Despite protests, petitions, boycotts and rallies, Edulabad’s residents see no end in sight to their toxic problems.

Ground report Hyderabads pharma boom leaves this village with toxic water burning soil
news Environment Thursday, November 24, 2016 - 11:17

As 40-year-old Nagamma gathers hay to feed her buffaloes in Edulabad village on the outskirts of Hyderabad, toxic froth bubbles up to a height of several feet from the stream behind her. 

Nagamma, however is completely unperturbed. 

"What is new about this? The smell also becomes bearable after a while. You have actually come during the best time of the year," she says.

Edulabad in Ghatkesar, hardly a few kilometres away from the city's Outer Ring Road (ORR), has been struggling for over a decade now as its main source of water – the Edulabad Cheruvu (lake) – has been severely polluted, allegedly by pharmaceutical industries in the city.

The lake is fed by the Musi river, which receives sewage and effluents from around 51 nalas that empty into a 30-km stretch of the river. Although this water is supposed to be treated before it reaches the river, the state government’s sewage treatment plants are reportedlyinsufficient to the task, letting most of the effluents continue into the river and finally to the lake. 

According to Nagamma, every morning, the froth overflows and covers her field which is right opposite the stream.

"My buffaloes are also suffering because of this froth, but they can shake it off. What about the plants? I can't even lift it with my hands, because it burns when I touch it," she says, as she shows her hands, which bear numerous angry red spots.

Hyderabad has been known for the past two decades as a hub for pharmaceutical and bio-chemical companies in India. But out here in the villages on the outskirts of the city, the tainted underbelly of that development is starkly visible.

The Sarpanch of Edulabad, Batte Shanker, who has been fighting for the Edulabad Cheruvu for over 10 years, arrives at the gram panchayat office after overseeing the cleaning of the village's water tank.

"The water is so polluted, that it has eaten away the cement and the rods of the tank from the inside," he says, as he shows pictures on his phone.

"The diameter of the outlet hole, which was 180-200 mm, has now shrunk to 80-90 mm due to the chemicals, which have solidified and settled around the hole. All these chemicals mix with our water, and form an entire layer, on the floor, of stones like these," he adds, as he pulls out two solid nuggets and puts them on the table.

A heavy chemical smell emanates from them. 

"Till the 1980s, the water used to be crystal clear. It used to be like an aquarium. We could just put our hands in, and catch a fish," says another ward member of the panchayat.

Now, each summer, several thousand dead fish wash up on the shore, much like the fish kills that have been seen in urban lakes, like Bengaluru's Ulsoor Lake earlier this year.

Shanker claims that the people of the village suffer from constant headaches and skin problems, while cattle that drink from the lake give only two litres of milk a day where they once used to give around 10-15 litres a day.

"At least where people are concerned, we can tell them not to use the water. What will the animals do? The entire ecosystem is in danger," he says.

Shanker adds that children suffer from watery eyes and deformed teeth and some pregnant mothers who drank the water had to undergo abortions due to maternal or foetal health complications. 

"It all started in the early 1990s. Around 1994-95, the effluents started flowing into the lake, but it wasn't until 1998 that we really started seeing the effect," the 47-year-old says.

Pulling out two massive files, filled with newspaper clippings and photos, Shanker lays out more than a handful of examples of how bad the problem is.

"March 2000, was the first time that the fish had turned up at the shores. Soon, we also started seeing a lot of toxic foam and froth during the summers," he says.

In 2002, Shanker says, roughly 50 lakh fish washed ashore during the month of April.

"In July 2003, the froth was so bad, that when an auto was passing by, it flew into the vehicle, temporarily blinding the driver. The accident killed all seven passengers," he adds.

"All this pollution, is after they (the state government) built a Sewage Treatment Plant (STP). Imagine how it was before this. Also, we were not even consulted that time, for a Rs 344 crore project," Shanker says.

Shanker spends the next ten minutes showing picture after picture of protests, boycotts, rallies, speeches, awareness programs, gheraos, and visits by politicians, activists and officials.

"Even after all this, what is the use? We are still suffering," he says.

At the stream beside Nagamma's farm, Shanker points to a layer of red, sticky soil on the banks of the stream.

He lights a match, and puts it to the soil, which immediately lights up and emits a pungent smell, before the flame dies down.

"Where else can you find soil that catches fire?" he asks.

"You should have come in the summer. The froth covers this entire area, and even this soil would've gone up in huge flames, in a matter of seconds. This is the least polluted time of the year and of the day," he adds. 

(The water is so polluted, that it even eats away at trees)

The pharma boom in Hyderabad began in the early 1960s,when PSUs like BHEL, NMDC, HMT, BEL, HAL were being set up, and the Indian Drugs & Pharmaceuticals Ltd (IDPL) plant was allotted to Hyderabad under the then unified Andhra Pradesh government.

In the 1990s, despite being overshadowed by the massive IT boom the city witnessed, Hyderabad saw great growth in the pharma sector, with a number of manufacturing units being set up. 

In 1999, the state approved the 'Genome Valley' project, which led to the development of more than 100 biotech companies on the city's outskirts, swallowing up several suburbs.

Read - Residents of Hyderabad's Jeedimetla industrial area gasp for life amidst toxic air and water

As these companies began large-scale drug manufacture, many activists in the city allege, they violated rules and began releasing untreated effluents directly into Hyderabad's water bodies, from the Musi river to the Hussain Sagar.

Many of these industries release their waste in the night, which makes it harder to track. 

The Pollution Control Board (PCB) says it has purchased equipment at the cost of Rs 35 lakh that monitors inlets from the Kukatpally, Balkapur, Banjara and Picket nalas in real-time and gives live updates every five minutes.

However, even this does not seem to be working, as locals in Edulabad continue to wake up to toxic froth every morning.

"Some people also told me that some strong bacteria are there in this water," says Shanker.

What Shanker is actually referring to is a class of bacteria called 'Superbugs', which become resistant to antibiotic drugs due to constant exposure.

Diseases caused by these bacteria are highly difficult to treat as most antibiotics are useless against them.

The Musi river, which is the biggest victim of such contamination, reportedly supplies water to 1.6 crore people across Telangana and Andhra as it joins the Krishna river.

A number of studies and investigations from Hyderabad, show just how big a problem this is.

This month, researchers from the University of Hyderabad and an institute in Berlin found that 11% of chickens sampled in markets Hyderabad were carrying superbugs, with the meat reported to be spreading superbugs through the food chain and the environment.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also reported similar threats that the city faces.

Last month, the Chief Superintendent of the state-run Gandhi Hospital told the Bureau that half of all samples sent for testing, including blood and urine samples taken from patients seeking treatment, contained drug-resistant bacteria.

Meanwhile, the residents of Edulabad continue to suffer.

Shanker is now locally known as 'Musi Shanker' due to his years of activism to save the river, but he says that his name is the only thing that's changed over the past decade.

"There are three important things that an individual needs to exist -- clean air, fresh water and healthy food. We have been systematically denied the very basic things required for life," Shanker adds.

"However, I am still hopeful. Our new Collector is dynamic. We can only wait and watch what happens next," he adds.

 

 

 

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