The deteriorating quality of the water in the Hindon river in western Uttar Pradesh has made it a health hazard for many local residents, who claim there has been a surge in critical illnesses among people living close to the river.

“In all the villages here, you find sick people,” said Ashok Arya, a villager who lives in Baghpat district of western Uttar Pradesh. “The doctor told us that this is due to the bad quality of water. My nephew has serious kidney malfunction issues. We can’t get him treated as we have no money.”

Millions of people living along the banks of the Hindon and its tributaries are consuming groundwater that has been contaminated by hazardous toxins. They are well aware of the dangers of doing so but cannot afford to install water purifying systems.

The catchment area of the Hindon river, which is a tributary of the Yamuna, includes six parliamentary constituencies of Uttar Pradesh – Saharanpur, Baghpat, Meerut, Mathura, Ghaziabad, and Gautam Buddh Nagar, near Delhi. These constituencies voted on April 11, in the first phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

As these areas prepared to vote in the April 11 elections, some rued that they were being neglected by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government.

The National Green Tribunal is hearing a case regarding the hazardous levels of pollution in the Hindon river and its tributaries, which is leading to diseases among local inhabitants, and even deaths.

In August, the National Green Tribunal referred to studies showing that more than 71 people have died from cancer and more than 47 persons have been bedridden in Gangoli village in Baghpat district, which is close to the river, while more than 1,000 are affected by diseases.

The National Green Tribunal formed an expert committee, which, in a report submitted in February, said that the discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents into the rivers in Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut, Baghpat, Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddh Nagar districts is mainly responsible for the pollution of the Hindon and its tributaries.

The report called for the implementation of time-bound action plans to ensure that the water quality of the Hindon river at least meets the water quality criteria for bathing.

In the same case, in March, the National Green Tribunal asked Uttar Pradesh to implement the action plan within six months and asked the government’s Chief Secretary to “personally look into the issue of availability of potable water to the affected inhabitants”.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s data, Uttar Pradesh has 12 polluted river stretches from a total of 351 polluted river stretches identified across India.

Delhi residents eat food grown with Hindon’s polluted water

The impact of the polluted water is not just restricted to western Uttar Pradesh. It goes as far as the National Capital as well. Farmers use water from Hindon for agriculture and the produce is sent to Delhi.

“Vegetables and crops are grown using this polluted water because farmers have no other choice,” said Dharmendra, a farmer who lives in Ghaziabad, which is part of the National Capital Region. “Whatever is grown is sent to Delhi and its surrounding areas where people consume it.”

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi based think-tank, stressed that “we have poisoned our food chain”.

“We now have a situation where our entire food production is contaminated with chemicals and on top of that, this contamination has entered our surface water, river water as well as the groundwater,” said Bhushan. “So, even if you are not using pesticides for vegetables, there are enough chemicals in Hindon river which is going to contaminate the food in any case.”

Despite the severity of the situation, the pollution and health hazards due to contaminated water of this river have not become a priority issue in the political discourse in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

“They are not talking about the river. These political parties are talking about the irrelevant issues which are not related to people’s life and their demand,” said Vikrant Sharma of Hindon Jal Biradari, a group of activists who are fighting to clean and save the river. “River, pond and groundwater...nobody is discussing it, and it is very frustrating.”

Extreme pollution in river causing health problems

In 2014, Chander Vir Singh, a retired senior scientist with the Haryana State Pollution Control Board, took water samples from the Hindon river and its tributaries. When he got these samples tested, he found that river water had hazardous toxins.

Several chemicals such as cadmium, chromium, nickel, cobalt, arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals were found in the water samples, which can have an impact on the health of human beings and other living organisms in the area.

“It won’t be an exaggeration if we say the water of Hindon river isn’t water but a mixture of chemicals,” said Singh. “There is no dissolved oxygen in this water. No aquatic species can remain alive in it. If you dip your hand in the water, it can cause skin disease and if you drink it then there may be so many problems like hepatitis or even cancer.”

At present, a large number of people living in the villages along Hindon are sick. Doctors and health experts, who have been treating those villagers, have linked it to consuming contaminated water.

“Most of the diseases here are due to the bad quality of water,” claimed Rajveer Singh, who lives in Gangoli village. “There are a lot of cancer patients here as well. More than 100 people have died of cancer in the last three years, and there are many cases of physical disability.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.