Groundwater contamination in India is verging on disastrous proportions, especially with regard to mercury

-- dte 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.

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 ( ap ) 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 (see p41: "Effluent treatment plants have not been effective" ). 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. A 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 ( cetp s) 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 cetp s 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 etp s," 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.

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 dte 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 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.

gujarat's industrial estates
VATVA: "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 dte 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.

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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