- Industrial waste from factories in Madhya Pradesh would be dumped into empty boreholes in the fields, activists claim.
- In Manpur town of Indore district, water from the river, as well as other water sources including tube wells, has been polluted, affecting 50 villages.
- Many cattle, aquatic animals and wild animals are said to have died after consuming polluted river water, following which local tribal communities are demanding compensation.
The city of Manpur in Madhya Pradesh near Pithampur, a special economic zone with nearly 50 industrial units, is grappling with water contamination. Residents claim that chemical debris from Pithampur is dumped in open fields, which poisons the Ajnar River near the village and infects groundwater and wells.
“The black chemical was floating on the surface of the water,” Brijesh Singh, a farmer near the Ajnar River in Manpur, Mongabay-India, told Mongabay-India of the toxic foam. “My cow died after drinking water,” he alleged.
According to Singh, chemical waste is still being dumped in the open field. “Every time it rains, chemical waste spills into my field. I lost a crop last year due to chemical water. My land has now become infertile and I have lost my livelihood. His wheat crop was destroyed due to which he suffered a loss of Rs. 25,000.
“The water source for my house and other houses in this area has been polluted. Every day, members of my family walk one or two kilometers to get water. If we don’t bring clean water from a distance, we drink polluted groundwater. I am afraid of what will happen in the years to come,” he said.
The city of Manpur is located about 50 kilometers southwest of Indore, which is the commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh.
Mahendra Singh Kannoj, an Indore-based activist, notes that the Ajnar River is a tributary of the Karam River. “Fifty villages in the district, including Khargone, Maheswar and Dhar, are badly affected by the dumping of chemicals carried out by industrial companies,” he said. According to local activists, this means that around 45,000 to 50,000 people are affected by the polluted water.
“Some companies are illegally dumping chemical waste in pits near the Ajnar River. This sewage not only mixes with the Ajnar River but also with wells, tube wells and other water bodies. Many cattle and other wildlife living nearby have died after consuming polluted water. In addition, fish, crabs and animals in the water bodies died,” Kannoj pointed out.
Tribal community protest
In July 2021, tribal communities and social activists including well-known civil society leader Medha Patkar, Mahendra Singh Kannoj and others staged a protest against the illegal dumping of chemical waste in open fields near the river Ajnar in Manpur. Subsequently, police complaints were filed against nearly 500 people from the tribal community and 22 activists for participating in the protest.
After the protest, Kannoj said some people were arrested, but companies were still dumping chemical waste near the river.
“Farmers in these areas depended on rivers and groundwater for irrigation. Once the water was polluted, their crops and vegetables were destroyed and the land became infertile. A large number of tribal people living in this region depend on agriculture for their livelihood. They will lose their livelihood if their land continues to mix with chemical waste and become infertile,” he added.
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Heavy metals found in river water
Last year the water of the Ajnar River was tested and a large amount of heavy metals were found.
Bhavesh Swarnkar, a dermatologist in Indore, said heavy metals, including arsenic, are very harmful to human skin. “Heavy metals can give rashes, blisters and allergies to various skin types. In the long term, they can cause skin cancer,” he told Mongabay-India.
Research by Santan Kumar, a researcher at the University of Magadh, Bihar, suggests that there could be more than 10,000 abandoned hazardous waste sites in the Manpur block, and the number continues to grow. Groundwater contamination can occur at hazardous waste sites from leaking hazardous material containers.
Last year, tourists complained about polluted water flowing from the Ajnar River at Jogi Bhadak Falls, a tourist destination and trekking spot adjacent to Manpur in Indore district. Some villagers have also complained of infection after bathing there.
Hiralal Alawa, a Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly Member from Dhar Region, neighboring Indore District, wrote to the Madhya Pradesh Department of Environment in June 2021, demanding an investigation into the dumping of chemical waste in the Ajnar river. The environment department responded to him and acknowledged that contaminated water had been found in many pits which further mixed with the Ajnar and Karam rivers.
The Pollution Bureau has also requested Manpur Police to bring charges under Sections 277, 284 and 234 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) against two defendants for providing their land to dump chemical waste. The local police station was notified by tribal leaders and activists of the chemical waste dump, but no action was taken.
During the protests, tribal leaders had called for action against the station in charge. Following this, the police authorities had sent the post in charge of Manpur, Hitendra Singh Rathor, to the police lines (as punishment) and filed a case against him under Sections 267, 264 and 34 of the IPC and of Article 15 of Environmental Protection. Law of 1986.
Jabalpur High Court Barrister Shashank Tiwari said ‘the recent incident of industries dumping chemical waste into the river shows a complete failure of the Madhya Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (SPCB)’ .
He pointed out that the dumping of waste into the river is a clear violation of Indian waste management rules which prohibit the dumping of waste into sewers and waterways.
Tiwari said the tribal people residing in the area should be compensated and a heavy fine would be imposed on the polluters.
According to a report by the Asian Development Research Institute, based in Patna, 70% of surface water resources in India are polluted. About 40 million liters of wastewater are discharged into rivers and other water bodies every day, but only a tiny fraction is adequately treated.
“Many industrial areas like Pithampur do not have government surveillance systems to control these industries,” Amulya Nidhi, health expert at Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, told Mongabay-India. “Chemical waste is constantly being dumped in the open field by these industries, demonstrating a failure on the part of the pollution control office.”
Founded in 2001, the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA) is a network of civil society organizations and grassroots movements working for health rights.
“Indore has become the cleanest city in the country, but tribal people nearly 25 kilometers away are forced to drink chemically contaminated water. It is high time for the government to make pure drinking water accessible to the people of this region. In addition, action must be taken against all industries that dump chemical waste in the open field,” Amulya Nidhi demanded.
Banner image: Water pumped through tube wells is also contaminated in the city of Manpur, Madhya Pradesh, near Pithampur, a special economic zone with nearly 50 industrial units. Photo by Omkar Singh.