Hindon clean-up, a prerequisite to cleaning the Ganga

The pollution rates of the river Hindon are alarming. Despite work by conservation groups, the efforts on the part of the government to fix the problem remain uncertain.
The polluted Hindon (Source: Hindi Water Portal) The polluted Hindon (Source: Hindi Water Portal)

Come monsoon and the situation in the Hindon river is truly troubling. Large stretches of the river continue to suffer toxic contamination. An article by Baishali Adak in Daily Mail Online (UK) last year showed images of the effluent-laden river in the 30 km stretch in Ghaziabad. While this baffled many as it was in Delhi’s backyard, it was found that the stone crushing units illegally operating on the river bank were to blame. The alarming reddish color stretch of the river when it passes industrial sites has been a concern since long. Many scientific studies over the last two decades have pointed to the high pollution levels in the river basin’s surface as well as the groundwater.

Several civil society groups have raised the issue of how the Hindon is ‘gasping for breath’, but the river isn't being cleaned-up. Pressure from locals living along the river, whose waters were known to cure whooping cough, is also growing.  

Historically referred to as the Harnandi, the Hindon, which is a tributary of Yamuna rises in the Lower Himalayas. The river is over 280 kilometers long and flows through seven districts of western Uttar Pradesh before meeting the Yamuna in Gautam Buddha Nagar district. The river water was potable till the 1980s after which its condition deteriorated.

The most polluted tributary of the Yamuna

“Around seventy major polluting industries -- paper, sugar, distilleries, chemical industries and slaughter houses -- draw large amounts of water from the river and also discharge untreated wastewater into it as well its main tributaries the Kali and Krishni”, says Raman Tyagi of Neer Foundation which has been working on conservation issues related to the Hindon for over a decade. Per a recent Right to Information (RTI) reply, the figures are starker. There are 172 industries which dispose their outflow into the Hindon. The pollutant load is high and the river can barely assimilate the pollutants. Dilution with freshwater isn't a viable treatment option any longer.

In fact, even Municipalities that fall in its way discharge untreated sewerage in these rivers. No wonder some refer to the Hindon as a ‘trunk sewer of the urban towns’. The floodplain of the river is stuffed with unauthorized constructions. The croplands in the chemical based agricultural areas in the Hindon’s catchment bring pesticides along with the runoff flow.

Researchers have tried to find out the causes as well as the degree of its pollution. Most attribute it to untreated and/or partially treated waste inputs of municipal and industrial effluents. Prominent is a study by Heather Lewis, a British environmentalist who conducted water quality and health studies on the Hindon river for Janhit Foundation, a Meerut based NGO in 2007. Her analysis is also corroborated by a study by Kinshuki Sharma et al which observes: "Where population density is high, organic pollution dominates and where industries are more, heavy metal and inorganic ions load is more" (2) .

According to Tyagi, “The pollution stems primarily from industrial effluents, which prevails over municipal pollution. Municipal sewage from Saharanpur and Muzaffarpur would have produced less pollution than expected, only if vast amounts of water could dilute the municipal waste. However, industrial effluents cannot be dealt with through dilution. The Star Paper Mill Drain right at the emergence of the river is particularly polluted".

River waters are supposed to be restored to a level fit for bathing purposes but there is very little oxygen in the Hindon's waters. A study by Sharma et al indicates that the pollution figures for Hindon are way above permissible levels. It indicates a very high organic load in the river water which makes it highly unsuitable for even bathing purposes (3).

Problem in the groundwater too

Studies indicate that the groundwater in the area too is contaminated. A study by Gaumat et al points that “samples from handpumps in villages in close proximity to the Kali River (East), a tributary of the Hindon, identified heavy metal contaminants within both the river water and groundwater. In fact, levels of chromium within drinking water supplies at Kudhla Village, Meerut district, are found to be 140 times the maximum permissible limit for drinking water set by the Bureau of Indian Standards for this heavy metal" (4).

“Groundwater is used in these industries, but then, polluted liquid waste is dumped into the river, which causes it to be absorbed by the ground itself. This results in poor groundwater quality here”, says Tyagi.

Excess heavy metals in Hindon

Heavy metals like lead, chromium and cadmium in the industrial waste pollute the river, suggests the study by Heather Lewis. The polluted waters have seeped though the soil and contaminated the groundwater, rendering it unfit for drinking. Health survey done in the area by Lewis found that, "commonly observed illness include cancer, neurological disorders, digestive disorders and skin lesions and respiratory afflictions”. She ascribed this to heavy metal and pesticide poisoning. Another study suggests that the heavy metal pollution impacts aquatic life. (5)

A polluted Hindon has larger implications

Bad news for worshippers of the Ganga and Yamuna is that they cannot be cleaned without restoring the water quality of tributaries like the Hindon. Tyagi says, “according to the State Pollution Control Board stations in the area, around 98000 kilo litres of waste is dumped into the Hindon directly in addition to 85000 kilo litres of waste being dumped in its tributaries Krishni and West Kali rivers every day. The Hindon in turn pours this colossal amount of waste daily into the Yamuna".

Prashaant Vatsa of Samvardhan, a group active on Hindon conservation points that, “much of the upper stretch of the 400 km river is dry. The Kali and Krishni rivers, highly polluted tributaries of the Hindon, have been reduced to nallahs. The river gains in volume only after receiving waters from the Upper Ganga Canal, but the discharge of municipal and industrial wastewaters downstream subject it to dangerous forms of pollution. The State continues to take no action against the polluters or the river bed encroachers". 

Not surprisingly, the impacts on riverine life and health of people in the area are problematic.

Courts are taking a note of the pollution problem

The study by Lewis led to the filing of a Public Interest Litigation in the Allahabad High Court in 2007 by Janhit Foundation. In response to a court order, the Pollution Control Board had filed a counter-affidavit indicating that the industries along the river were treating their effluents regularly before discharging them into the river, and had blamed the report for overstating the pollution levels in the river. The agency made a volte face recently in December 2014. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) agreed in an affidavit to the National Green Tribunal that the Hindon river’s water quality in Uttar Pradesh does not meet the prescribed standards and is unfit for bathing and recommended a ban on discharging of untreated waste into the river.

More recently, the National Green Tribunal had in March 2015 ordered the constitution of a Committee comprising of government agencies and had issued orders directing these to ensure that throwing of all kinds of waste into the Hindon Canal was banned. Earlier in 2013, the Tribunal had directed that the flood plain of the Hindon and the Yamuna be protected, and had ordered the demolition of unauthorised and illegal constructions at the flood plains of the rivers in Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Is it possible to establish long-term policies to resolve the crisis?

The fate of the people and whether the pollution issues will be resolved in the near future is hard to tell. This is the right time for the State Government to offer viable solutions. At a 'Hindon-Yamuna-Ganga River Panchayat' held by Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan, a group working on water issues in India, the issue of freeing river areas from encroachment, of separating the river and urban sewage, and the reuse of treated water for agriculture was spelt out. Cleaning of the Ganga and the Yamuna would be non starters if tributaries like the Hindon were not cleaned, according to Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Singh.

Dr. Veena Khanduri, Executive Director of India Water Partnership, an organization which has been supporting river conservation work in the area says, “At a Government level, the first priority should be to increase the water in the Hindon, reduce its pollution and treat the polluted waters. The second priority should be to form a Steering Committee under the leadership of the senior most representative of the Irrigation Department of the Government of Uttar Pradesh with multi-stakeholder representation. This Committee should take the lead to prepare a strategy, action points and monitor the stages of work related to the Hindon. The local drains falling into the Hindon require periodical water quality testing and the reports should be placed in the public domain. Fixing of responsibilities and accountability of each stakeholder can be the key to success”, Dr. Khanduri says.

Tyagi says. “It’s high time the bureaucracy tightens the regulations so industries cannot ignore their downstream pollution. Why let them get away with it?"

“Since the Pollution Control Board continues to be apathetic, why not make it mandatory for industry(s)/ residential colonies to treat wastes at local levels? This would end the practice of untreated wastewater release to rivers. In fact, there should be incentives to industry/ farmers to reuse the treated waters", says Vatsa. He adds that the problem is complex and fears that a state led large-scale conservation plan for the river will lead to some measures against pollution being partly tended to but with no long lasting impact.

“After all there is no single administrative body in charge of water quality improvement and this will lead to lack of accountability. We will have more rubber dams – big and small, riverfront beautification, more Sewage Treatment Plants but the conservation work will not be sustained”, he says. 

Only time will tell whether the pollution of the Hindon remains a pending issue or if long-term policies are established to resolve the crisis.

References

  1. Heather Lewis, Gasping for breath, Janhit Foundation, 2007
  2. Kinshuki Sharma, Garima Singhal, Babita Sharma; A. R Sharma, Environment Conservation Journal 2008 Vol. 9 No. 3 pp. 15-19
  3. M K Sharma, C K Jain and Omkar Singh, Characterization of point sources and water quality assessment of river Hindon using water quality index, Journal of Indian Water Resources Society, Vol 34, No.1, January, 2014
  4. M.M. Gaumat, Kali Charan, Pollution in Kali Nadi (East) and its environs in parts of Meerut and Ghaziabad districts, Uttar Pradesh. Preliminary report of the Central Groundwater Board (Northern Region), June 1999
  5. Chakresh K Jain, D. C. Singhal, Mukesh Kumar Sharma, Metal Pollution Assessment of Sediment and Water in the River Hindon, India, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 06/2005; 105(1-3):193-207

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