Subterranean subterfuge

Thousands of industrial units in parts of Haryana are clandestinely discarding untreated effluents into aquifers, irreversibly damaging groundwater.

By Bijoy Basant Patro & Rahul Shrivastava
Published: Monday 28 February 1994

Dangerous discharge: Sainik Wo LAST YEAR, the smog-covered industrial township of Panipat in Haryana was accorded the status of an "eco-town". However, a still-to-be-released report by the state department of environment that the Down To Earth team was privy to rudely ridicules a district administration campaign that is flaunting this prestige. The report blandly indicts groundwater in parts of Panipat district as being entirely unfit for human consumption.

Although the report stops short of actually saying so, the culprits seem to be the thousands of dyeing and dye-related industries, which ruthlessly disgorge effluents through bores drilled into aquifers. This is common knowledge, but barring only 42, all operate without the mandatory consent of the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB).

Pollution confirmed A study in February of groundwater from many handpumps and tubewells in Panipat, conducted by R H Siddiqui of the environment study project at Aligarh Muslim University on behalf of Down To Earth, confirmed the presence of organic matter in the water.

Siddiqui said his tests showed effluents with a chemical oxygen demand (COD) as high as 2,400 mg per litre were being dumped into the groundwater. Says Siddiqui, "The lowest COD level in samples from more than 40 randomly selected industries was 112 mg/litre " Siddiqui said the dumping would manifest itself sooner or later.

The report is no saving grace for the Panipat administration, which had zealously glossed over the staggeringly simple but destructive "alternative" for effluent disposal employed by industrialists.

Panipat is not an isolated case. The malady is common in Karnal and Kurukshetra districts as well, where rice shellers, milk processing units, cardboard factories and rubber industries escape the long arm of the law by emptying effluents into the ground.

The traditional method of disposing effluents was plain surface dumping. But farmers and town authorities protested and the industry resorted to discharging the waste into holes in the ground. Says Tilak Raj Sharma, owner of Sainik Woollen Mills, "We got a bore drilled. Now no one should object. There is no slush and no mosquitoes."

The technique couldn't be simpler. Satbir Singh, who owns Gopal Textile and Furnishing Industries, explained, "Dig a pit about 3 metres deep and insert the effluent carrying pipes into it. Connect this pit to a deeper one which has a bore in it. The bore should be at least 25 metres deep, right till it touches the water table. Cover the pits with slab and level the area. Through this 'system', the effluents can be dumped directly into the aquifer."

It is with these easy but tough-to-detect disposal conduits that the industrial units keep the SPCB at day. And, over the years, the bores have gone deeper. A woolen unit owner said some bores in Panipat and Karnal go as deep as 60 metres. In fact, people like Praveen Garg of Mahavir Rice mills in karnal cliaim, "It's such an easy, inexpensive remedy to all the harangues of neighbouting farmers.

Money-or rather, the lack of it -is behind the dumping. Hundreds shoestring budgets dot Panipat. Their owners are neither in a position to invest in effluent treatment plants (ETPs) nor are they inclined towards such "luxuries." Compared to ETPs, the bores, at about Rs 3,000, come dirt cheap. Says Satbir Singh, "There is no guarantee that expensive ETPs will be effective, but the bore is a sure thing."

The economics of cutting corners is busy primitivising technology. Over the past two years, scores of industrialists in the Panipat area have gone in for soak pits-popularly known as kuccha ghaddas-wgich are little more than an open pit scooped out till it hits the water table.

Ram Kumar, who arrived from Sultanpuri without half an idea of what soak pits are all about, now says, "During the past one year alone, I have dug over 100 kuccha gaddhas. There must be at least 1,000 of them in Panipat." Ram Kumar charges a trifling Rs 1,000 for each pit.

The soak pits carry not only effluents but also faecal matter into the aquifers. Industrialists have erected toilets for labourers over these pits and what gets into groundwater is a foul mix.

Mehnga Singh, a diver who lives in his ancestral home in rhe Tehsil Camp are of Panipat, says, "The water drawn from hand-pumps here turns yellow within five minutes. All six members of my family have developed recurring gastric disorders."

damaged aquifer
Experts say that surface contaminants eventually seep into groundwater. Similarly, the contamination of an aquifer may adversely effect the quality of surface water that is recharge by the aquifer. Moreover, many toxic chemicals cannot be broken down by sub-surface microorganisms or filtered out by soils before they reach the groundwater.

The most troublesome are chlorinated hydrocarbons, which pose an acute and chronic risk to human health. An SPCB scientist disclosed that during a sample survey last year, the water in the tubewells in Panipt was found to be coloured.

The deterioration in water quality is nothing new. Two years ago, Chasham Pal Singh Nain a Janata Dal activist and retired the issue of water contaminated by dumping at a meeting of the district at a meeting of the district girevances cell. Says Nain, "At several places, there were impurities that can never be found naturally in groundwater."

But, according to S Joon, retire chief medical officer of Karnal district, "The worst casualty of the indiscriminate effluent dumping has been biodiversity. Over the past few years, there has been a visible drop in the number of trees, plants, flowers and even butterflies in Kanal and Panipat districts. The hollow shells of scores of dead trees can be seen in cesspools of discharged effluents. Even animals do not go neat the cesspools." A senior official with the agriculture department in the Haryana government and an expert in soil sciences says the sodium expelled from the dye industries plays havoc with the soil. "It can damage the soil irreversibly, making it unfit for cultivation. The caustic released from the milk processing units heightens the biological oxygen demand of groundwater."

The SPCB has adopted the classic ostrich approach so beloved of bureaucrats. Wholesale denials are being circulated. When a Down To Earth team visited the SPCB regional office in Panipat, three officials rattled off different explanations. Vineet Bhatia, assistant environment engineer, categorically denied any knowledge of dumping. On the other hand, his colleague Mahesh Kapila said he was contemplating action against some effluent dumpers.

B L Gupta, SPCB environment engineer in Chandigarh, dismissed effluent dumping as "more rumours". He said, "There are no specific examples of bores being used to dump toxic factory waste. The complaints might be made anonymously by one industry against another."

Perceptions about the effect of industrial activity on water quality also vary. Sanjiv Chadha, water development specialist with the agriculture department, says, "For the past 10 years in Kurukshetra, there have been no changes in water quality." However, B D Sardana, SPCB secretary, says, "There is undeniable and substantial pollution, particularly in Panipat where the subsoil surface is affected." The disagreement between experts will probably lead to another SPCB study.

Vague guidelines
The lacks of clear-cut pollution guidelines leave industrialists free to protest that it is not they, but the administration that is at fault. When asked how they would stop the contamination, SPCB officials went blank. S P Chakrabarthi, a senior environment engineers, threw up his hands: "It is serious. There is no cure for this and even a search for a remedy will be difficult and expensive."

Rakesh Goel of Nitin Woollen and Carpet Mill added another dimension when he said the pollution control board can be "tackled". He claims, "The board-wallahs are no problem. Their silence can be 'bought'." Several other industrialists also made similar claims.

The industrialists are unperturbed about prosecution. Said Goel, "Change the name of the industry once you learn the board intends to prosecute you -- the attempt must be to delay the legal process as much as you can," he said.

Other industrialists were equally cool. "Litigations drag on for years. I am involved in one such case for over four years now and the process is yet to reach the preliminary hearing stage," Mahesh Chawla of the Lakshmi Cardboard Industries claimed unabashedly.

Fines for violations of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act never exceed Rs 10,000 and no one has been imprisoned. After years of litigation, erring industrialists get off with a token fine and an undertaking to install an ETP. If the ETP is not installed, the SPCB's only option is to initiate legal proceedings all over again.

A lacuna in the act is that its scope is limited to streams and wells and is conspicuously silent on the definition of wells. Davinder Singh Mann, a lawyer on the SPCB panel, asks, "Is a six-inch-wide bore a well? Does polluting a dry aquifer constitute an offence? Is an aquifer a stream or is it a well?"

Things aren't rosy within the SPCB, either. Its purse strings are so tight that litigations become luxuries. Apart from expenses on stationery and analysis of water samples, the SPCB spends no more than Rs 550 per case.

Even the limited teeth that the SPCB is bestowed with are not being used. Although the board is empowered to disconnect electricity connections of polluting units, Bhatia says only one disconnection was ordered since the SPCB opened its Panipat office two years ago.

Apathetic administration
Panipat deputy commissioner R P Singh justified his administration's inaction on groundwater pollution, saying, "Even with the police around, there are rapes, dacoities, murders and all sort of crimes. What is so surprising about industrialists polluting underground water?"

However, Singh said he had surveyed 65 industries that were drilling bores about a year ago. "We even challaned them. I am strictly against anybody undertaking this practice." However, the SPCB contends that only 11 industrialists had been challaned and no action had been initiated against any of them so far. Independent enquiries revealed not one such case was sent to the Panipat courts during the past year.

Singh rambled on about a multi-crore scheme for Panipat under the aegis of the Yamuna Action Plan. And in an effort to throw the ball out of his court, Singh said all aspects of groundwater pollution by bore-wells and the kuccha ghaddas in the industrial area were the mandate of the state labour department, which was entrusted with the safety, sanitation and health cover for industrial labour. He said that it was the responsibility of the SPCB to book errant industrialists.

Macroeconomic factors compound the problem. Panipat's woollen and textile industries are largely export-oriented. Although their turnover target for the current fiscal year is Rs 180 crore, an industry source told Down To Earth that exports till December 31 had already touched Rs 200 crore.

Effluents discharged by panipat, Karnal and Kurukshetra industries.
Industry Cd Cr Cu Cn Pb Hg C6H6 Na NaOH ClCH Cl S NaNO3
Dyeing * * * * * * * * *   * * *
Cardboard           *   *          
Milk               * *        
Rice               * *        
Rubber       * * *       *      
Legend: Cd-cadimim, Cr-chromimu, Cu-copper, Cn-cyanide, Pb-lead, Hg-mercury, C6H6-benzenes, Na-sodium, NaOH-sodium hydroxide, ClHC-chlorinated hydrocarbons, Cl-chlorine, S-sulphur, NaNO3-sodium nitrrate.
The dyeing industry also discharges black sulphur, sodium sulphides, sodium sulphates, hydrosulphide and various hydrocarbons that are used to soften acrylic yarns. Many industries also discharge trace amound of oils and grease. The milk and rice industiries' discharge contain suspended soilds.

The rice industry, too, is largely export-oriented, with a reported turnover in excess of Rs 200 crore. Many legislators of Haryana own rice mills. As one of the largest contributors to the state exchequer, Panipat industrialists enjoy tremendous clout.

Industrial associations are strong and the government's lack of political courage to deal with them has only emboldened them. These industrial houses generate heavy employment and this hampers the prospects of the government coming down heavily upon them.

Official cross-purpose
SPCB officials at Panipat and the deputy commissioner are seemingly working at cross-purposes. The district administration is planning to put up for auction 17 cesspools that the SPCB intended to fill with flyash from the Panipat thermal power plant and use in a social forestry programme.

Similarly, although the SPCB advocates the installation of collective ETPs, the deputy commissioner insists it would be more practical to allow the industries to dump effluents in the sewage system being laid in the industrial area as part of the Yamuna Action Plan.

It is clear that the administration is indifferent to basic environmental questions. Instead, the emphasis is on meeting targets, irrespective of how they are met. The report of the department of environment may have set the ball rolling.

-with inputs by Pia Sethi (chandigarh) and T P Sudha.

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