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Toxic water used for irrigation


Bathinda, June 29
Even after observing its health hazards, farmers of about 12 villages of this district are still using black smelly and toxic sludge flowing in the Lisada drain to irrigate their agricultural fields.

The absence of canal water and highly fluoride dissolved groundwater has left farmers of villages located along the banks of the Lisada drain, namely Shergarh, Mallawala, Kaile Bandar, Chak Ruldu Singh Wala, Kotbhara, Kot Bakhtu, Kotfatta, Ramgarh Bhunder, Chathewala, Jeewan Singh Wala, Manak Khana, Pathrala and others to irrigate their fields with the black water.

The water is so infected that people, who are consuming the crops irrigated with this toxic waste, are reportedly falling prey to diseases like joint pains and cancer.

Visiting some of the villages, in question, a Tribune team today observed the people were quite aware about the adverse effects of their irrigation practice, but they lamented the waste water irrigation as the sole source to run their livelihood. They said the drain carried sludge and waste of some factories located in Barnala district but after entering Bathinda district, water from an irrigation distributary, near Rampura, get mixed in it.

Villagers said by collecting money most of the farmers had installed motor pumps along the banks of the drain to lift the water. Showing his paddy field, inundated under the drain water, Gurcharan Singh of Ramgarh Bhunder village said: “It is stinking, which leaves doubt about its harmful effect on crops also.”

“Taking precautions, I use to sell the yield in the market and buy canal-irrigated yield of crops for self consumption. But sometimes I feel it is like cheating the innocent people who consume it, but I have no other option to earn my livelihood,” said Gurcharan Singh.

On his part, Paramjeet Singh Sandhu, Chief Agricultural Officer, Bathinda, said: “The issue is in our notice and a number of times we have requested the Punjab Agricultural University authorities to test the water to ascertain the composition of the black water flowing in the drain, but every time it gets confined to papers olny.

”Belonging to a landlord family of the village, she now lives with her two-year-old daughter Parneet Kaur. The nullah flowing near her village is full of toxic industrial effluents and sewage which has contaminated underground drinking water.

“The disease snatched my husband Gurpal Singh, who was only 30 years old, on September 31 last year. His sister Manjeet Kaur (25) and brother Ajmer Singh (27) also died due to Hepatitis B in past one year,” she says.

The family spent Rs 50 lakh on treatment at various multi-speciality hospitals, no one survived.

Her parents-in-law Avtar Kaur and Jagjit Singh, her husband’s aunt, Kulwant Kaur and uncle Malkiat Singh died of the same disease. Several residents of 168 villages lining the nullah have also died of kidney ailments and water-borne diseases.

Nearly two dozen residents of Wallipur village, where the nullah flows into Sutlej River, have died of such ailments over past six years. “The number is higher but we can count at least 25 deaths on our fingertips,” said Harbinder Makkar, a resident.

Respiratory disorders due to the smell from the nullah are common among the children in these villages. “Some children are born with congenital defects, which the doctors say is caused due to pollution,” said Manpreet Singh, a resident of Gaunspur. He apprised environmentalist Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal of the deaths due to pollution during his visit to the village after hearing about the tragedies in Gurminder’s family.

Seechewal examined a sample of the water taken from a village Gurdwara with a portable tester and found the level of ‘Total Dissolved Solids’ at 1200 against the permissible limit of 500. He promised to take up the matter with the government. PPCB officials also took samples of drinking water from the spot. PPCB XEN RK Goel said the test reports would come on Friday.

Punjab's Water Dispute::

The Energy Research Institute, a New Delhi think tank, says that already in an agriculture-based state such as Punjab in the north, 98 percent of ground water has been exploited. The Forum for Bio-Technology and Food Security adds that if the trend continues, the once fertile Punjab- once known as the country's granary - will turn into a desert.


International environment agencies have cautioned that Punjab , the land of the five years, could become a desert by 2025.

The water table in Punjab is at 30 meters deep and even 80 meters in some areas; each year it loses over a metre.

Punjab’s economy is largely dependent on Agriculture. It has been the bread basket of India . In the 1960's it solved the nation's long suffering food shortage problem by achieving the highest yields per acre of wheat production.

However current forecasts paint a dismal picture of impending desertification.

The Punjab State has not been allowed to diversify its economy to non agricultural alternatives. Whilst the Indian nation's dependency on Panjaab may be overcome by diverting agriculture demands to other states, the Panjaabi farmer is becoming destitute and poor. The Panjaab State could go into irreversible decline.


Punjab lacks autonomous decision making, the state is subject to Indian Government's policies which also determine investment strategies. While this relationship may be acceptable as any other relation between a state within a union nation, serious concerns arise as to why Punjab has been the subject of neglect and indeed deliberate policies to erode its economic status.

The facts speak for themselves -

1. The Punjab State was forced to rely on agriculture.

2. The State has harnessed about 98% of its agriculture potential; 95% of which is dependent on irrigation - 60% of this is from groundwater, i.e. water pumped from ground.

3. Punjab was not allowed to invest in alternate industries to reduce pressure on its agriculture, and thereby create jobs for new graduates.

4. Punjab farmers have been forced to grow rice due to the small margins imposed by the central government on other crops. Rice demands considerably large amounts of water, almost all of which is pumped from the ground; hence increasing the depletion of the water table.

5. Unlike western countries where farmers are subsidized to rotate cropping, the central government has prohibited such subsidies. This has forced farmers to use every inch of their land to its fullest capacity, resulting in water and mineral depletion.

6. The central government has forced diversion of Punjab 's river waters to other states.


1. Let Punjab decide on subsidies or crops consuming less water.

2. Better water management. Let the Punjab State have a say in its economy

3. Let Punjab diversify its economy

4. Subsidies to farmers to keep land free of cropping. However it is unlikely that the Indian government will take any of these steps, unless International pressure is imposed through organisations like the UN.

The environmental and water crisis in the Punjab

Several decades of Green Revolution agriculture - the intensive use of water and chemical pesticides and fertilisers on hybrid crops to increase crop yields - has degraded much of the land and water in north-western India , making it difficult for people to live there.

Pardeep Singh Rai

Panjaab, the famous land of five rivers, is a semi-arid landlocked region in the north-western part of South Asia . The very existence of this vulnerable region depends on the waters of the five rivers, all tributaries of the Indus River . This highly productive region is known as the breadbasket of both India and Pakistan , and it was here that the Green Revolution was considered a success.

But various practices have led to the environmental degradation of the Panjaab. Industrial agriculture, involving the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers and intensive irrigation, was implemented in the region through pressure from the government and multinationals. The planting of rice, a non-traditional crop in this semi-arid region that requires intensive irrigation, is causing an environmental crisis. The International Rice Research Institute has questioned to what extent rice cultivation should be permitted in the Panjaab. Price ceilings on agricultural produce and restrictions on its export imposed by the government on Panjaabi farmers have prevented them from planting other crops that use less water. Despite the intensive irrigation, river water is diverted to less productive regions in Haryana and Rajasthan, leaving the Indian Panjaab with only about one-quarter of the water from its rivers. This diversion means that the Panjaab does have the water it needs for irrigation. Panjaabi farmers have had to dig tube wells to extract groundwater and have done so beyond sustainable levels. The construction of dams on the Panjaabi rivers has served the elite only and has altered both the volume and the course of the rivers. Many are now dry sand beds, especially the smaller streams.

As a result of all these practices, in just four decades, the Panjaab is extensively degraded.

Groundwater depletion

Groundwater has been pumped out at a much faster rate than it has been replenished. As a result, farmers have deepened their tube wells, and the entire irrigation process has become much more expensive. In future, village wells might dry up as they depend on the same aquifer. This would cause immense hardship to rural people who have little or no piped water supply. The annual State of the World Report produced by the World Resources Institute in Washington , DC , estimates that the gap between water usage and the aquifer's sustainable yield is so high that the aquifer under the Panjaab could be depleted by the year 2025.

Degradation of watersheds

Deforestation along the banks of the rivers is also having a dramatic impact on the aquifers under the Panjaab. Because of less rainfall because so many trees have been cut down, they are not being recharged. In addition, because of the accompanying soil erosion, about 60% of rainwater is lost due to runoff.

Water pollution

Aquifers become polluted when they are recharged with irrigation water contaminated with agricultural chemicals and fertilisers. During the monsoon, heavy loads of silt, along with large quantities of dissolved salts, nutrients, organic material and bacterial contaminants, are washed off the land into the aquifers.

Water logging

Due to increased mechanisation and inadequate drainage, seepage from unlined canals and over-watering of fields have raised the underlying water table. This has led to increased health (especially malaria) and environmental problems.


In the drier climate of the Panjaab, water evaporation near the soil surface leads to a steady accumulation of salts in the land that eventually results in kalar (soil affected by salt) and reduced crop yields. An estimated 21% of irrigated agricultural lands in the Panjaab are affected.

Loss of aquatic habitats

Streams and ponds are now running dry, affecting aquatic and wetland habitats and resulting in reduced biodiversity.


The land has been intensively cultivated at the expense of grazing and traditional long fallow periods. Few conservation measures have been followed. In this semi-arid region, moreover, wind erosion is also a serious threat to water balances.

Global warming

The Himalayan glaciers that feed Panjaab's five rivers have been receding faster than in any other part of the world. In addition, changes to the monsoons are likely to reduce the water sources of the Indus River system and directly affect the people of Panjaab.

The very survival of the Panjaabi people in a sustainable environment is at risk. Continued excessive use of groundwater for agriculture in India and Pakistan could well result in the Panjaab becoming a desert in the early 21st century. Before this, however, water scarcity might well lead to confrontation and armed conflict between India and Pakistan , which both have nuclear weapons, with disastrous consequences for the Panjaab, particularly for the poor and the environment.

The socio-political problems plaguing this region need to be tackled. Moreover, integrated water resource management in the Panjaab must encompass the needs of the poor, women, landless and tenant farmers. Irrigation should be made more efficient by adopting micro-irrigation techniques, and crops that need a lesser amount of water should be planted. Programmes governing the use of water need to incorporate ecological sensibility, and need to start at the village level to develop holistic solutions that meet people's needs.


Pardeep Singh Rai works with Defenders of the Environment and Ecology of Panjaab.


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