A farmer walks through a paddy field in Tannaurah, Punjab, August 2014. Experts suspect overuse of fertilisers is one cause of groundwater contamination in the state. Photo: Reuters/Ajay Verma
- More than half of Punjab’s districts have reported dangerous levels of uranium, arsenic, cadmium and lead in their groundwater.
- The exact sources of these heavy metals are unclear, but experts suspect geological factors and overuse of fertilisers.
- Punjab has issued tenders to build and commission community-level water-purification plants as a short-term measure.
Chandigarh: It is curious that the topic of groundwater contamination in Punjab doesn’t get the public attention it deserves even as it causes immense human damage to the state’s people and environment.
New data that the Ministry of Jal Shakti has shared in parliament suggests that the problem may be out of hand.
According to the numbers, 16 districts in Punjab have more than the permissible amounts of uranium in their groundwater. There are also other heavy metals in dangerous concentrations: arsenic and chromium (beyond permissible limits in 10 districts each), cadmium (eight) and lead (six).
Punjab has 23 districts and is divided into three regions: Malwa, Majha and Doaba. Malwa is the largest, with 14 districts. And here, according to the data, dangerous levels of arsenic have been reported from Mansa, Faridkot and Sangrur districts.
The same goes for lead in Bathinda, Ferozepur and Muktsar; cadmium in Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Patiala and Sangrur; chromium in Bathinda, Mansa and Sangrur; and uranium in Bathinda, Moga, Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ferozepur, Ludhiana, Muktsar, Patiala and Sangrur.
The ministry report doesn’t contain district-wise data for the Doaba and the Majha regions, which have four districts each, but the situation here appears to be no different.
Per information from the water quality wing of Punjab’s department of water supply and sanitation, almost all of Majha, including Amritsar, Taran Taran and Gurdaspur districts, have high concentrations of arsenic in their groundwater.
Overall more than 800 villages across the state have dangerous levels of arsenic.
In Punjab, barring a handful of centres, most cities and towns depend on groundwater, pumped up through tube wells, for drinking. This means the districts with high heavy-metal toxicity are at risk of contracting debilitating illnesses.
Conversations with the director and other senior officials of the water supply and sanitation department indicated that the government isn’t sure why Punjab’s groundwater has been so contaminated.
Sanjiv Jain, a senior advisor to the department, said that it will “soon commission a few studies to find the exact reasons.”
In May 2018, geologist Suvrat Kher wrote for The Wire about the source of arsenic in West Bengal’s groundwater thus:
The ultimate source of arsenic in the groundwater arises from the high Himalayan rocks and the Indo-Burman ranges. Minerals like biotite, magnetite, ilmenite, olivine, pyroxene and amphiboles contain arsenic. When they get weathered in the catchment area and in the deposits in alluvial plains, they release arsenic.
This arsenic is absorbed by secondary minerals, such as iron hydroxides like goethite. Under oxidising conditions, the arsenic is immobile and remains sequestered in the iron hydroxides. However, when these sediments encounter organic-rich reducing conditions, the bacterial reduction of iron releases arsenic into groundwater.
During the Pleistocene age, the high Himalayas were glaciated. Important sources of arsenic, like the Indus ophiolite belt and the high-grade gneisses, were covered in ice and couldn’t release sediments. As a result, a lesser amount of arsenic made its way onto the alluvial plains. …
Then, sedimentary conditions changed about 12,000-15,000 years ago. The glaciers melted and exposed arsenic-bearing rocks in the high Himalayas, and more arsenic made its way on to the alluvial plains.
J.S. Thakur, an expert on community medicine and public health at the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, told The Wire that several studies have shown consuming arsenic-contaminated water can damage the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs.
Lead, uranium and other heavy-metals have similar impacts on the body.
Gurpreet Singh Chandbaja, convenor of the Naroa Punjab Manch, a leading NGO fighting river pollution in Punjab, said the incidence of cancer has shot up in several parts of Malwa.
A 2009 study by Thakur and others reported that mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium and selenium levels had accumulated in more-than-permissible quantities in the ground- and surface water in and around the Buddha nala, Chitti Bein and Kala Sanghian drains in the state.
“Gastrointestinal, water-related, eye, skin and bone diseases were significantly associated among people living in and around these drains,” Dr Thakur said.
Aside from the geological sources, he also pointed to excessive fertiliser and pesticide use in agriculture and discharge of untreated industrial effluents into water bodies.
In 2018, farmers in Punjab consumed 232 kg per hectare of fertilisers, over the national average of 133 kg per hectare.
“It is believed that groundwater pollution in Punjab is due to geogenic reasons, but over-dependence of fertilisers in agriculture can’t be ruled out either – in a few pockets, but not everywhere,” Jain told The Wire.
But, he added, “I don’t think industrial effluents are affecting groundwater. At best, they are causing problems with river-water pollution.”
Punjab is not alone facing ground water pollution. The Ministry of Jal Shakti also revealed that as on July 23, 2021, 47,873 rural habitations around India had reported quality issues with drinking water sources.
The most affected state appears to be Assam, where 1,194 villages have reported arsenic contamination in the groundwater, while 19,745 rural habitations have reported excess iron as well. Similarly, 1,358 villages in Rajasthan have reported fluoride contamination.
The ministry wrote in its report that water is a state subject, so identifying the sources of contamination and eliminating them are the states’ responsibility.
Jain, the senior advisor, said the state is taking both short- and long-term measures to provide safe drinking water to affected populations.
Long-term tasks include switching from groundwater to surface and piped water supply through canals, but planning, implementing and commissioning it will take two or three years.
In the short-term, the Punjab government has issued tenders to install community water purification plants to be installed in more-affected areas, as a stop-gap measure until the long-term plans come through.
Vivek Gupta is a Chandigarh-based reporter who has written for several news outlets, including Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune.