Disasters in the making?

  • 30/08/1999

Disasters in the making? 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

Related Content