How Ludhiana's Buddha nullah, once 'centre of social life, became Punjab's most toxic water body

The Buddha nullah picks up toxic effluents in massive quantities and around 200 MLD of untreated sewage a day before it meets the Sutlej river

Raj Machhan/CitizenMatters.in July 23, 2020 10:01:02 IST
How Ludhiana's Buddha nullah, once 'centre of social life, became Punjab's most toxic water body

The Sutlej river in Ludhiana is in a sorry state, and one of the reasons for its condition is the Buddha Nullah, a 14-km stream that runs through the city. The Buddha nullah picks up toxic effluents in massive quantities and around 200 MLD of untreated sewage a day, in its passage through the city before dumping it all in the Sutlej.

The river Sutlej, which originates at the Mansarovar lake in Tibet, flows through Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, covering a distance of 1,450 kilometers, before crossing over to Pakistan. In what has long been described as the Land of the Five Rivers, the Sutlej has been the main source of water for irrigation and drinking purposes in its 440-km journey through Punjab.

Till a decade or two ago, the river had brought prosperity to the districts of Rupnagar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Kapurthala and Ferozepur. But the massive inflow of untreated sewage and industrial effluents into the river in recent years has now turned it into a source of disease and disaster, especially after it crosses Jalandhar and Ludhiana, Punjab’s industrial and business capitals.

“The Buddha nullah accounts for 90 percent of the pollution in Sutlej river,” says KS Pannu, Punjab’s Director of Environment and Climate Change. The contaminated water is further distributed through canals for irrigation in the entire Malwa region of the state and parts of Rajasthan.

A Punjab Agriculture University study had found the presence of mercury, cadmium, chromium, copper, and other carcinogens in vegetables and crops grown in villages along the length of the nullah. After the confluence of its water into Sutlej, the river’s water attains the Class E status in terms of pollution, meaning not fit for any use and does not sustain any aquatic life.

“Buddha Nullah is the most dangerous and toxic water body in Punjab, which affects the lives of over 2 crore citizens in Punjab and Rajasthan,” says Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, a well-known environmentalist. Sadly, it was once a clear water stream and “the centre of social life in Ludhiana”.

Increasing temperatures, depleting water table

There have also been large-scale deforestation along the banks of the Buddha nullah.

“During the pre-industrialization days in the 70s, the banks of the nullah were significantly cooler than the rest of the city,” says Jaskirat Singh, an environmental activist. “But now, the temperature in that area has gone up as compared to elsewhere. It is largely on account of the high level of toxic chemicals, pollutants and dairy sludge, which contain micronutrients which release heat, as they flow down the nullah.”

Old-time residents of the city too say that summer months have become much hotter over the past 40 years. As per a 2015 study done by DK Grover and Deepak Upadhyaya of the Punjab Agriculture University, the average temperature during the summer months has increased by 1.2 to 2 degree Celsius in the last 15 years, which is significant compared to the average global temperature increase of 0.5 degree Celsius.

Today, the city’s residents are entirely dependent on groundwater to meet their drinking water needs. The nullah has led to the contamination of groundwater along its entire course, which has led to frequent outbreaks of diseases. “The entire population of Ludhiana is at risk,” says a local doctor, Arun Chatwal.

“Most people in Punjab are dependent on groundwater for drinking purposes,” Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, an environmentalist said. "People dig borewells and draw water out with hand pumps and electric motors. But this comes at a huge environmental cost, especially in the depletion of groundwater levels. From 40 feet, the water level has gone down to 500 feet at most places."

Much of the population and animals in villages along the course of Sutlej river do not have any alternative but to drink the river water, putting their lives at risk. “If only the Buddha nullah could be cleaned, it would have saved a huge amount of resources for the state government,” Seechewal said.

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