officials are corrupt. In the present circumstances, only God can save Gujarat from environmental disasters,” says a cpcb official at Vadodara, adding that this is the reason why polluting industries are operating without a care for the environment.
While hearing a case against some h-acid manufacturing units that had polluted the groundwater of villages near Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh (MP), the mp High Court came down heavily on the state pollution control board (SPCB): “The interpretation put by the board... shows the collusion of these officers. It was not expected of the MP Pollution Control Board to have pleaded like this. It leaves a strong suspicion that the pollution control board is not operating objectively. The chairman should change all the officers working in that area. We have strong reservation on their working objectively and fairly.”
While all factories do not inject effluent directly into the ground, they love to break the rules. In Gujarat, several companies wait for heavy rains, when the production levels of most companies increase to a great extent. The reason is simple. “It becomes easy for them to dump their effluents and wastes
anywhere they want. The effluents and wastes mix with the rainwater and nobody raises any objection,” says a CPCB official at Vadodara who did not want to be named. If officials know this, what stops them from booking the polluters? “Undue pressures from the political circle,” says the official, pointing out that in the past seven years, the board has not closed any industry in Gujarat for polluting the environment.

Though it is very difficult to get senior officials to speak openly about this, there is a growing realisation of this fact among them. Says a senior scientist of PPCB, “There are instances when some industrialists landed up in our office to complain that the board officials were demanding impossible amounts as bribe.” “The extent of pollution problems in different states clearly indicates that pcb officials are either not willing to take action or they have connived with the polluters,” says Rohit Prajapati. “There are wild allegations against the pcb officials, and the way they tackle an issue sometimes lends credence to such allegations,” says M Mehta of CGWB, Chandigarh. I C Gupta, head of the natural resources and development division of the Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur, who has studied groundwater pollution in Rajasthan, says, “Our state PCB is a dead body. Definitely, there is truth in the allegation that the board officials are getting monthly hafta (protection money) from the industries.”

Says D K Dua of PPCB: “Whether our officials are corrupt or not it is to be confirmed, but as these officials are from the state public health engineering department on deputation, they are not really involved in their work. This definitely affects the functioning of the board.”

Tishya Chatterjee of APPCB concedes his inability in booking all the culprits. The board requires more power than what it has at present, he says. “All 25 state PCBs in India function as scapegoats for all concerned, being, by default, the state-level repositories of all knowledge, technologies, expertise and responsibilities,” says Chatterjee. In the environmental management, government regulatory agencies are weak at the impact level and decision making is centralised. The victims of pollution have no say at the decision-making levels, he adds. However, R Rajamani, former secretary to mef, differs: “This is not a matter of lacking powers, it is a matter of will, which most pollution control board officials do not have.”

So, does India need another Bhopal disaster, which affected 600,000 people in 1984, to wake up the slumbering bureaucracy? It is quite clear that pcbs have failed. Even if disaster strikes, their reaction is nothing beyond knee-jerk reactions like imposing a ban. Hence the onus of saving the country’s groundwater resources rests in the hands of the people of the country and the civil society. It is time for the victims to become proactive.

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A civil society pollution police?
The reason why local people and civil society can succeed where pcbs have failed is that they are stakeholders in groundwater resources. “It is not the PCBs who are really affected by groundwater pollution but the people of that particular region. So, the most effective strategy would be to let the local people and the civil society play a more active role in prevention of pollution,” says Rajat Banerji, researcher at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

Shalu Puri, programme officer at Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), Delhi, underscores the need for public pressure groups that can force industry to comply with environmental norms. “Today, no pollution control board can manage the problem unless the local people are for it. They have to take interest in protection of their environment and utilise the infrastructure provided by the government for sustainable development,” she says. But the civil society can only be successful if the government ensures their right to information. “We will have to push for political lobbying in order to formulate acts so that the civil society can also be involved in pollution control measures,” says Ravi Agarwal, director of Srishti, a Delhi-based NGO.

Prajapati points out that most of the industrial units in Gujarat are in rural areas where authorities cannot constantly keep vigil. He says people are gradually losing patience regarding increasing pollution levels. They are already keeping a close watch on illegal dumping of wastes in some industrial areas in Gujarat, which they are reporting to gpcb, Prajapati observes. For example, a few factories in Gorwa village of Vadodara district have been dumping effluents in a sewer. The local people organised themselves to catch the culprits. “They take photographs and collect other evidence and hand these over to GPCB. People are basically fed up with the approach of the industry and pcbs. So they want to take action on their own in order to control pollution. Such initiatives will prevent GPCB from making excuses,” he says.
“In Western countries, the public boycotts products from an industry which is found to pollute the environment. In India, too, the civil society can not only pressurise the pcbs but also force industries to abide by environmental norms,” says A K Saxena, director, environmental division, National Productivity Council, New Delhi. After the 20th amendment to the Indian Factories Act in 1987, the law makes it mandatory for every industry owner to pass on information to common people regarding the use of raw materials, types of pollutants coming out of the industry and dumping of effluents, among other things. And if any industrial unit does not comply with the norms, the owner can face a sentence of seven years of imprisonment under Section 92 of the Factories Act, 1948.

“But there is one problem with the civil society, too. At many places, people’s groups and ngos raise their voice against defaulting industries but withdraw later after taking money,” says Sagar Dhara of M Venkatarangaiya Foundation in Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh. In Patancheru, for instance, the local people raised objections during a public hearing against the setting up of an 18-megawatt power project, he notes. “But the sarpanchs withdrew their objections later. Such steps put the government and investigating agencies in a quandary,” says Dhara. This aspect should also be considered before advocating the civil society’s role in pollution control measures, Dhara emphasises.

But how do local people in industrial areas — silent victims of pollution for years — take up the task is the biggest challenge for the civil society. The voluntary and non-profit sector has to mobilise people to shed their fear and inhibitions. To convince them that their very future is at stake. To convince them that it is now or never. That without clean water, there is no agriculture, no prosperity, no life.

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Double whammy
Adulteration of milk is not a new problem in the town of Bulandshahar in western Uttar Pradesh (UP). However, it is leading to another type of slow poisoning. Local people complain that dairies pump their effluents containing urea and other chemical additives into the ground.

“Some workers from a dairy came to me one day and told me that they want to file a case against the particular dairy as the owner threw them out without any reason. In course of the conversation, they revealed that the dairy is adulterating milk with urea and caustic soda and all the effluents that are thereby produced are pumped into the ground. They also named a couple of dairies nearby who are doing the same,” says Anil Vats, a lawyer in Bulandshahar.

The dairies use a lot of water in cleaning the equipment, leaving large amounts of effluents, which are even more dangerous in the case of dairies engaged in adulteration and contain urea, caustic powder and colour additives, among other things. With the town’s milk production nearing one million litres, reports in the media say that hundreds of litres of effluents are pumped into the ground everyday. According to G S Yadav, regional officer of the UP Pollution Control Board, Ghaziabad, the board has closed down four milk-processing units as they did not have effluent treatment plants.

Yadav acknowledges that the effluents can contaminate groundwater as their biological oxygen demand is as high as 800-1,000 milligrammes per litre (mg/l), while the permissible limit for effluents is 30 mg/l. He adds that the chemical oxygen demand and pH levels of effluents are also considerably higher than is considered safe.

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“We need a different approach”

D K Biswas, chairperson, Central Pollution Control Board, interviewed about the seriousness of groundwater pollution. Excerpts:

How serious is the groundwater pollution problem in India?

Groundwater pollution is very difficult to evaluate as till now, there is no nationwide survey or study of it except the few studies done by CPCB. On that basis I can say that it is very serious and needs special attention.

Why has groundwater pollution not got its due attention?

It is partly due to lack of awareness among people and policymakers and partly due to the backlog of inaction in averting this pollution. Till now the general belief among people is that groundwater
is pure and can be consumed straight. The reality is totally the reverse of it — groundwater is now not fit for drinking without any treatment. This is also causing lots of health problems.
It is the same problem with the policymakers. Recently, when I was talking to a senior Union minister regarding pollution of the Ganga, his reaction was: “Ganga is sacred and cannot be polluted.” This is the attitude towards surface waterbodies, when we can all actually see how polluted are they. So, groundwater is never
considered to be polluted, though most of the groundwater is affected by pollution, both natural and human-made. Only in the past five-six years have we started paying attention to groundwater pollution. To begin with, we have earmarked 22 critical sites all over the country. The result is frightening, and it is my belief that we will get more shocks in the future.

What are the reasons for groundwater pollution?

The primary reasons are industrial pollution and extensive farming leading to agrochemical pollution of the groundwater. In case of industries, it is due to lack of treatment of effluents that are pumped into rivers and streams leading to groundwater pollution. Even
if there is facility for treating effluent, industries do not have the proper drainage systems for treated effluents, which again leach into the ground. It may be noted that treated effluents also carry toxic contents. You see the Gujarat belt; thousands of industrial units have been polluting groundwater for years.

Similarly extensive farming has caused agrochemical pollution of the groundwater. Nitrates and DDT are two major hazardous chemicals that farming adds to groundwater. Besides this, there is natural pollution, like fluoride and arsenic contamination due to overexploitation of groundwater. Delhi has a high level of fluorides due to overexploitation, while it is natural arsenic contamination of groundwater in West Bengal.

Then are you going to penalise the groundwater polluters more than those who pollute the air?

The present laws do not differentiate between surface and groundwater. And CPCB and the state pollution control boards do not have the power to penalise the polluting industries. We need a different approach to groundwater pollution.

Are you suggesting different rules and regulation for groundwater pollution?

Yes. Even the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) has
suggested a new legislation to deal with groundwater. We have suggested to the ministry of environment and forests to give more powers to CGWA as suggested by the Supreme Court. Even so, CGWA has enough power to stop extraction of groundwater, which can help curb the spread of polluted water.

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No way back

Bichhri’s polluted groundwater

Once polluted by industry, groundwater is very difficult to clean up. This is the lesson learnt from the Bichhri experience. Situated about 12 km from Udaipur, the groundwater of Bichhri, spread over an area of 300 hectares, is stark red. And as the groundwater moves naturally to other aquifers, it pollutes that water as well. Seventy wells used by some 10,000 residents have been rendered completely useless, and the 22 villages are without any drinking water now. In 1983, an H-acid manufacturing unit ruined the groundwater — seemingly forever.
After a 1996 order from the Supreme Court (SC), officials of the Union ministry of environment and forest (MEF) and other state departments concerned have tried hard to clean up the water. But it seems virtually impossible, mainly for two reasons: firstly, cleaning groundwater is very difficult, and, secondly, even if it is possible, the cost is prohibitive. The cost of cleaning the polluted water of Bichhri is estimated at Rs 40 crore. SC ordered the clean-up of groundwater after auctioning the factory’s property. This came to a miserable Rs 5,00,000.
“Cleaning the water of Bichhri is just impossible. Like the H-acid (which is used in dyeing and does not allow the colour to fade), the groundwater polluted by it also refuses to its shed colour,” says Kishore Saint of the Udaipur-based non-governmental organisation Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal, which helped in bringing the Bichhri case into the limelight.
In 1990, SC ordered de-watering of the affected wells to clean them. The Rajasthan Pollution Control Board opposed this on two grounds. Firstly, after de-watering, the wells had to be filled with freshwater, which was unavailable. Secondly there was no feasible method to clean the polluted water, which, if dumped, could pollute further. “Till now, we have not decided exactly how to clean the polluted water,” says Tapan Chakravarty, deputy director of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, which has been assigned the task of cleaning the water. “It is going to be a very difficult affair. That is why pollution of groundwater is serious,” says Chakravarty.

What goes down must come up

August 31, 1999
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