Champa Devi has been working as a sharecropper on a two-acre farm at Nilothi village in west Delhi. Until a few years ago, the water she used for irrigation came from the Najafgarh drain that empties into the Yamuna river. This form of cultivation using waste water was a norm in the area till sometime ago. A study by Winrock International, a non-profit organisation working on environmental issues, indicates that sewage-based farming is cheap and reliable; the high nutrient value of sewage ensures less use of fertilisers, making it a popular choice among farmers like Champa Devi.
A kewat by caste, Champa hails from Barah village in Patna, Bihar. Kewats are known to be skilled at vegetable cultivation. Champa migrated to Delhi and has been working at the farm for the last 10 years, growing vegetables like potato, onions, spinach, brinjal and cabbage through the year and mustard in winter. There is a ready market available for her produce and she directly sells the vegetables in the local market at Nilothi and the nearby locality of Nangloi.
“The path leading to the farm I work on was lined with green fields of mustard on either side till a few years back. But soon, with urbanisation, the landscape changed,” she says.
Change in scene
It is not just the landscape, but the farming method has changed, too. The farmers do not use waste water for irrigation any longer. This shift in tradition is largely due to judicial intervention. The increase in consumer awareness has played a part, too.
Following a petition by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a Delhi-based voluntary group, to free Yamuna of pollution, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned cultivation on the Yamuna bed. The NGT feared that the vegetables grown there were highly contaminated and its consumption could lead to many ailments like cancer. Thousands of farmers who were growing edible crops or doing fodder cultivation on the riverbed and its floodplains took the brunt of the court’s decision.
"The changing local tastes and stricter regulations have made most farmers switch to groundwater for irrigation,” Champa says. She did that, too.
But not all farmers were ready to accept change. Bibhuti Singh, the president of the farmers’ organisation, Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Society, that challenged the court’s order in 2015, says, “The decision is hasty. We should have been given more time.” Over 10,000 farmers cultivating on the Yamuna bed are a part of this group. The court had refused to entertain the plea of the society in this case.
The land that farmers like Raunak Singh were cultivating had been allotted to them by the government in the 1960s. “We should have been informed well in time and assistance provided in shifting us to ‘cleaner’ cultivation, free of pesticides, runoff and metallic contaminants from the fields,” Raunak adds.
Other farming options like sericulture, horticulture and floriculture were suggested as alternate options to the farmers. “Shifting to floriculture, horticulture and sericulture, as permitted on the Yamuna bed by the NGT, is not going to be easy,” says Raju Yadav, another farmer cultivating in the Madanpur-Khadar floodplain. “We are not at all familiar with these new fangled forms of cultivation. Cultivating vegetables was our only means of survival and we do not have enough capital to invest in newer cropping methods,” he adds. “Our livelihoods are at risk and thousands of farmers from faraway states like Bihar are in jeopardy because of this move," he says.
The problem with the sewage
Though many farmers like him are angry, the reasoning behind the court’s decision is compelling. A study by Winrock International notes that only about 47 percent of sewage gets treated in Delhi before it empties into the river. Another study by International Water Management Institute says that though tier I and II cities are putting efforts to treat waste water, at an aggregated level, the efforts amount to only 30 percent in the country. This means that our nallahs and rivers are carrying mostly untreated sewage, which affects our crops. Bhim Singh Rawat of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People says, “The farmers in Noida have been using Yamuna's polluted water for irrigation without complaint. In contrast, the Delhi farmers say that the vegetables grown with polluted water turn dry, stale and tasteless in a few days which, they claim, is not the case with vegetables grown with fresh water.”
The court had noted the pollution of Yamuna, its impact on soil and groundwater in the area and had ruled against cultivation on the riverbed. A study in 2012 by The Energy Research Institute (TERI) points out the ill effects of waste-water use in agriculture. “Levels of nickel, manganese, lead and mercury were above the permissible international standards in agricultural soil along the river in Delhi,” it says. More generally, a 2010 study by Consumer Voice, a Delhi-based consumer rights NGO, had found that Delhi's fruits and vegetables contain high levels of pesticide residue. Despite the high court getting involved, not much has changed since. Taking cues from international standards, the pesticide residue limit was sought to be reduced.
The more pressing need, however, was to encourage and incentivise farmers to alter their farming practices but not much has been done towards it. Vishwanath Srikantaiah of Biome Environmental Solutions, a Bangalore-based design firm focusing on ecology says that the judgment was both arbitrary and impractical. “It is the city and not the farmers who are polluting the Yamuna. Why should the farmers be punished?” he says.
A report published in The Indian Express quotes the Delhi Development Authority as saying that many of the farmers were encroachers. “It was important to minimise the pollutants in the river and contribute to a cleaner and safer environment,” a DDA official was quoted as saying. Disagreeing with the claim that the health risk for irrigators and communities far offset the loss of livelihoods, Vishwanath points out that there are “no epidemiological surveys to prove that farming is adding to the toxicity or getting affected by the toxic waters”.
But all the same, what is the way out? For sure, more and more investments in creating waste-water treatment capacities are not an answer. “Sewage, after treatment, is perhaps the best water for farming purposes. But only if it is sewage that has not been mixed with toxic pollutants from industrial sources. Unfortunately in our urban areas, what flows in our drains is a toxic cocktail, full of dangerous heavy metals mixed with the rest. And there lies the key problem with use of such water for raising edible farm crops,” says Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a Delhi-based river conservation group.
He adds that ideally “rainwater in open storm drains, sewage in closed sewage pipes and industrial effluent in closed effluent pipes should be disposed off separately”. Rawat adds, “Non toxic urban waste water can be used in farming not as main source of irrigation but to supplement the primary sources. The ratio of fresh water and waste water should be worked out. It may vary from crop to crop.”
Should we have better standards for using waste water and proper oversight of its reuse? Vishwanath says that a sensible approach is to use World Health Organization’s sanitation safety plan (SSP). SSP systematically identifies and manages health risk along the sanitation chain. “Decentralised treatment and reuse of municipal and industrial waste water are better options, as it will do away with the problem itself. This way, the waste water does not reach the main drain and the river in the first place,” says Vishwanath. He also suggests that steps should be taken at the end of farmers, sellers and consumers to clean the vegetables properly to deal with the problem.