If one goes by the Punjab government criteria for disposing of the wastewater of community reverse-osmosis (RO) systems by its method, Bathinda and Mansa have no trace of uranium in groundwater.
Recently, the government submitted an affidavit in the Punjab and Haryana high court that the RO wastewater containing separated uranium was injected back into the ground from where it was drawn for treatment.
None of the ROs in Bathinda and Mansa, districts with worst uranium contamination, inject water back into the ground. The systems discharge it into the open or village drains connected to ponds-the government method for managing low-impurity waste.
"Both methods are dangerous," said Dr GS Dhillon, retired chief irrigation engineer of Punjab, "but discharging into the open is most dangerous."
A latest report by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) had suggested that the groundwater of 43 Bathinda villages contained uranium beyond the prescribed limit. The report put 13 villages in the high-risk category.
In September-October 2009, the BARC collected 235 water samples from canals and bore-wells. It found excess uranium in 88% drinking water samples from Bathinda and 86% samples from Mansa. "All the ROs in Bathinda and Mansa are based on the total dissolved solids (TDS) technology," said the superintending engineer of the water supply and sanitation department, Rajnish Garg. "These discharge water into the open and none injects it back into the ground."
Dissolved in open, if impurity is limited: secy
Only uranium-based ROs put water back into the ground. Some Moga villages do have these plants. About 90% villages in Bathinda and Mansa have the RO water-purification systems. "We dispose of the water at 250-metre depth only at ROs where the uranium content is above the prescribed limit," Sanjay Kumar, secretary of the water supply and sanitation department, said in reply to a question. "Water is dissolved in the open, if the impurity is limited to high value of total dissolved solids (TDS)."
Asked if the ROs at Bathinda and Mansa villages where water samples had tested positive for a high dose of uranium could be discharging water into the open and not deep ground, Kumar dismissed the query as hypothetical.
Plants irrigated with contaminated water
The 644 parts per billion (ppb) value of uranium at Karamgarh Sattran village is the highest recorded in Bathinda district. This RO, installed only a few months ago, disposes of wastewater into the open.
"We irrigate the plants around the RO with its wastewater," said Narinderpal Singh, sarpanch of Karamgarh Sattran. When secretary Kumar was asked specifically about this village, he agreed to examine it.
Environmentalists sceptical of both
Karamgarh Sattran isn't the only village where uranium water is discarded in the open. Besides, environmentalists are not in favour of any of the two Punjab-government methods to dispose of uranium water.
"Both methods are dangerous," said Dr GS Dhillon, retired chief irrigation engineer of Punjab, "but the most dangerous of the two is to let uranium water into the open. Rejected water should be disposed of with the thermal-solar vaporised pond method, in which, the water is vaporised and the solid residue is disposed of safely."
No proof of uranium's health impact: official
Some officials of the department concerned have a very different take on the issue. "There is no proof that uranium has anything to do with the health crisis in the region," said an official of the water supply and sanitation department, no willing to be identified, of course. "It doesn't matter if you discard rejected water into the open or deep shafts. Private RO companies and some politicians have plotted this hue and cry to make profit out of it."