Environmental pollution

Heavy metals in the Hindon river may be causing bent legs and spines in western Uttar Pradesh

The National Green Tribunal has pulled up the state government for failing to provide safe drinking water to people in six districts.

Thirty-year-old Washid lies on a cot outside his kachcha house in Patti Banjaran village of Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh. He is bedridden with deformed legs that cannot bear his body’s weight. Washid’s legs were fine when he passed his 12th standard exams and was looking forward to finding a government job. But just as he was about to begin college, he developed bone problems in both his legs. It has been five years and his condition has only deteriorated since.

Washid depends on family members for his daily chores. “I stopped taking medicines a couple of years ago because it was not helping,” he said. “The doctor in Meerut told me that this is happening because of contaminated drinking water.”

Like Washid, 19-year-old Salman is also suffers a deformity. Salman has a curvature disorder of the spine. Nimki, who has bent legs, is a mother of two and her treatment has cost the family Rs 1.5 lakhs already. In a village of 300 households, between 25 and 30 households have at least one person with deformed legs or a deformed spine.

Sexagenarian Hardeep Singh displays rashes all over his skin. “I have to cross the river to go to my fields,” he said. “For the past few years, I have been getting rashes when I cross it. Doctor says it is due to the river’s dirty water.”

The flow of dirty water

Patti Banjaran is located on banks of river Hindon, a tributary of the Yamuna. The river crosses five districts in western Uttar Pradesh, namely Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Baghpat, Ghaziabad and Greater NOIDA. At Patti Banjaran, the Hindon flows towards Yamuna and merges with it just outside Delhi, which is barely 70 kilometers away.

Residents of the village claim that till two decades ago they would swim in the Hindon, their animals would drink its water and a variety of fish and other freshwater animals were commonly found in the river. Today the water body looks and smells like a drain. The water is black with a layer of filth floating on top and unusable.

“The water flowing in the river is a mixture of chemicals and heavy metals, collected from industries like sugar mills and paper mills located upstream,” said Chandravir Singh, a retired as senior scientist from the Haryana State Pollution Control Board. Through his non-governmental organization, the Doaba Paryavaran Samiti, Singh has been fighting a case in National Green Tribunal since November 2014 to provide clean water to villages on banks of the river.

“The water’s turbidity is high due to heavy metals like cadmium, chromium, nickel, lead, mercury and arsenic,” he said. “These chemicals percolate to handpumps and tubewells of villages along the river bank, making water unsafe for drinking.”

The Hindon at Patti Banjaran village. Photo: Jyotsna Singh.
The Hindon at Patti Banjaran village. Photo: Jyotsna Singh.

Taking cognizance of the the Doaba Paryavaran Samiti petition, the National Green Tribunal last year ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to provide safe drinking water through tankers to the affected villages. There has been little action.

“We have not seen any tanker. Even the demand to dig deeper tubewells has not been met,” said Surya Kumar of Sarora village near Patti Banjaran.

The administration’s blind eye

In its very first reply to the Doaba Paryavaran Samiti petition, the district administration refused to accept contamination of the river, let alone health problems arising out of it. “At the very outset, each and every averment made in the application under reply is denied in totality,” read the administration's reply to the petition. Officials maintained that water quality in the area is within standard limits and there are no grave health concerns for the village dwellers.

Subsequent investigations by the government proved this claim wrong. An affidavit by the Central Pollution Control Board submitted in December 2014 said that analysis of Hindon’s waters revealed that quality did not meet the “prescribed standard of Primary Water Quality Criteria for Bathing Water.” Water that is not approved for bathing is, obviously, unsafe for drinking as well.

Results of an analysis of the water in Baghpat conducted in January 2015 by the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam showed excess amounts of iron, lead and manganese. Levels of lead were found to be five times the safe limit fixed by regulators. Other analysis by state agencies have also found 40 milligrams of arsenic per litre of water in some areas, which is 4000 times higher than the safe limit, according to petitioners in the case.

Unsurprisingly, pollution from the river has seeped into the ground water. “Till 200 meters inside the ground, the water is unsafe,” said Rajiv Kumar, the pradhan of Patti Banjaran, Sarora and the adjoining village Tavela Garhi. “All the tubewells and hand pumps have to be dug farther than that.”

The government has marked hand pumps unsafe for drinking after due tests. But this comes without any provision for alternate source of clean water. “In my lane all the three hand pumps are marked unfit for drinking,” said Surya Kumar of Sarora. “But that’s what we have to drink as there is no other option.”

At least 20 households in his neighbourhood have no choice but to drink unsafe water from the hand pumps. “Safe pumps are far from the house and the residents there won’t let us use water from their area,” Kumar added.

The damage

The World Health Organisation lists water contamination as one of the main sources of lead poisoning estimating that it kills nearly seven lakh people in the world per year. Lead is particularly toxic, accumulating in large quantities in teeth and bones over time. According to the WHO, children are more vulnerable to lead toxicity because their bodies absorb four or five times more of the metal than adults. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says that lead has been linked to problems with the development and health of bones. It leads to osteoporosis, a conditions in which bones are weakened, later in life.

Along with lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are known to have adverse effects on the skin, eyes, kidney and liver.

“Heavy metals like lead and mercury impact the entire system of human body,” said Dr Amar Singh Azad, a retired government doctor from Punjab who has been working for a decade on environment and health. “They create neurological problems, hypertension, reproductive issues and many other diseases.”

RK Mishra, the Chief Medical Officer of Baghpat district, said there is no evidence that the polluted river water is causing disease in the region. “These diseases are not on account of polluted water. Heavy metals are not directly responsible for the diseases,” he said. However, he indicated that there may be an indirect link.

“Heavy metals can accelerate the process of getting a disease by decreasing overall immunity of the patients. With defence of the body affected, it can lead to illnesses like bone deformities and cancer,” he said.

The pradhan Rajiv Kumar wants the government to investigate the issue and provide specific treatments. Despite repeated representations to health authorities, however, primary health centres in the area do not provide speciality services with regard to these emerging afflictions in the area.

No money for clean water

Unsurprisingly, pollution from the river has seeped into the ground water. “Till 200 meters inside the ground, the water is unsafe,” said Rajiv Kumar, the pradhan of Patti Banjaran, Sarora and the adjoining village Tavela Garhi. “All the tubewells and hand pumps have to be dug farther than that.”

The government has marked hand pumps unsafe for drinking after due tests. But this comes without any provision for alternate source of clean water. “In my lane all the three hand pumps are marked unfit for drinking,” said Surya Kumar of Sarora. “But that’s what we have to drink as there is no other option.”

At least 20 households in his neighbourhood have no choice but to drink unsafe water from the hand pumps. “Safe pumps are far from the house and the residents there won’t let us use water from their area,” Kumar added.

The central government’s National Rural Drinking Water Programme is unable to meet requirements for villages. “We need Rs 2,600 crores to provide clean drinking water for 1,700 gram panchayats in UP, ” said Prem Assudani, managing director of the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam. The state has got Rs 600 crore to Rs 700 crore from the national programme so far. Assudani hopes that the state government will bridge the gap.

On September 7, the National Green Tribunal tore into the Uttar Pradesh government for failing to provide clean drinking water and providing adequate medical to residents of Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut, Ghaziabad and Saharanpur districts. The tribunal asked chief minister Akhilesh Yadav government to conduct scientific analysis of water in all the six districts in consultation with the Central Ground Water Board and submit a report before October 21.

The residents of Baghpat hope that the this latest order at the environmental tribunal will finally make the Uttar Pradesh government responsive to their plight. The water pollution that has been a major talking point up and down the banks of the Hindon, may become a deciding factor in the upcoming state elections.

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