It is a crime. Numerous factories deliberately inject untreated effluents directly into the ground, contaminating underground aquifers. Down To Earth got samples of groundwater collected …

-- 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 ( dte ) 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 (see box: Minamata and mercury: the rude awakening ).

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 Organi-sation 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 permis-sible cod level even for industrial effluents is 250 mg/l. The groundwater is as bad or worse than untreated industrial effluents (see table: Approaching Minamata? ).

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 indus-trial 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 dte 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 dte 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 (see p40: No way back ). 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.

APPROACHING MINAMATA ?
All samples collected by Down To Earth had very had mercury levels.Two had more chemicals than is allowed even for industrial effluents
  Mercury level Chemical oxygen demand
Permissible limit 0.001 250
Industrial Area, Panipath (Haryana) 0.268 360
barsal Road, Panipath (Haryana) 0.074 25
Machua Village, Vetva (Gujarat) 0.115 47
Pocharam Village, Patanchenru (Andhra Pradesh) 0.058 12
Lall Village, Vetva (Gujarat) 0.211 25
Chiri Village, Vapl (Gujarat) 0.096 263
Sarangpur Village, Ankaleswar (Gujarat) 0.118 164
Bapunagar, Ankaleswar (Gujarat) 0.176 47
NOTE: All units in milligrames per litre. The permissible limit for mercury is for drinking water and the limit for chemical oxygen demand is for industrial effluent, not drinking water
Source: Padma Vankar et al 1999, Facility for Ecological and Analytical testing, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, June 21, miemo

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