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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Uttar Pradesh’s environmental crisis

Unsustainable use of groundwater for sugar-cane crops and household wastage is depleting the groundwater table very fast

NITI Aayog, in a recent report, termed India’s water crisis the “worst in its history" as 600 million people face high to extreme water stress. The report estimates that around 70% of fresh water is contaminated, and around 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. Groundwater resources, which account for 40% of the water supply, are being depleted at unsustainable rates.

In the report, Uttar Pradesh ranks poorly for overexploiting groundwater resources, on-farm water use and limited policy action. These statistics are grim enough to invite a national debate on the unfolding water crisis.

However, a look at water mismanagement at the grass roots presents an even scarier picture of what is, in fact, a full-fledged environmental crisis verging on disaster. Water crisis is merely one part of this. The use of excessive water, fertilizers and pesticides is poisoning soil, destroying its nourishing elements and contaminating water aquifers, and this is manifesting itself in four specific forms.

First, the unsustainable use of groundwater for sugar-cane crops and household wastage is depleting the groundwater table very fast.

The majority of households now use water submersible pumps in both homes and fields, and the misuse of water has risen to alarming levels.

Villages are flush with water and fields look like small creeks. The sight of cattle being bathed in thousands of litres of water has become common. Of the 75 districts in Uttar Pradesh, 34 are overexploited for groundwater. Since farmers are charged a fixed amount per electricity connection, they have no incentive to reduce water consumption.

The common perception is that if electricity is not being used, it’s simply being wasted as they are paying for it. In many cases, submersible pumps are left on even if it rains, as the motto “more water more crop" trumps “more crop per drop". The agriculture sector, which uses more than 80% of India’s water, is completely unregulated, while the industrial sector and utilities, which use about 5% of water, are being targeted for water conservation.

Second, excessive application of harmful chemical pesticides to grow sugar cane is contaminating freshwater aquifers and surface water sources at an alarming rate, polluting these to a point where the water becomes unfit for human consumption.

India has an approved list of around 280 pesticide molecules for farm use, and at least 99 of those are banned in other countries, according to a petition filed in the Supreme Court last year. Pesticides in India are regulated under the Insecticides Act of 1968, which allows manufacturers to produce multiple versions of the same pesticide molecule.

Consequently, more than 250,000 pesticide products have got clearance, while only 280 pesticide molecules are officially registered under the Act. For these reasons, Parliament’s standing committee report, Impact Of Chemical Fertilizers And Pesticides On Agriculture And Allied Sectors In The Country, called for better regulation of pesticides.

Given that fertilizers are heavily subsidized, and the flawed perception that greater use of them improves crop yields, these tend to be used excessively rather than optimally.

Third, even though there hasn’t been a complete consensus on the relationship between the quality of water in the region and the explosion of diseases—with the number of cancer cases rising sharply in recent years—many contend that it’s due to the rampant use of harmful pesticides.

In many villages in the sugarcane belt of Uttar Pradesh, there are increasing cases of cancer, something completely unheard of a decade back. Even animals are dying of cancer. People are afraid to drink the groundwater—the water from the deep submersible pumps is coloured due to high arsenic contamination—and have started relying on outside tankers for their drinking water needs.

More than 80% of drinking water in rural India comes
from underground sources, and with fluoride, arsenic and iron contamination spreading to many districts, it presents threats to drinking water security to a large segment of Uttar Pradesh’s population.

Finally, the norms for felling trees on private land were relaxed by the Uttar Pradesh government last year. Now, all species of trees, except mango, neem, sal, Madhuca indica (mahua), catechu (khair) and teak (sagaun) can be cut without government permission.

Ficus trees such as peepal, pakar, banyan and gular, which are helpful for the environment, are now out of the list of restricted species. The reduction in trees, combined with excessive urea usage, which has a much larger impact on the environment than a single molecule of carbon dioxide, is leading to enhanced greenhouse gas emissions.When released in the air, a single molecule of nitrous oxide, a by-product of urea, stays in the atmosphere for about 150 years and has five times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.

Overall, these changes, if not reversed or at least checked, have the potential to spell disaster for the health of both humans and the environment.

Shekhar Chandra is a PhD candidate in environmental policy at MIT.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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