Indian rivers are getting polluted

  • 27/02/1997

Given the speed with which India's rivers are getting polluted, her urban environmentalists will soon have to adopt a new thought process: 'Think upstream'. Because all poisons dumped upstream - whether the source is industry or agriculture - ultimately reach somebody's drinking water. A poor nation like ours finds the removal of chemical contamination extremely expensive; therefore, human beings will be exposed to these poisons on a regular basis. And the chronic exposure will slowly translate itself into frightening diseases. Another case of 'slow murder'.

The cavalier manner in which Haryana has been polluting the Yamuna is matched only by Delhi's own record in the field. The Yamuna leaves Delhi as a sewer. If Delhi's citizens get to savour the agricultural and industrial poisons let out into the river by Haryana, the people of Mathura and Agra, further downstream, have to taste the brew that both Haryana and Delhi let out for them. Can anything be more horrendous and insane? While catering to its own greed, each upstream community uncaringly pushes all communities downstream towards a premature death.

The speed at which Haryana's leaders want agricultural and industrial development to take place in the state means pollution of the Yamuna will also grow - according to some studies, at five times the economic growth rate. Delhi also wants to industrialise rapidly. There cannot be an argument per se against industrialisation, as our politicians keep telling us. India needs to create wealth and jobs. Rightly so. But then what happens to the water we drink?

The answer obviously lies in developing an eco-friendly pattern of industrialisation and agricultural development. But who will ensure that such a thing actually takes place? Farmers and industrialists will do their best to cut costs by polluting the river. Politicians and bureaucrats will be happy to look the other way if it is advantageous for them to do so. The cost of these misdeeds will have to be paid by individuals who will suffer from diseases like cancer.

The poor, naturally, will suffer more. The rich can protect themselves by drinking bottled water. Even if they contract a serious disease, they will have access to resources and treatments. Water pollution, unlike air pollution, is not a great leveller. The trouble is that neither individuals nor the poor are politically organised, as compared to vested interests like farmers' and industrialists' lobbies.

In the West too, where the requisite financial and technological resources are available, people no longer feel comfortable drinking tap water. As a result, the bottled water market there has been booming. A similar phenomenon is already taking place in India. Given the highly unequal nature of Indian society, it would be most unfortunate to leave the large majority with no alternative but to drink poisoned water. India is still struggling with the basics of clean water (that is, germ-free drinking water) supply. If she has to deal with chemical contamination as well, the cost of drinking water supply would probably become prohibitive for the government and the people. If 300 million urban Indians were to purchase bottled water on a regular basis at 2.5 litre per person per day - at bulk rates ranging from Rs 2-5 per litre - daily sales would come to Rs 150-375 crore and annual sales would reach a staggering Rs 52,750-136,875 crore, more than enough to finance India's defence forces and three-eight times the size of India's current automobile industry. (Somebody should actually keep a close watch on the bottled water industry as a proxy for the costs that the rich are prepared to pay for clean water.)

One can argue that it would be great for the economy. More sales, more wealth, more jobs, more sickness, more hospitals, more services. But clearly, all that is ludicrous! The answer lies simply in preventing pollution of rivers, rather than polluting them first and then treating the raw river water.

In such a situation, nothing can be worse than monopolistic capitalism. Stopping pollution of rivers is the government's job. So is supplying drinking water. But it fails to do either. The recent suit field by a private French water supply company against the French government for not keeping the river adequately clean, shows that too many responsibilities should never be entrusted to the state. At least, the regulator and the producer must never be one.

Ultimately, the question of property rights becomes critical. Who does the river belong to? Just as Bangladeshis tell Indians that they do not have exclusive rights to the Ganga, the people of Uttar Pradesh (up) should tell their counterparts in Delhi and Haryana that they cannot do what they want with the Yamuna; Delhi, on its part, needs to tell the same to Haryana. It is sad that the people of Agra have filed a suit against the up government for not supplying them clean drinking water. They, along with the up government, should have jointly sued the governments of Delhi and Haryana for a sum of nothing less than Rs 5,000 crore for polluting their only source of water.

I am convinced that in the years to come, India's states will be fighting over river pollution just as they fight today over the sharing of river waters. From quantity and bacteria, the battle will steadily move to quality and chemical toxins. After all, what right does any state have to degrade the water quality for people living downstream?

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