The history of Haryana’s 7,356 villages is as old as its ponds and wells. It is said that people settled wherever they found water storage capacity for human and cattle consumption. A water pond/well would be revered like a village deity and the local people, especially women, would pay their reverence by performing rituals on key occasions. Now, the same ponds are polluted, overflowing, filled with dirt, under encroachment, and have become the dumping grounds for garbage. Some of them have even disappeared completely.

According to data from Haryana Pond and Waste Water Management Authority, there are a total of 18,835 ponds across rural and urban areas in the state, and at present, about 63% (12,036) of those are polluted. There are 10,118 ponds that are polluted but not overflowing while 1,918 are both polluted and overflowing. The Haryana Pond and Waste Water Management Authority was established in 2018 to monitor and promote the development, protection, rejuvenation, conservation, management of ponds and utilisation of pond water after treatment.

On May 2, Haryana’s Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar said at a public event, that the government was working to rejuvenate 8,000 ponds in the state. He had said that of Haryana’s 18,000 ponds, 4,000 are filled with rainwater, 6,000 with water for animal use, and 8,000 with dirty water, which will be treated. Khattar had said that Haryana Pond and Waste Water Management Authority has been made for the rejuvenation of ponds by setting aside Rs 1,000 crore for this task.

Garbage and encroachments

In Kharawar village in Rohtak district on Delhi-Rohtak road, which has a population of 10,000, the village’s largest pond Chahalwala has been fighting for its existence.

Ninety-seven-year-old Major Chander Singh Malik (retired), who is the eldest in the Kharawar village, recalled that during his childhood he would bathe in Chahalwala pond and then directly take water from it for use in the kitchen. In the last 20 years, the condition of the pond has deteriorated. “All the dirt and chemical-laced water used for washing floors from the village flows into the pond. Even animals do not drink water from this pond,” Chander Singh Malik, who is now bedridden, told Mongabay-India.

Naiyala pond in Kharawar village exists only on paper because in reality, it has turned into a dumping site. Photo credit: Sat Singh/ Mongabay

Naiyala, another pond in the same village, exists only on paper because in reality it has become a dumping ground for locally-generated garbage. Another pond Gonsiawala, which is on the periphery of the village, is under encroachment and people have even started construction over the pond. Similarly, Gilluwala pond is full of muck.

Another former Indian Army officer, Captain Jagvir Singh Malik, a resident of Kharawar village, said that problem of dirty ponds has emerged only in the last two decades. He explained that ever since piped water came to their village, people started storing water for their personal use and allowed the remaining piped water to go to waste. “This piped water flows through the village lanes taking the garbage dumped outside houses along with it and finally deposits all the garbage into the pond,” he said.

“As the village lacks a drainage system, the water that people use to clean their house with chemicals is then released into the village lanes that finally reach the village pond,” Malik told Mongabay-India. “People do not prefer to take their milch animals to the pond now as chemical contamination causes diseases in animals.”

Whether for agriculture or drinking purposes, if such contaminated water is used, it could be harmful to people and animals. Due to these polluted ponds, people have to rely on illegal and expensive sources of water.

Satbir Singh, a resident of Kharawar village, said that during the monsoon season the ponds get flooded and a foul smell starts emanating from them. He complained that the state government had announced that they will revive the ponds but it never materialised.

Kharawar’s outgoing sarpanch (village head) Bijender Malik said there is so much garbage inside such ponds that it is difficult to clean them. “Ponds were earlier used to store rainwater but now it has a lot of wastewater from the village that flows into it including the plastic garbage,” he told Mongabay-India. “People also release animal dung and urine into the lanes which flows into the pond making the water unusable.”

Mongabay-India visited multiple other villages and spoke to the residents about the conditions of such ponds. All had a similar story to tell.

In Karor, which is Kharawar’s neighbouring village, all the wastewater gets collected inside the pond and some people have even encroached on the pond area. In Chamaria village, which is on the Panipat-Rohtak national highway, the retaining wall of the pond is decorated with buffalo dung cake and it has turned into a breeding ground for diseases.

Mahipal Singh of Karor village shows how wastewater enters into pond making it unusable for milch animals. Photo credit: Sat Singh/ Mongabay

The condition of Kharkhodda village in Sonipat district is not much different. Sandeep Kumar, a resident of the village, said that his grandfather used to tell them stories about how ponds used to be the lifeline for the villagers.

“But now all is gone as the ponds in the village have been reduced to a garbage dumping ground resulting in polluted water,” he said.

Small efforts initiated

HP Sharma, who is a Member-Technical advisor in the Haryana Pond and Waste Water Management Authority, said that the government has been aggressively taking up the issue of rejuvenating the ponds. He said the government has already finalised the action plan to rejuvenate 4,600 ponds and work has already started on 300 ponds.

Under the action plan, a digital survey is conducted, and if encroachment is found, a letter is written to the concerned local administration to get the land vacated. To clean the pond, Sharma said first the water is dried to start the digging process as cleaning has not been done for the last 40 years.

“Then embankments are constructed and aquatic plants are grown near the pond to clean the wastewater in a natural way,” he said, while adding that they are planning to set up micro-irrigation technology and use canal water to revive all the ponds of the state.

The government has also been looking into using a three-ponds system, which is a step-wise process to recycle wastewater in villages. Under this mechanism, the ponds are adjacent to each other, along the gradient of the land and are connected via pipes. The pond at the highest elevation acts as the reservoir of the village’s grey water (discharge from the kitchen and bath). As the water moves into the successive ponds, it gets cleaned due to the settlement of impurities. The impurities free water of the pond is then used to irrigate panchayat land and for pisciculture.

A pond in Karor village. Photo credit: Sat Singh/ Mongabay

Recycling wastewater efforts have already started in Haryana’s Karnal district. In some villages, it has yielded results. This experiment by Karnal, administration to treat greywater to avoid overflowing and managing wastewater has also caught the attention of the Indian government. In 2015, a team of the central government visited the villages of Karnal district to study the impact of the three-ponds system.

Pratik Kumar, a Haryana based environmentalist, said it is urgent to rejuvenate the ponds because about 75% of Haryana is witnessing a decline in groundwater levels.

“The ponds have been a source of water for people for centuries where it was stored, cleaned and reused for human and animal consumption,” Kumar told Mongabay-India. “Sadly, with the entry of pipe water, solid waste started going into these ponds making them garbage sites. The faultlines with the state government’s effort in reviving the ponds are that they are doing it one time and leaving it in the hands of people. It should be an annual affair to clean the ponds and there should be budgetary provisions for it.”

Due to lack of maintenance, this well in Kharawar village has become unusable. Photo credit: Sat Singh/ Mongabay

The condition of ponds is poor not just in Haryana but in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh as well. According to a 2018 study conducted in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district, the traditional water bodies have transformed into sewage ponds. It found that of the 120 ponds across 12 blocks of the Meerut district, more than 50% were severely polluted.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.