River sutra | Part three

How pollution killed the Hindon

At Baleni village in Baghpat, the water which merges wth Krishni and Kali tributaries, is plentiful, but foul-smelling. (Photo by Chahat Ram)

Faiz Ali’s daughter was 28 and wife 48 when both died of cancer within five years. Before Ali could come to terms with the loss, his brother, too, was diagnosed with cancer. Ali himself is battling a skin ailment. Their scourge: the Hindon river that not so long ago used to be their lifeline.

A former pradhan of Begrajpur village in Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh, 55-year-old Ali says the Hindon has become a dumping ground for municipal and industrial waste. The biggest casualties are the villagers, for whom the only source of water has turned into a repository of infections and diseases.

And as political parties gear up for the 2017 UP elections, the Hindon, which impacts 34 assembly constituencies in the region, has barely found a mention in their agenda.

Sandwiched between the polluted Kali, a Hindon tributary, on one side and a nullah brimming with industrial effluents merging into it on the other, Begrajpur is one of the 400 villages of western UP whose lives depended on the Hindon. But not any more.

Faiz Ali, 55 of Begrajpur notes that Hindon has become repository for diseases due to the industrial waste that is being dumped into the river. (Photo by Chahat Ram)

Once a lifeline, now a ‘dead river’

Official records say that 151 of the 400 villages on the banks of the river, including Begrajpur, have reported ailments like cancer, neurological and digestive disorders and skin and respiratory infection due to the contaminated water.

Abdul Qadir Ansari, 88, has been witness to the ‘slow death’ of the river that passes through his village back yard. The deterioration, he says, started in the 1980s when factories started coming up in the area. Until then, he recalls, the villagers would drink from it.

“Jitna khana nahi khate, us se dugna yahan log dawaiyan khate hain (People here consume more medicines than food).” he adds.

Hindon is most polluted tributary of Uttar Pradesh
Average total coliform (most probable number per 100 milliletres water) at ten most polluted river water monitoring stations in Uttar Pradesh, 2014
SOURCE: Central Pollution Control Board, Water Quality Database, 2014

Also known as Harnandi, the rain-fed Hindon originates in the lower Himalayas of neighbouring Uttarakhand. Joined by its two tributaries -- Kali and Krishni – it flows through seven western UP districts before confluence with the Yamuna in Gautam Buddha Nagar.

The pollution levels here have earned it a 'dead river' status and its water declared ‘unfit’ even for bathing, according to the Central Pollution Control Board report of 2015.

From being a lifeline, the river is now reduced to a carrier of industry waste.

“It is now a poison-laden drain that has contaminated the water table that feeds the hand pumps, bore wells and tube wells,” says river activist Krishan Pal.

At Baleni village in Baghpat, where the ancient Balmiki Ashram stands on its bank, the water, after Krishni and Kali tributaries merge with it, is plentiful, but foul-smelling.

“Rivers don’t bring votes,” says Lakhsdevanji Maharaj, the head priest of the ashram.

Raman Tyagi, of the Natural Environmental Education and Research (NEER) Foundation, agrees, “From being a lifeline, the river is now reduced to a carrier of industry waste.”

Political Inertia

As political parties kickstart their 2017 campaign, some villages have decided to boycott the polls and polio immunisation drives to mount pressure on the government.

“We will not vote unless something concrete is done,” says Ram Kumar, 42, a farmer of Kinoni village in Saharanpur.

Nudged by civil society, the state government was forced to wake up last year. Following an initiative by waterman Rajendra Singh, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav launched an awareness yatra for Hindon.

Also, a working group led by planning commission member Prof Sudhir Panwar, set up to study the river, visited the region. The government allocated Rs 2 Crore from the budget for preliminary action plan.

“The rural development department is allocating funds to provide clean drinking water in the villages by installing overhead tanks as per NGT directions,” says Prof Panwar.

But all this will take at least 10 years. The activists are not impressed. “The government only makes announcements,” says activist Pal who was part of the yatra.

In Kinoli village , the strong flow of Hindon of the river is an anomaly. The rest of the river has no continuous flow. (Photo by Chahat Ram)

BJP parliamentarians Raghav Lakhanpal (Saharanpur) and Sanjeev Balyan (Muzaffarnagar) are planning a march along the banks. Balyan is Minister of State for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.

“The river has no continuous flow of water due to which the waste that is dumped into it doesn’t get washed away. It’s not possible to rejuvenate it overnight,” says Lakhanpal, citing huge costs (Rs 500 crore) required for setting up the proposed sewage treatment plant in Saharanpur.

The pollution level has even alarmed the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which on October 6 directed Ghaziabad civic agencies to submit an action plan within a week for scientific disposal of solid waste in the city.

The industry says it needs time to come up with a solution.

“We have promised to make the industries zero-discharge by March 31, 2017,” says Pankaj Aggarwal, industrialist and chairman of the Muzaffarnagar Municipal Board.

Given the all-round alarm for saving the holy Ganga and Yamuna rivers from pollution, the smaller Hindon can only hope that some help would also flow its way.

Graphics by Harry Stevens and Anand Katakam. Web production by Gurman Bhatia.