What Dikshit, Modi, Jaya, Hooda have in common

Delhi will be the first Indian state to allow FDI in retail. Sheila Dikshit has already launched the Aadhaar-based direct cash transfer scheme in her model state, declaring, rather unwittingly, that Rs 600 should be enough to feed a family of five.

For all his protests in sync with the party line, Vikas Purush Narendra Modi has never refused any FDI (or any investment, for that matter) and is likely to open up retail once he bags the third consecutive mandate from the Gujaratis ostensibly on the development plank.

Delhi and Gujarat are not the only states run by “pragmatic, popular and efficient” chief ministers who don the image of CEOs who get things done in their states. J Jayalalithaa is another suave politician who rules one of India’s most prosperous states. The no-nonsense BS Hooda is the face of his government and Haryana’s so-called economic boom.

These powerful leaders belong to different political parties and their governance models, a generous degree of autocracy apart, are not exactly the same. But all of them are admired for their ability to deliver and credited with rapid development in their states. They also have in their custody India’s most polluted rivers.

Fishermen search for offerings thrown in by worshippers in the polluted waters of the river Sabarmati in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. Reuters

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has identified 35 most polluted river stretches of the country. The quality of water depends on its dissolved oxygen (DO) level that determines how much aquatic life it can support. When water is polluted, the organic waste in it is decomposed (oxidised) by bacteria and microbes. The level of pollution determines the biological oxygen demand (BOD) for the decomposition process. High pollution means high BOD which reduces the DO level, resulting in dead waters that cannot support life.

For human use such as drinking, bathing, washing and irrigation, the fitness level of water is measured by BOD levels which indicate the amount of sewage in it. According to the CPCB, “water bodies having BOD more than 6 mg/litre are considered as polluted and identified for remedial action”.

Discussing pollution in the Yamuna on TV a few years ago, a conservationist infamously crooned a parody of Ram tera Ganga maili, substituting the god-warrior with an “impeccably cultured” CM. His prime time etiquette may have been questionable but not the facts. The Yamuna records a BOD level of 32-70mg/litre in Delhi. While the river is dead for nearly 100 km from Panipat to Wazirabad, Delhi contributes 600 million gallons of untreated sewage to the river through its 18 drains every year.

Sabarmati records a BOD level of around 30mg/litre at Ahmedabad’s VN Bridge or Railway Bridge. A few miles away, the pollution level shoots up to 103mg/litre at Miroli village. Two other poison rivers — Amlakhadi records BOD of 714 milligram/litre at Ankleshwar and Khari 320 mg/litre at Lali village — make Gujarat probably the worst Indian state in terms of river water quality.

The vibrant Gujarat image resonates with hundreds of textile, paper and sugar mills, distilleries, tanneries, dye manufacturers and other chemical factories that churn out pesticides, pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals. Together, these units have also caused the state’s many rivers to stagnate with pollutants and subsequently choke.

Along Chennai, Coovum records a BOD level in excess of 100 mg/litre due to dumping of industrial and municipal wastewater. The other Chennai river, Adyar, records a BOD level of above 40mg/litre near the boat club. Between them, the two rivers receive the bulk of the city’s 55 million tonnes of untreated sewage. Not too far away, a noxious Noyyal river laden with discharge from dyeing and bleaching units has turned the town of Tirupur infertile with scores of patients crowding IVF treatment centres.

The story repeats in Haryana where industrial and domestic waste is responsible for the 600mg/litre BOD level in Markanda river. The Western Yamuna canal in the state is also choked with effluents and show a BOD count of above 200mg/litre. Ghaggar is also packed with effluents in the industrial belt of Sirsa but it already carries loads of waste from Derabassi and Patiala in Punjab. Even rainwater canals of Chandigarh — Attawa and Sukhna Choe — record a BOD level of 50mg/litre due to discharge of sewage.

Haryana and Delhi are also the states that have been registering the fastest loss of groundwater in the country. While experts blame the dominance of water-intensive crops such as paddy in Haryana, the construction boom in an ever-thirsty Delhi has destroyed its water bodies and poured concrete on every patch of soil, stopping rainwater from percolating down.

In 2004, aquifers in 50 percent of Gujarat were in semi-critical to over-exploited condition. Things have improved since in 60 tehsils, thanks to the government’s initiative to encourage check dams. But large areas in northern Gujarat, such as Banaskantha, Patan and Mehsana, are still parched. Worse, fluoride and nitrate levels in groundwater are above the permissible limit in most parts of the state.

Tamil Nadu also faces severe groundwater shortage as only five out of its 32 districts have reasonably healthy aquifers. With so little to dig into underground, one expected the progressive chief ministers of these prosperous states to zealously look after their surface water stock. Each of them engages in bitter inter-state battles over river water sharing. But that water itself has become poison under their watch.

Of course, rivers are dying across the country and Delhi, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Chandigarh are not the exceptions. Be it Gomti along Lucknow, Mithi in Mumbai or Bharalu in Guwahati, big cities are choking rivers with waste. Poverty is often cited as the biggest excuse for pollution. This makes the so-called prosperous states who claim to have done away with much of poverty more culpable.

Do the visionary images of chief ministers who brag about development in their states take a hit when they fail to notice how the lifelines of their people and economy rot, stink and choke to death? Or is it now per for the course to allow any industry anywhere without bothering about land use or waste disposal implications?

In the short term, such growth puts money in some people’s hands and makes politicians popular. Sheila, Modi, Jaya and Hooda have all been re-elected as chief ministers in the past. Tomorrow when they win again, they will want the world to believe that they are rewarded for their good work, bringing development to their states. There is no trial yet at the people’s court for murdering their most vibrant rivers.