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A recent unstarred question in the Rajya Sabha on pollution of groundwater by arsenic and heavy metals has brought renewed attention to an unseen public health enemy. The Jal Shakti Ministry’s answer to the House made headlines, as it showed toxic chemicals in groundwater in as many as 29 States, covering parts of 491 districts where iron levels are in excess. The current deadline to provide potable drinking water to every rural household is 2024. Tamil Nadu is also in the list of States with marked pollution levels, buttressing data from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) issued in March 2021, which point to critical or severe pollution in industrial areas.

In the answer provided by the Minister of State for Jal Shakti, Bisheswar Tudu, Uttar Pradesh fares the worst in arsenic and iron content in groundwater with parts of 36 and 58 districts affected by these pollutants respectively. By comparison, Tamil Nadu records 12 districts for arsenic and 16 for iron contamination (above 0.01 mg/litre for arsenic and one mg/litre for iron).

Lead, Uranium, Cadmium, Chromium
The Parliamentary question also sheds light on other pollutants found in various States, including Tamil Nadu. Uranium has been recorded in parts of ten districts, Chromium in seven, Lead in six, and Cadmium in one.

The CSE data on groundwater pollution for 2018 indicated that Vellore-North Arcot, Manali and Tirupur were critically polluted, while Cuddalore and Coimbatore were severely polluted. As a result, the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) water scores of these areas declined sharply over 2009 scores.

Vellore-North Arcot pollution data for groundwater, surface water and land indicate that it is arguably the most polluted area in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu is also in the list of States with marked pollution levels, buttressing data from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) issued in March 2021, which point to critical or severe pollution in industrial areas

The Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly (Committee on Public Accounts) reported just a fortnight ago (July 25) that in Vellore and Ranipet, considerable amounts of groundwater was extracted and sold to 42 companies without permission during 2018-19. Moreover, 32 companies without the requisite no-objection certificates were drawing groundwater and seven were persisting with operations although their licence had expired. Available good water sources were being heavily exploited, while others were polluted.

Kanagaraj and L. Elango also found that tanneries in the Ambur region had an impact on groundwater quality. Writing in Environmental Science and Pollution Research in 2016, they say, “The regions with groundwater unsuitable for drinking purposes are around tannery industries. This comparison indicates the impact of letting the tanning effluent in the open drains on groundwater quality. Saline water mixing index indicates that the chemistry of most of the groundwater is due to saline water mixing from the tannery effluents.” They proposed more rigorous controls through effluent treatment plants and active rainwater recharge efforts to improve groundwater.

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A combination of rock dissolution, agriculture, domestic and industrial effluents in Vellore and Krishnagiri area is responsible for Chloride and Sodium level increase, according to one study published in Applied Water Science by a research team consisting of A. Shanmugasundharam, M. Jayaprakash and others, in 2017. They concluded that only 58% of the water samples were suitable for irrigation. Compared with the World Health Organization’s permissible limits for pollutants and BIS standards, 40% of the samples were not potable.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bargur and Mathur rivers in Vellore, which merge in the southeast at the origin of the Pambar river, are focal areas for pollution, since effluents of leather industries, chemical fertilizers and small-scale dyeing industries affect the drinking water. “The impact is felt very much on the drinking water sources of people settled on the banks of the river,” the researchers say.

Incidentally, two years ago, the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption reported the seizure of Rs.3.58 crore in cash and 450 sovereigns of gold from the house of a Joint Chief Environmental Engineer (JCEE) of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in Vellore.

On the issue of industrial effluents being allowed to contaminate rivers, surface water and thereby groundwater, a Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice J.S. Khehar and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and S.K. Kaul ordered in 2017 that all units that lacked an effluent treatment plant should be shut down and the electricity distribution authorities ordered to disconnect power supply.

Responsibility of States: Union government
Although there is a national mission on water, and the CPCB has overall responsibility under the Environment (Protection) Act, the Union government takes the stand that it is the responsibility of the States to ensure clean potable water to the public.

The Union Minister, Mr. Tudu, said in the Rajya Sabha answer that “the Government of India, in partnership with States, is implementing Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) since August 2019 to provide potable tap water supply of prescribed quality and on regular and long term basis to every rural household in the country including Uttar Pradesh by 2024.” The MPs who had submitted the Rajya Sabha question are from Uttar Pradesh.

On the issue of industrial effluents being allowed to contaminate rivers, surface water and thereby groundwater, a Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice J.S. Khehar and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and S.K. Kaul ordered in 2017 that all units that lacked an effluent treatment plant should be shut down and the electricity distribution authorities ordered to disconnect power supply. They could resume only after their treatment plants were made functional.

Tamil Nadu was ordered by the National Green Tribunal last year to study the health effects of pollution and take up remedial action in Cuddalore. The reference point is the status of health in the region before it was developed as an industrial cluster and later outcomes.

The renewed focus on groundwater and surface water is an opportune moment for the DMK government to produce a white paper on the status of pollution in Tamil Nadu. There has to be a special focus on industrial clusters such as Vellore, Manali, Tirupur, Coimbatore and Erode. Without a clean-up, the cost of pollution from industrial sources is being met by unconnected communities suffering disease, morbidity and loss of productivity.


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