As depolluting Sutlej river delayed, impact on health continues

  • The plan to construct sewage treatment plants and common effluent treatment plants to clean water bodies polluting the Sutlej river in Ludhiana and Jalandhar, has been delayed.
  • The deadline for installation of some of these plants under the Punjab government’s ‘Action Plan for Clean River Sutlej’ was December 2020. Now, civil society members are planning to meet the union environment minister to expedite the work.
  • The impact of pollution in the Sutlej river is felt even in Rajasthan, Punjab’s neighbouring state, as the polluted river water enters the desert state through Punjab’s Indira Gandhi canal.

Two shades of river water passing through Ludhiana’s Manewal village explain it all. It is at this village where the Sutlej river, which originates in Tibet before it enters Punjab via Himachal Pradesh, converges with Ludhiana’s Buddha Nallah, a seasonal rivulet that is meant to carry rainwater. But for decades this nallah has been carrying millions of litres of untreated industrial and domestic wastewater from the city into the river turning its rocky colour to black.

According to a Punjab government report, the river carries Class B water (moderate water pollution) when it enters the state near Ropar but soon turns to Class E water (high degree of pollution making it unfit for any human or irrigation use) after the confluence of the nallah downstream of Ludhiana.

Cleaning this nallah has been at the centre of the Punjab government’s Sutlej action plan unveiled in January 2019 following a penalty of Rs. 500 million (Rs. 50 crore) imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in November 2018 over the river pollution. Under the plan, the nallah was supposed to be cleaned within two years, by December 2020, but the execution of projects to achieve that has been far behind schedule.

To stop dumping of untreated discharge into the nallah, the state agencies had planned two new sewage treatment plants (STPs) with a wastewater treatment capacity of 285 Million Litres per Day (MLD) at Jamalpur and refurbishment of four existing STPs with the treatment capacity of 400 MLD at Bhattian and Balloke since all the existing plants became redundant over the period of time.

However, the five billion rupees (Rs. 500 crore) project to rejuvenate the Buddha nallah was only awarded four months ago in December 2020 and is not likely to complete before the first half of 2023. But this deadline also faces issues as the work involves several complexities such as the construction of two effluent treatment plants for dairy clusters.

Meanwhile, the untreated discharge of the domestic effluent is one part of the problem in Buddha nallah. Ludhiana, which is northern India’s textile hub, has over 250 dyeing units that are discharging over 100 MLD of wastewater most of which is untreated.

In fact, two Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) of 90 MLD capacity that was planned in 2017 for dyeing units at Tajpur industrial cluster and focal point in Ludhiana were expected to be commissioned in 2019 but there have been continuous delays in its construction and commissioning. Though due to the pressure from Ludhiana’s civil society and the NGT, one of the two effluent treatment plants of the dyeing industry is finally ready.

A scene of the Buddha Nallah at Ludhiana's Tajpur industrial area where there is a continuous dishcarge of untreated domestic sewage and industrial waste that pollutes Sutlej river. Photo by Vivek Gupta.
A scene of the Buddha Nallah at Ludhiana’s Tajpur industrial area where there is a continuous discharge of untreated domestic sewage and industrial waste that pollutes the Sutlej river. Photo by Vivek Gupta.

However, in another twist to the tale, it still can’t be commissioned immediately due to the delay in providing electricity connection to the plant. While the second effluent treatment plant is under construction and is not likely to be commissioned for at least one more year.

Ludhiana dyeing industry representative Rahul Verma told Mongabay-India that the industry is pushing hard with the state government to give electricity connection to one of the CETPs at the earliest. “We hope the plant will be in working condition by June while construction work is at full scale for another plant,” he said.

Read more: People power to clean up Pune river, bit by bit

What is the source of Sutlej’s pollution?

Buddha Nallah, though a major source of pollution in the river Sutlej is not the lone reason behind the dismal condition of the river. Another seasonal rivulet, Chitti Bein and its sub-drain, Kala Sanghian drain, in the Jalandhar district are equally responsible for high pollution in the Sutlej river.

After Ludhiana, the river again turns into class E water at its confluence with Chitti Bein tributary at Gidderpindi village near Shahkot in Jalandhar. The untreated discharge from Jalandhar’s leather goods industry is one of the major reasons behind Chitti Bein’s pollution.

The Rs. 290 million (Rs. 29 crore) work to upgrade its effluent treatment plant is currently held up since there has been no response to the government tender re-issued multiple times in the past six months.

Ajay Sharma, secretary of Punjab Leather Goods Federation, Jalandhar, said since the government’s upgradation work will take time, they are planning to revamp the plant with their own expenditure.

Kulwinder Singh, an activist from Jalandhar, said that the black stinking water of the Chitti Bein became transparent during the lockdown imposed due to Covid-19 last year when all factories in the local areas were shut down. The foul smell emanating from the water body had also disappeared. “But months later, the water body was back to extreme pollution. The chemicals released from factories have done maximum damage to it. But sadly the state government agencies have failed to stop it despite the huge ecological loss,” Kulwinder Singh said.

Apart from Buddha Nallah and Chitti Bein, there are more than two dozen other drains that discharge their water into the Sutlej river, reveals the Clean Sutlej River Action Plan.

These drains are mostly carrying untreated domestic sewage. To ensure that they run clean, a total of 101 STPs need to be installed in 65 towns out of which 69 STPs fall under the domain of the Punjab local government department while the construction of remaining plants is with the department of water supply & sanitation and the department of rural development & panchayat.

According to the data obtained from Punjab local bodies department, they have commissioned 43 STPs while the remaining are under different stages. There are 10 plants that are still at the planning stage while nine others are at the tender stage.

Environmentalist Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, who is also a member of the NGT-appointed monitoring committee on Sutlej River pollution, told Mongabay-India said that “Jitna kaam hona chahiye tha utna kaam nahi hua hai (The work done so far is not as much as it should have been).”

He said, during lockdown last year, the change in colour of water of Chitti Bein and Kala Sanghian was a clear indication that water became cleaner when the industrial waste was not being discharged into the water bodies.

The committee will soon submit the status report on the river rejuvenation work to the NGT. “Let’s see what the tribunal decides,” Seechewal added.

Under construction Common Effluent Treatment Plant of Ludhiana's dyeing industry cluster at Tajpur area that will take atleast one more year to finish. Photo by Vivek Gupta.
Under construction Common Effluent Treatment Plant of Ludhiana’s dyeing industry cluster at Tajpur area that will take at least one more year to finish. Photo by Vivek Gupta.

When contacted, Krunesh Garg, the member secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board, which is responsible for the plan’s successful execution, told Mongabay-India that there are definitely delays. He said in some cases the delay was due to funding issues and in other cases, a lot of time was consumed at the planning stage.

He, however, noted that all crucial projects have fallen in line now. “We foresee a huge change in the quality of the Sutlej river in the next two years. I believe if we control the water pollution coming out of Ludhiana and Jalandhar cities, much of the problem of Sutlej water pollution will be over,” said Garg.

Read more: When an army of women came together to revive a river

Polluted Sutlej river’s impact on the human habitations

In 2014, a study Adverse Human Health Outcomes Among People living near highly polluted wastewater drains in Punjab, published in the World Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, found the prevalence of mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium and selenium in more than permissible limits (MPL) in the groundwater and surface water in and around drains like Buddha Nallah, Chitti Bein and Kala Sanghian.

According to the study, heavy metals and pesticides were also detected in fodder, vegetable, milk, urine and blood samples. “Gastrointestinal, water-related, eye, skin and bone diseases were significantly associated among the targeted population,” said the study based on a ground inspection by a team of doctors from Chandigarh-based Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) between 2005 and 2007.

Gurpreet Singh Chandbaja, who is convenor of Naroa Punjab Manch that is among the leading NGOs fighting to depollute Sutlej, said that study may be old but still relevant given that there has not been any serious study other than this one that details the impact of water pollution on the human lives.

“You travel any village along Sutlej river or its drains and it is common there to have skin problems, stomach illness and even cancer,” he noted while ruing that despite such severe impact the government response to depollute the river is slow and tardy.

“We will soon meet the union environment minister and senior officials of the Central Pollution Control Board to inform them of the ground situation and seek their help in expediting the projects crucial to make the river clean,” said Chandbaja.

While Gurcharan Singh, ex-Sarpanch of Gaunspur village located on the bank of Buddha Nallah in Ludhiana district, told Mongabay-India that there was a time when Punjab had melas (Indian fairs) along river banks. Today there is destruction all around the river.

“The dirty water of drains has seeped into underground water. As a result, people in our village are forced to draw water from at least 400-450 feet. Even this time can’t be consumed without filtration. But the poor are worst affected who are forced to use contaminated water only,” he said Gurcharan Singh.

Gurcharan Singh (R) and Mandeep Singh (L) of Ludhiana's Gaunspur village who narrate how dirty water of Buddha Nallah has destroyed their crops in the past. Photo by Vivek Gupta.
Gurcharan Singh (R) and Mandeep Singh (L) of Ludhiana’s Gaunspur village narrate how dirty water of Buddha Nallah has destroyed their crops in the past. Photo by Vivek Gupta.

Mandeep Singh, another villager, said that the farmers are forced to use the dirty water of the Sutlej and its associated drains for growing vegetables and crops at several places in the Malwa region. He said even cattle consume the same polluted water and said, “so one can imagine the kind of impact it has been playing with our health.”

Sutlej River meets the Beas River in Harike in the Ferozpur district before entering Pakistan. Below the confluence of Sutlej and Beas river, the Indira Gandhi canal, earlier known as Rajasthan feeder, traverses through several districts of Punjab and Rajasthan.

Ramjan Ali, an activist working on water issues in Rajasthan, told Mongabay-India that one must visit Rajasthan and see how people are forced to drink and use the polluted river water coming from Punjab and become prone to numerous diseases.

“Punjab government had committed before the NGT that the STPs and the CETPs to clean Sutlej River would be completed before March 31, 2021. This could not happen.  We will now go to tribunal and also meet central water resources minister to seek their intervention,” he said.

Read more: Story of a river bed, a geological marvel and community pride


Banner image: The river Sutlej’s bank at Ludhiana’s Manewal village where the city’s highly polluted Buddha Nallah meets Sutlej river. Photo by Vivek Gupta.

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