Ever eaten veggies grown in “black and red” chemical water? People in Gujarat are eating

A joint investigation by Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti & Gujarat Pollution Control Board revealed that the last 120 kms of the Sabarmati river comprises just industrial effluents and sewage

Swati Subhedar
| Updated: Last updated on April 14th, 2020,

Swati Subhedar, Ranvijay Singh & Mithilesh Dhar Dubey

Sarkaar aur samaaj ke laalach ne Sabarmati nadi ko maar daala. (The Sabarmati river is dead because of the greed of the government and the society),” said Sagar Rabari, president of Khedut Ekta Manch, an organization based in Gujarat that takes up issues related to farmers. He added: “I was born on the bank of the Sabarmati river in Dharoie village and lived there for 18 years. I have seen this river flow. Now it resembles a sewage drain.”

The 371-km long Sabarmati River has a deep historical connect as Mahatma Gandhi established the Gandhi Ashram on the banks of Sabarmati river in 1917. It was his home from 1917 until 1930 and served as one of the main centers of the Indian freedom struggle.

However, things — and the river – have gone down the drain, literally, since the past few decades. A joint investigation was carried out recently by Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, an NGO, and Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) on the rising pollution in the river and discharge of industrial effluents and sewerage in the water.

The report — titled ‘Disastrous condition of Sabarmati River’ — mentioned that the last 120 kilometers of the river before it meets the Arabian Sea, comprises just industrial effluents and sewage. It is this “black and red” water that farmers in the state have been using for irrigation and this is what people living in the state have been eating since decades. “Farmers, unfortunately, don’t have an option but to use this water. Industries in the outskirts of big cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat have been releasing their industrial waste in the river. The last stretch of the river is practically sewage drain,” said Rabari.

The Gaon Connection reporters met Amrit, a forty-two-year old farmer, living in Gyaspur village, just a few kilometers from Ahmedabad. He was wading through knee-deep, black-coloured water, which was essentially chemical water. He was fixing a pump set in the river and drawing that water using a motor. It was this water that he would be using for irrigation.

“Our fields are burning because of this chemical water that gets drained into the river. The crops get affected and because of this toxic water, we suffer from skin diseases,” he said.

These farmers are trying to draw water from the Sabarmati river using a motor

The river’s trajectory

The investigation was conducted to look into the implementation of the Supreme Court order on February 22, 2017, about industrial effluent and sewerage discharge into the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad district. The Sabarmati river has made headlines in the past few years — first, Narmada water was diverted to its dry bed, second, the state government initiated an ambitions Riverfront project on the banks of the river.

“The river flows into Gujarat from Rajasthan. Since there is no water in the Sabarmati river, water from Narmada is sourced to fill up the swanky Riverfront. The Vasna barrage starts where the Riverfront ends. The river stops flowing from here, so the water that flows beyond this barrage is mainly sewage water and industrial waste,” said Mudita Vidrohi, member, Gujarat Lok Samiti. She was involved in the joint investigation.

She added, “Because the river is dry for most part of the year, it is this industrial waste that illegally gets dumped into the river which flows for the last 120 kilometers. The villagers, especially farmers, living along the banks of the river have been using this water for irrigation.”

Farmers living in the interior villages have been giving this water to their cattle

“The river is brimming with stagnant water”

The report that carried out the investigation found the river to be “dry” in the Ahmedabad city stretch, before the riverfront, “brimming with stagnant water” within the riverfront project stretch and in the last 120 kms, before meeting the Arabian Sea, the river was “dead, comprising just industrial effluents from industries from Naroda, Odhav, Vatva, Narol and sewerage from Ahmedabad”. In their report, the activists also pointed out that the Sabarmati “no longer has any fresh water when it enters the city of Ahmedabad”.

Gyaspur village is situated just a few kilometers away from the Vasna barrage. When the Gaon Connection team reached there, there was some water in the river. Twelve-year-old Chirag, who was bathing his buffalo in the river said: “They opened the barrage gates only last night so there is some water in river. Otherwise it’s mostly dry.”

Toxic water flowing into the river

“The red and black water is our only option”

The Gaon Connection reporters met Govind bhai, a farmer, exactly where this “black and red” water was getting mixed with the “river”.

“We don’t have an option but to use this water. We know this water is toxic, but we don’t have any other source.”

Thousands of farmers living along the bank of the river have been using this water for irrigation. They even give this water to their cattle. The situation is so bad that this water has seeped into the ground and the water that is available in their wells is also black. Women use this water to wash their clothes and utensils. Because of this toxic water, farmers have been developing rashes and skin infections.

“The farmers use this water for irrigation. That produce reaches the market and that is what Ahmedabad has been eating,” said Vidrohi. Those who live close to the banks sometimes get clean water from Narmada, but for farmers living in the interiors, getting clean water is an everyday struggle. “The farmers living in the interiors have to use this coloured water. Soon, they will not be able to grow anything in their fields,” said Jeeva Rawat, sarpanch, Chosar village, which is just 20 kms from Ahmedabad.

There was a time when farmers used to grow red roses in their field. That has stopped now. “That was a profitable business. Now the situation is so bad that even the well water is black in colour,” said Surana. There are hundreds of farmers who live in the interiors who draw this toxic water using motors. They say they need water, it’s a basic necessity, they have stopped bothering about the water quality now and have stopped complaining. “We have visited the authorities at least 10,000 times. They are not interested in resolving our issues,” said Surana.

The government hasn’t given them any satisfactory answer to their pertinent question – if Narmada water can fill up the swanky Riverfront, why can’t some water be given to the farmers?

“Forget giving us clean water, the least they can do is give a stern warning to these industrial units to not dump their untreated waste in to the river,” said Rabari.

Sewage water flowing into the river

Most of the STPs are not functioning

According to the report, there is a sewage treatment plant (STP) close to the Vasna barrage having a capacity of 160 MLD. When the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) level of the “treated” water was measured, it stood at 139 mg/l. As per the National Green Tribunal (NGT), BOD of treated water should be 10 mg/l. Likewise, when water quality of river flowing beyond Vasna barrage was measured, the BOD came out to be 536 mg/l, way above the permissible limit.

The farmers said industries have been shamelessly dumping their waste in to the river. When Gaon Connection called the general manager of a saree-dyeing unit in Vatva, he said curtly: “But we are not the only one.” Two other spokespersons of industrial units refused to comment.

Rabari said it’s not clear as to why do these authorities allow the industrial units to drain their waste into the river when they are aware about the detrimental effect industrial waste has on the river.

“Maybe they get good money from these industries,” alleged Lalit Surana, an activist who lives in Dholka, which is 40 kms from Ahmedabad. “None of the Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) function to their full capacity. The toxic water flows down and eventually merges with the Arabian Sea,” he added.

Both Surana and Rabari said the only solution to this problem is that only treated water should flow into the river. “But it would be foolish to expect that. Who is going to implement this? Who is going to oversee this? Who is going to initiate this? Any way so many rivers are dead, so many are dying. This is just one of the many dying rivers,” said Rabari.