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Pollution of Punjab waters: Can’t just go with the flow anymore

HT Roundtable: Key stakeholders dissect a problem that is under the spotlight after spill of tonnes of molasses from a sugar mill in Gurdaspur killed thousands of fish in the Beas and led to scare among people about drinking water from canals.

punjab Updated: May 26, 2018 09:00 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Pollution of Punjab waters,Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal,Kahan Singh Pannu
(Clockwise from top) Kahan Singh Pannu, chairman of Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB); Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, environmentalist; IS Paul, chairman of Drish Shoes; Birinderjit Singh, environment engineer who worked in the PPCB and Sachit Jain, chairman of CII (northern region). (HT )

Punjab’s rivers are in a bad shape, with large stretches contaminated by toxic waste and sewage; and require a comprehensive clean-up plan without any further delay. On this, five leading stakeholders agreed at a roundtable organised by Hindustan Times on Friday.

Kahan Singh Pannu, chairman of Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB); Sachit Jain, chairman of CII (northern region); Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, environmentalist; and IS Paul, chairman of Drish Shoes; and Birinderjit Singh, environment engineer who worked in the PPCB, participated in the 80-minute discussion moderated by Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak. They dissected the grave problem that has come under the spotlight after spill of tonnes of molasses from a sugar mill killed thousands of fish in the Beas.

(To Pannu) As head of the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), can you tell us how serious river water pollution is in Punjab?

Pannu: As Ravi’s major part is not in Punjab, we mainly have three rivers — Beas, Sutlej and Ghaggar. Beas is by and large OK, except last week’s incident. In Sutlej, we get B-grade water at Nangal. When it crosses Kiratpur Sahib, water becomes C-grade. When it cross Ludhiana, it becomes E-grade, and that’s the last grade. So is the case with Ghaggar. We get D-grade water from Haryana, and by the time it crosses Patiala, particularly Khanauri, it becomes E-grade. So the water in our water bodies is polluted. As there is no grade below E-grade, all the rivers are in a bad shape. We have to accept that, and work out methods to clean them.

(To Seechewal) There are two reasons for pollution, one is industrial pollution, second is untreated sewage or urban waste that flows into rivers. You did a lot of work on it and cleaned the Kali Bein. You have played a big role in projecting environment issues on to the centre stage. When you started your efforts, President APJ Abdul Kalam also visited you in 2006. Do you think there are any positive changes?

Seechewal: Abdul Kalam took river water pollution very seriously and raised the issue world over. Since 2008, we examined water in different rivers (water channels) — Kali Bein, Chitti Bein, Kala Sanghian drain and the Sutlej river. More than Kali Bein, the Chitti Bein and Sutlej are dangerously polluted. We raised a bundh on Kala Sanghain drain for not allowing polluted water to fall in it. Before the 2009 general elections, we took all candidates to the drain and I visited a cancer hospital in Rajasthan to know the causes. Through Budha Nullah and Kala Sanghian drain, toxic water of Ludhiana’s electroplating industry and of leather industry in Jalandhar, which uses cyanide, is flowing for decades. Then, through Chitti Bein, it falls into Sutlej and further flows through the bird sanctuary. Then this water mixes with Beas, and the quality of Beas being good it is used for drinking in Malwa belt of Punjab and Rajasthan. Because, subsoil water of Malwa belt has sulphur content, and in Rajasthan the water is saline and not fit for drinking. We are sitting for discussion today because molasses from Kiri Afgana mill have flown into Beas, large number of fish got killed; but what about industry dumping chemicals into the rivers? Have you ever heard of fish getting killed in Sutlej? No, because here they are extinct! There was a time when fish died in the Sutlej, people noticed too; but after that the fish never survived in the river. Now people are getting killed due to cancer. Imagine, people are drinking water that flows from Kala Sanghian drain and Budha Nullah, same water is used in gurdwaras and places of pilgrimage! People in Rajasthan don’t know what is mixed in the water that they drink; we are sending them industrial waste. With the death of fish, the focus is again in the river water. There was a time when A-grade water used to flow into Sutlej and Beas from Himachal Pradesh, now both rivers receive B-grade water. Earlier (polluted) water of Sutlej used to get diluted when Beas water mixed with it. What now when water from Beas is also polluted? As a member of PPCB, I used to take samples of polluted water, but I was not heard. We raised the issue at all levels, even before the previous CM. We are fed up with political leaders. We now pray before God so that better sense prevails on the government.

(To Jain) I have data from PPCB that about 13,000 industrial units have dysfunctional effluent treatment plants, or do not have any. Why can these anti-pollution measures not be implemented? What are the practical difficulties from the industry’s point of view?

Jain: There are three main sources of pollution — industry, municipal waste which is huge, and the third is excessive use of pesticides in the farms that reaches this water. It is a serious problem, and entire society is to be made aware. The problem happens when industry is attacked straightaway and then industry tries to put up a defensive mechanism. There are pollution norms here that are nowhere else in the world. At CII, we don’t support any company violating the norms. Spill of molasses is a serious case of negligence and should be investigated.

Can you please elaborate on norms which are not practical?

Jain: Like, ‘zero liquid discharge’ norm discussed here are nowhere in the world. You make these norms applicable, and large companies will close down and smaller companies, which are anyway not complying with the norms even today, will not comply. Better compliance needs to be enforced first. Move out industry from a location where installation of effluent treatment plants is not possible. Shift them to big industrial parks. For example, electroplating industry should be shifted to one place and an environment treatment plant should be installed.

(To Paul) You belong to an industry (leather) seen as the villain of the piece. As Baba Seechewal also said, Kali Bein and Chitti Bein are polluted due to effluents from tanneries. What is your perspective?

Paul: Contribution of pollution by leather industry is very small — in Kali Bein, 50-55 MLD water comes from 14 kilometers, and the leather complex is at the end, contributing 3.5. The model of leather industry followed everywhere else is that there is one outlet for effluents, after treatment by the CTP. I want to make 3-4 points — polluting industry should itself be made responsible for treatment; if solutions are imported they will not work; make industry accountable as it’s the biggest stakeholder. Make sure land allotted to industrial units has sufficient place to install treatment plants. Solid waste management is also a big problem to which we need to give attention.

Water quality in Punjab’s rivers: Status check
  • Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) monitors four rivers — Sutlej, Beas, Ravi and Ghaggar — under National Water Quality Monitoring Programme (NWMP) at 38 points on monthly basis. Based on analysis results for March, here’s the status:
  • Sutlej: Quality at upstream Nangal conforms to Class B, that is, the water can be used for outdoor bathing. It becomes Class C at Kiratpur Sahib; or drinking after conventional treatment. Hundred metres downstream of confluence of Buddha Nullah, it deteriorates to Class E, which can be used for irrigation, but not for drinking. Then East Bein brings along sewage and industrial effluent from Nawanshahr, Phagwara and Jalandhar. By the time it reaches Harike, quality improves a little, and downstream from Harike in the canals — after confluence of Sutlej with Beas — it conforms to Class C.
  • Beas: Water quality at Talwara conforms to Class B, that is, the water can be used even for outdoor bathing. And this quality remains same throughout the stretch of the river until it reaches Harike and meets Sutlej.
  • Ravi: The water in the river is comparatively clean along its entire length since there is little human activity around it and it remains Class B. There is only one sampling station on this river, at Madhopur headworks.
  • Ghaggar: It has bad quality of water due to meagre flow; carries sewage from various drains and cities. Quality at all sampling points conforms to Class D or E.

Seechewal: No doubt, 90% of pollutant in Kali Bein is municipal waste.

Jain: Sewage if properly treated can be used for irrigation, hence less load on groundwater. Treated water can also be used in industry. We need to diversify away from paddy in Punjab so as to reduce water consumption. I think free power to agriculture sector though a political compulsion should also go, because it leads to misuse of power and groundwater.

(To Birinderjit) What went wrong with CTPs and ETPs in Punjab?

Birinderjit: Major issue is: Why is sewage entering water bodies? All sewage grids were laid with water bodies as final outlets; instead, sewage should have been collected at one place and used for irrigation. We should cut off all sewage systems from water bodies. Industry says sewage is also coming into drains. But sewage doesn’t contain toxic material, we can easily treat it. No natural compound will treat chromium and nickel from electroplating and dying units! I had refused the NOC to Tajpur Road on the banks of Buddha Nullah, but now it’s an industrial zone.

What is the present position of CTPs in Punjab?

Birinderjit: The local bodies department is to be blamed. They don’t have the expertise to operate these plants. Three plants were installed in Ludhiana by the water supply and sewage board and handed over to the local bodies department.

So untreated water is still flowing beyond the treatment plants?

Birinderjit: Yes, not all but some part of it. We have spent huge money on plants; they should work.

(To Pannu) PPCB has an important role of enforcement. It is generally believed that it is reeking of corruption which is coming in way of strict compliance of water and air pollution norms. What are your views?

Pannu: No, it is not that the PPCB is a big institution. We are a team of 100 engineers, with lakhs of industries. In the past four years, for four months the engineers are busy in checking stubble burning. Of 166 cities in Punjab, only 66 have effluent treatment plants; 100 engineers can’t solve the entire problem. We have told the CM that we need sewage treatment plants in all our cities and towns. Don’t talk of environment alone; talk of education, policing and governance — we need to spread awareness and should not shift the onus onto others.

What about norms that are unrealistic?

Jain: There are times when suggestions that are not realistic are given. PPCB officials are scientific people. They know what is possible and what is not. If someone who may not understand the issue but gives them directions anyway, they are forced to carry out orders. The idea of zero liquid discharge, for example, was considered in the US in the 1970s in the Congress, and they realised it was not practical. The consciousness of every citizen has to be raised. Just imagine Swachh Bharat; the impact it has started having on people. There is new awareness. If leaders through their communication start creating awareness, things will change. Where people are digressing, action has to be there. As an industry body, we will support it fully. If you want to close companies which are blatantly violating rules the norms, we don’t support such companies.

Buddha Nullah in Ludhiana is a test case of water pollution. Crores have been spent on the plans of cleaning, but nothing has changed.

Pannu: I don’t think crores have been spent. The kind of investment it needs was not made. If money had been spent, things would have been better. Ludhiana has a population of 30 lakh. As per norms, water discharge should be 400 MLD. We have STPs to treat 450 MLD, but total water discharge is 750 MLD. Both power and water are free, so people just use water as per their free will. We need to stop that. When we go to the World Bank or other agencies for funds for STPs, they say you have adequate capacity. We need to check water consumption as per norms. It is the same situation is Jalandhar and other cities.

Paul: The political class also has to show conscientiousness. Wherever an STP is to be set up, they start opposing. There have been such instances in Amritsar, Jalandhar and other places.

People say STPs lead to a stink in the area.

Birinderjit: The state has been divided into 7 ones. A pilot city has been decided which also takes care of waste of adjoining cities. Biodegradable waste putrefies and produces a fetid smell if it lies there for two or more days. In some seasons, it putrefies faster. It depends on how efficiently the system is run.

Pannu: We look for solutions abroad and try to get technologies that are expensive. There is talk of use of waste to generate electricity at, let’s say, Rs 8 per unit. When you can get electricity at Rs 2 to 2.50 per unit, why go for power that costs Rs 8 a unit. Punjab has 166 municipal committees that generate huge amount of solid waste daily, posing a huge problem. We need local solutions to solve our problems. If we look for solutions from abroad that cost a lot, these problems cannot be solved. For instance, we are focusing on water conservation in industry and doing water audit. Five paper industries in Punjab are using 100 KLD water. When they told me that they reduced it to 50 KLD, I asked them to try and bring it to 30 or so. We are working on it. Similarly, Punjab has 3,100 brick kilns with a huge amount of smoke billowing out of them. They have been told to use new zigzag high-draft technology from next season. It will cost them about Rs 30 lakh per kiln, but will ensure substantial reduction in pollution. In leather industry complex also, we got a pre-settler tank and solved 50% of the problem. If we can import technology that suits us, it is okay. But it is our problem, and we have to find the solution.

(To Seechewal) You have been running a campaign for clean environment for a long time. Do you notice any change in awareness or a proactive approach among people and governments? Also, why have we not been able to produce another Seechewal?

Seechewal: When we started, bureaucrats and politician had their own different views. Politicians saw no harm in waste water from homes flowing into rivers. We said that we want to stop polluted water from polluting our rivers. Now, Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) speaks on the subject and addresses the nation. How the issue of dead fish in Beas became international headlines reflects more awareness among the people. As for another Seechewal, we all have to start from our homes, streets and towns. We need to work together for a better environment. Everyone should take responsibility and take the lead. Sewa Singh ji is working it. SGPC is distributing saplings. In 100 villages, NRIs spent their money to lay sewerage. Wherever STPs have been set up, they should be run efficiently. Crores spent on them from taxpayers’ money are being wasted. Municipal committees, PPCB and other departments have to have accountability.

What is an overall solution for ensuring that our water bodies are not polluted?

Jain: It’s difficult to give an overall solution. Awareness is important, and this has to start from our leaders, because they are the ones whose voices are heard the most. Also, each person has to start from within. We need to focus on water conservation in our homes, industry and farms. Each company has to see to it that it has pollution control equipment and is operating them. It has to be understood as a crime if you are not treating your water. We have to have public ostracisation of people who are not treating their water. Just like black money has now become a bad word. Earlier, everybody said, Why should I pay tax?’, and it was considered a norm. That has become (a reason for) ostracisation today. Not treating your water and air has to be seen as bad.

Pannu: As a society, it seems we are on the verge of extinction. What we are doing with water is unpardonable. There are vested interests that say, ‘Allow me, but stop others!’ We tried to get strict with the dyeing industry in Ludhiana. They downed their shutters and went to politicians to complain. When we stop farmers, they lock up our teams. The Captain government is serious and wants to take efforts to check water pollution to the next level. A committee has been set up under environment minister OP Soni plan for the cleaning of rivers. The Beas disaster was due to reaction in a tank storing molasses. PPCB has no control on that. Our role is with regard to effluents. But the department dealing with this (molasses) is not willing to take its responsibility. We cannot shirk our responsibility and have taken strictest action. Such action has not be taken anywhere in the country. Government has also said that enough is enough.

Paul: Role of the press is also important in creating consciousness. Also, cropping pattern needs to change. Underground water is available at 22 metres, but we are still insistent on paddy and sugarcane, ignoring the associated problems.

What about political interference?

Birinderjit: When you are in the state services and an appointee of the government, it will have control over you. Like IAS and IPS, an environment service was also thought of, but was not allowed to be successful. Politicians intervene, but they often do not know the gravity of the issue.

(To Pannu) You said awareness has increased, but the quality of river water has not seen any change.

Pannu: Awareness has improved, but investment has not. This can be achieved with investment. We have been only talking about crores and not spending. Piecemeal efforts are not going to work. We need a comprehensive plan. In his meeting, the chief minister asked the departments not to make individual efforts but collaborate for a solution in a timebound manner. The chief secretary has been told to arrange funds. However, Buddha Nullah is the biggest challenge for bureaucrats of our generation. For 35 years, governments have been talking about cleaning it without any success, because what is required has not been done.

(To Seechewal) You are in touch with NRIs. Are they willing to help as the government does not have funds?

Seechewal: How can NRIs take care of the problem of solid waste in areas of municipal bodies? MCs are a huge problem. They take taxes, but don’t do enough. Polluted water comes from industry, but PPCB gets blamed. Why not prosecute them (offenders)? Those responsible should be made accountable.

(To Pannu) What deterring action is being taken?

Pannu: There is provision for criminal prosecution under the law, and hundreds of prosecutions have been launched. But there is a problem. I have 100 engineers, and prosecution means they have to go for hearings in courts. Cases have been pending for 10 years without any decision, and hearing dates are given. There are 250 cases. I am not sure if anyone has been prosecuted so far. Conviction rate is negligible. It is time-consuming. We shut down factories and forfeit security.

Birinderjit: The spill in Beas has posed a serious problem. Beas water has reached Harike wetland which also gets water from Buddha Nullah that has nitrogen and phosphorous. These two constituents will lead to algae bloom, and interfere with the drinking water system. There is a need to do something to oxidize the molasses and take precautionary steps on priority.

Watch the discussion here: