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Yamuna is poisoned with ammonia. Who’s responsible?

Unregulated polluting industries in Panipat, says Arvind Kejriwal. We aren’t entirely to blame, counters Haryana

On September 30, Arvind Kejriwal announced that Delhi had shut down a pair of water treatment plants, in Chandrawal and Wazirabad in the north of the city, after ammonia levels in the Yamuna river rose alarmingly. According to a 2016 report, the two plants supply nearly 234 million gallons daily, accounting for over a quarter of the water consumed by the national capital’s 19 million people every day. The reason for the ammonia spike, the chief minister said, was the discharge of effluents by factories in Panipat, Haryana.

The concentration of ammonia in the river shot up to 3.2 mg per litre on September 30. Although it dropped to 1.6 mg per litre over the following week, it was still far above the safe limit of 0.5 mg per litre.

It’s a recurring problem. Every year between November and January, the concentration of ammonia in the Yamuna spikes to dangerous levels. And always for the same reason: the industrial discharge from Panipat.

“The issue to be concerned about is that this usually happens in November, December, January. This is the first time it has happened in September,” noted Bhim Rawat of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an environmental advocacy group. “The release of toxic substances from industrial units happens throughout the year. But the concentration of toxins increases during these months, when the river does not have a consistent flow. When it’s flowing, the ammonia is diluted. When it stops flowing after the monsoon, the water becomes toxic.”

In 2016, then Delhi Jal Board chief Kapil Mishra said the capital had been facing this problem for around 20 years. They had been urging the Haryana government to take action against the polluters, to no avail.

Not much has changed in the three years since, despite the National Green Tribunal directing Haryana to act against the polluters. “The main source of the ammonia is Panipat’s dyeing industry,” said Dinesh Mohaniya, vice-chairperson of the Delhi Jal Board. “The  Haryana government is not cooperating with us. They’re mandated to treat industrial wastewater by an NGT order, but they are non-responsive.”

Panipat is home to thousands of dyeing plants and fertiliser factories, which dump their untreated effluents into drains that flow into the Yamuna river. “The area that is mainly responsible for ammonia in the river is Panipat,” said Manoj Mishra, an environmental activist in Delhi. “There are dyeing units there, a power plant, fertiliser manufacturers. There is a toxic mix of industries. And the effluent treatment system in Panipat is very awful.”

Rampal Yadav, a farmer in Palla village on the outskirts of Delhi, agreed. “It happens whenever drain number eight from Haryana empties into the Yamuna between Palla and Wazirabad,” said Yadav, who is retired from the city’s flood monitoring department, referring to the ammonia pollution. “We don’t use Yamuna water for agriculture during this time.”

Vimlendu Jha, founder of the campaign group Swechha, however, wouldn’t blame Haryana alone for the problem. “They might be right in saying the rise in ammonia levels is caused by Haryana because it is upstream and all these polluting industries are based in Panipat and Sonipat,” he said, referring to the authorities in Delhi. “But Delhi has its own set of issues. Some 4,000 million litres of wastewater enters the Yamuna every day in Delhi. This is the city’s municipal water and most of it goes untreated.”

The Delhi Jal Board is aware of this, its vice-chairperson said. “Our plants now have the capacity to treat up to 1.2 parts per million ammonia,” Mohaniya added. “But we’re constructing a new plant in Chandrawal which can treat up to four parts per million ammonia.”

Jha is sceptical. Many of Delhi’s sewage treatment plants are shown to be efficient only on paper, he claimed. “They are not really functional from an efficiency point of view, or a capacity point of view,” he explained. “And look at the condition of our drains. If the DJP chief or the vice-chairperson claims all is well in Delhi, that is really strange to me.”

Rajesh Gharia, a scientist at the Haryana Pollution Control  Board, echoed Jha. “They will never peek into their own house and will keep blaming us,” he said, referring to the Delhi government. “We have regulated every industry and made sure that their waste is treated. I haven’t detected alarming ammonia from any of the outlets. I am not denying there is no ammonia, it’s there and it tends to increase when the river stops flowing. But blaming it completely on us when Delhi contributes the most to polluting the river is not right.”

He challenged the Delhi government to provide evidence or a comprehensive study showing that most of the effluent discharge comes from Haryana. “Ammonia is also released if people have cattle and poultry farming near the river,” Gharia said. “Still, Haryana has invested and will be investing a lot of money to get more machines for waste treatment.”

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