“It’s acid, and not water, that is flowing in these rivers. It’s making us very, very sick”

Around 150 villages in six districts of Western UP are situated by the rivers Hindon, Krishna and Kali. The water is so polluted that people are suffering from cancer and limb deformities

Ranvijay Singh
| Updated: Last updated on April 14th, 2020,

 “This water is making the entire village sick. You may have judged from its smell that it is acid, and not water, that is flowing in the river,” said Sunita Devi, 48, who lives in Saraura village in Bagpat district, which is about 600 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow.

Soft, warm sunlight had descended upon the house where she sat soaking it up. She, however, had put a cloth to her nose because the Hindon river flowing right behind her house emanated a terrible stench. The smell was acrid and created burning in the chest as soon as it was breathed in.

Caressing her five-year-old grandson Lucky’s head, she informed: “He was born with crooked legs. The doctors said it happened because his mother had drunk water from the tap. In order to put his feet right, I must have spent about Rs 2 lakh, but still, he falls frequently while walking.”

This is the woe not particular to Sunita or Bagpat; it is suffered by a large population of 154 villages of six districts — Saharanpur, Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Bagpat and Ghaziabad — of western Uttar Pradesh. These 154 villages are situated by three rivers — Hindon, Krishna and Kali — and because the water from these rivers is severely polluted, the population of those villages is being severely affected.

The four such affected districts of western Uttar Pradesh — Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Bagpat — make a square on the map. The Hindon, Krishna and Kali rivers flow through this square geographical region. This is the reason why the villages of these districts are the worst affected due to river pollution.

The four affected districts of western Uttar Pradesh — Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Bagpat — make a square on the map

“The companies have destroyed the river”

The Rural Connection team surveyed the villages of these four districts to know the ill effects of river pollution upon population. Subsequently, the team reached Atali village in Muzaffarpur, which is by the Kali river. Rajpal Singh, 70, a resident of the village, was found sitting on a cot outside his home. When asked about the state of the river, he exploded and said: “What do you want me to say? The companies have destroyed the river. We are getting ill and are dying. People like you come, click pictures and go, but no one does a thing.”

After a while, he cooled down and informed: “Till 20 years ago, the water from the river was so clear that we and our animals used to drink directly from it. The same water was used to irrigate our fields, but then the waste from the paper mill was directed to it. Now the state is that we can’t even sit out in the open.”

He then asked me: “Do you smell something foul in the air? It is from the river. The water is so dark that one doesn’t feel like going there at all.”

The entire village was enveloped in a gutter-like stench. It was clear that the people living here would definitely be suffering from respiratory ailments. Bhupesh Kumar, 44, another resident confirmed the fear said: “Respiratory disorders are a minor issue. We are suffering from diseases like cancer.”

Bhupesh then moved ahead, signaling me to follow him. “You’d understand when you’d look at the water, let me show you,” He said. He takes me to a hand pump, and placing a bucket beneath, started pumping water. Light yellow, murky water flowed out.

 Showing the water, he said: “See. The chemical flowing through the river has seeped into the ground, contaminating our groundwater as well. Our taps spew this chemical-heavy water, which is subjecting us to diseases of skin, stomach and respiration-related ailments, congenital deformities among children and cancer. Ten people have died of cancer in our village. Out of these, two were young men.”

As per the water test report of the Neer Foundation, the quality of water in villages in Muzzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh is deplorable

So how hazardous is the groundwater here?

As per the water test report of Neer Foundation, an NGO that studies river water, the quality of water at Dabal and Morkukka villages in Muzzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh was deplorable. The level of pollutants was far exceeding the permissible limit in the river.   

The matter has been taken up to the courts. The Doaba Paryavaran Samiti, an NGO that works for the environment, has filed a case regarding this with the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The NGT has been constituted to oversee, nationwide, cases pertaining to environmental conservation and protection of forests and natural resources.

In the present case, the NGT in July 2019, had ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to provide safe drinking water to these villages with immediate effect. It had also decreed that the patients be treated free of cost. Both the orders were ignored by the state government. The NGT had, in a hearing on September 20, 2019, sharply rebuked the government.

Dr Chandraveer Rana, chairman, Doaba Paryavaran Samiti, told Rural Connection over phone: “The NGT has ordered that the people suffering due to contaminated water should, with immediate effect, be provided with clean drinking water. As per the data which is submitted to the NGT by Jal Nigam, 148 villages were earmarked to be provided water with the help of pipeline. Out of the 148 villages, Jal Nigam is, so far, able to provide water to only 41 villages. So, the remaining 107 villages are still forced to drink toxic water.”

The matter is languishing between the court and state government.

Officials take samples, the news gets published, but little is done in name of action

“The state of these rivers is deplorable”

To understand this issue of river pollution, Rural Connection met up with Raman Tyagi, the director of Neer Foundation, who resides in Meerut and has been working for Hindon and other rivers. He said: “The state of these three rivers is so deplorable because the sewage of the towns goes into them besides the industrial waste. The NGT repeatedly orders the rivers and the state of the villages adjoining them to be improved. Despite certain efforts by the NGT and the state government, the overall situation remains grim.”

He added: “The civilizations that had developed by these rivers are today on the verge of ruin due to their pollution. The pollutants flowing through the rivers have seeped into the groundwater, which has been drawn by the people here for drinking, thus making them sick. This is not an individual harm, but is destroying the social structure of these villages. People are abandoning these villages. No one wants to marry his daughters in these villages. People are dying of cancer and the government is denying the link and attributing it all to some other cause. We live deluded and during this strife, industrial waste is being openly flown into the rivers, uninhibited.”

When we were crossing Saini village on the Meerut-Mawana road, the waste of numerous paper mills was being released straight into these rivers. When villagers were asked, they informed that this has always been happening. Officials have come several times and taken the samples thereafter the news gets published, but little is done in name of action.

While the rich buy bottled water, these villagers are forced to drink this water

Villagers doubt the feasibility of medical camps

When Meerut’s commissioner, Anita Meshram, was contacted regarding the matter, she refused to comment. The chief medical officer (CMO), Dr Rajkumar informed that as per the orders of the NGT, medical teams have been arranging camps in the villages. “We had arranged camps in 14 villages by Hindon. We examined 1,484 patients, out of which 14 had cancer and others suffered from various skin and liver diseases, besides fever. We shall organize such camps every three months. We shall also make people aware about heavy metals,” he said.

Although such camps have been routinely arranged, villagers doubt their feasibility. Dr Ashok Kataria, senior consultant at Meerut’s PL Sharma District Hospital, said: “In 2013, I was posted as a medical superintendent in Muzaffarnagar’s Charthawal Community Health Centre. At that time, under the CMO sir’s orders, a seven-day health camp was organized in the region’s two villages Jamui and Indergarh, which were by the Kali river. The medical teams from Delhi and Lucknow had also attended this camp. At the camp we found many patients with cancer. We had also taken water and blood samples. However, I don’t know what happened to the reports. I got transferred to the Meerut District Hospital.”

The villagers, meanwhile, are losing hope.

“Many camps are organized in the village, but nothing would ever come out of it. The village doesn’t even have clean drinking water. Hand pumps give out petrol-like water. Most of the people in the village buy drinking water from outside. If someone is poor, what is he to do? He is aware that drinking this water may cost him his life, but he can’t do anything about it,” said Mohammad Yusuf, 77, who lives in Pithlokar village, which falls in Meerut district.

(Community journalist Mohit Saini from Meerut contributed to this story)