Just before midnight on a cool November night in 2016, 57-year-old farmer Kenchappa sat on the charpoy at his family home in Bannigiri, located on the outskirts of Bengaluru. The stench from the polluted Byramangala reservoir had wafted their village for over a decade and Kenchappa had forgotten the smell of fresh air. But he smiled for the family photographs which were being taken that day. “He was even joking about the stench that day,” his daughter Anita says, showing the photographs. Those images are among the last few of Kenchappa, and for his family, the cherished final memories of him.
Kenchappa owned a 2-acre plot of land in Bannigiri and he was used to hearing stories about people falling sick in the villages surrounding the contaminated Byramangala reservoir. In February 2017, Kenchappa too succumbed to oesophageal cancer. “My father used to say, ‘It feels like a lifetime since I smelled something and felt good,’” Anita recounts.
Kenchappa’s family isn’t alone in their grief. In the last 10 years, several people living in Bannigiri, Chowkahalli, K Gopahalli and other villages in the catchment area of the Byramangala reservoir have developed cancer or suffered from skin ailments, and many have died.
Kenchappa’s neighbour, 55-year-old Lakshmamma, died of breast cancer in May 2017. Another village resident Ramanamma too succumbed to leukaemia in February last year. As many as eight residents of Bannigiri have died of cancer in the last two years.
Shankara, Anita’s husband, who now grows baby corn in a 3-acre plot, is constantly battling skin diseases. Shankara’s forearms are covered with lesions and rashes. His left foot has deep black scars. “It’s the water and the soil. If we touch the soil or water with our bare hands, it burns. We get rashes and it is painful. Even if we wear gloves and boots while working, it does not help. The contamination is that bad,” Shankara says.
High contamination, poor treatment
Activists say that the lakes located in this belt have high levels of non-biodegradable chemicals, as well as heavy metals exceeding the industrial effluent discharge standards. “The problem is that not all factories have effluent treatment plants within their premises. According to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board’s standards, the factories should set up Effluent Treatment Plants (ETP) to treat the effluents or send it to a common ETP, in case they don’t have the ability to run an ETP. This is not happening,” says Dr Sharadchandra Lele, a researcher with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), who has extensively studied the ecological damage caused by the industries in the area.
Sources in the KSPCB say that most of the industries have resorted to finding a backdoor to violate the norms. Several factories in the area do not have ETPs, officials say, and most of the industrial waste ends up flowing into the Byramangala Reservoir and the Vrishabhavathi River. According to a study by ATREE, the faecal coliform (FC) found in the water bodies in the industrial belt was 100 times greater than World Health Organisation (WHO) norms. Faecal coliform is a group of gram-negative bacteria that indicate the presence of pathogens in water.
According to an Environment Officer at the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board branch in Dasarahalli, there are 342 red category industries in the Peenya Industrial Area, which are required to install effluent treatment plants. He says that despite the setting up of night squads to monitor the electroplating and dyeing industries, over 60% of them end up discharging the effluents into the various lakes, and sometimes directly into the Vrishabhavati River. According to a study conducted by Dr Priyanka Jamwal and Dr Sharadchandra Lele of ATREE, the effluents were being discharged into the lake and river between midnight and 4 am.
“The problem is that even in certain factories which have the effluent treatment plants, the process is not done properly,” he says, and explains, “In most of the ETPs, the coagulation and the neutralisation processes are not performed properly. The de-chlorification is not done in some cases. In some units, the rotating biological contactor, which ensures that the waste water is not harmful when released, is not maintained properly.”
Speaking to TNM, Ramprasad, convenor of Friends of lakes, says that some factories dump untreated waste into the sewage pipes, which end up flowing into the reservoir and ultimately into the Vrishabhavathi River. “The pollution control board has set up sewage treatment plants along the river and the BWSSB (Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board) has set up a few STPs near the lakes. Since the contaminated water has heavy metals, the sewage treatment plants are unable to treat the wastewater adequately,” he adds.
The heavy contamination has resulted in the formation of toxic foam, present in the Byramangala reservoir throughout the year. “During the monsoon, the foam is almost as tall as me. Whatever the water touches turns to ash. People in this area have been falling sick ever since the water in the reservoir got contaminated, about a decade ago, but no matter how many times we ask the government to rectify it, no one bothers because it is not the heart of Bengaluru city,” says Ramakrishna, a member of the K Gopahalli gram panchayat.
Among Peenya’s cluster of industries, the small-scale ones, KSPCB officials say, are the biggest violators of norms. “Treating such heavy metals and effluents means shelling out at least Rs 7 to 8 for each litre of waste water laden with effluents. Each factory produces at least 25,000 to 30,000 litres of industrial waste. The cost is too high and the smaller factories end up dumping it into the lake,” KSPCB officials say.
Destroying public health
Several residents have stated that the exposure to the toxic water has resulted in significant health issues for those living near the Byramangala reservoir. However, there have been no studies conducted to conclusively prove that there is a direct correlation between the pollution and the deteriorating health of the residents living in the areas surrounding the Byramangala reservoir.
Forty-five-year-old Vijayalakshmi is a resident of Chowkahalli village, which borders the Byramangala catchment. Nearly every shelf in her living holds a picture of her late son. “This one we took around the time we first took him to the hospital,” she says, handing over a picture frame. A huge swelling on the right side of his neck is easily visible in the picture. “He was only 7-years-old when he died,” says Vijayalakshmi. Her son was diagnosed with a type of leukaemia which doctors said was more common only in older age groups.
A few houses away lives 40-year-old Hemavathi, who is a colon cancer survivor. “I was struggling for 4 years with this issue. First, we went to a nearby hospital, but it was only over time that doctors were able to conclude that I had cancer in the intestine. I was told that it was in the fourth stage. The doctors operated on it and I struggled for a long time after,” she says. Following a series of infections that she contracted, Hemavathi was taken up for surgery again. Doctors then started her on chemotherapy cycles due to which her general condition deteriorated. “They had to place a bag on the side to collect my stools, I was unable to use an Indian toilet and had to shift in with my relatives because they had a western one, during that time,” she recalls.
Several residents TNM spoke to also stated that many young children were afflicted with diabetes and other problems which are more commonly seen in an older age group.
The contaminated water is used by the residents for irrigation and farming. Exposure to the water has resulted in several of them presenting with skin lesions and rashes. “Even I have some skin problems,” says Vijayalakshmi as she proceeds to show us pigmented, scaly patches of skin on her legs.
Farmers in the area say that the water and soil are so contaminated that any direct contact causes formation of rashes. “Look at my legs, can you see the red circles and the blue ones? These happen when we go into the fields and work for a long time. The water is so bad that it burns the skin and causes rashes. There is a burning sensation all the time, even if we wear boots,” says Krishnamurthy, a farmer cultivating baby corn in Bannigiri.
“Repeated exposure to any harsh agents can cause disturbance to the skin pH and this can lead to problems,” explains Dr Ramesh Kumar, a Chennai-based dermatologist. “Several people who work in murky or swampy waters present with skin lesions and rashes. Some substance in the waters is causing such a reaction on the skin.”
Proof of contamination
In 2013, researchers from ATREE began a study to better understand the ways in which agricultural had transformed in the areas around Bengaluru. “And that’s when we happened to visit villages downstream of the Byramangala reservoir and found that farmers are using the contaminated water for irrigation purposes. This made us look into the water quality, then the later part of the study was devised,” explains Dr Bejoy K Thomas, one of the researchers.
He further added that farmers switched crops in the last 20 years seeing that the water quality was changing, and not all crops could withstand the same. “They began to settle on vegetables and fodder. From 2000 onwards, they started cultivating baby corn in the area.”
This trend continues till date with most of the farmers relying on fodder and baby corn as their staple crops.
The study conducted by Dr Priyanka Jamwal states that the soil was completely contaminated, leading to the contamination of crops. She also tested milk samples and found them to be contaminated.
A Ramesh, former senior environmental officer with the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, BS Nagendra Prakash, PV Sivapullaiaih and AS Sadhashivaiah published a study in the International Journal of Environment Protection regarding the groundwater contamination in the area. The study found that the bore wells adjacent to Peenya industrial area have found heavy metals, including zinc, copper, lead, manganese, chromium and aluminum, beyond permissible limits. The team also studied the impact of industrialization on groundwater quality in Peenya Industrial Area by collecting groundwater samples from 30 different locations. The investigations revealed that most of the study area is highly contaminated due to the excessive concentrations of nitrates, calcium, magnesium, total dissolved solids, sulphates and fluorides, which have rendered nearly 90% of the water samples tested, non- potable.
“The analysed data clearly indicates that the groundwater is getting polluted at an alarming rate due to rapid industrialization. The investigations along with the oral discussions held with the health centre officials and general public of the area, clearly points to the serious contamination of the groundwater and surface water in the vicinity of the industries and the ill-health faced by the localities. From the perspective of improving the quality of groundwater and surface water in the area and protecting the people from the troubles of groundwater and surface water contamination, and it is absolutely essential to initiate measures to check the pollution of industrial effluents through strict enforcement of legislation for industries, setting up effluent treatment plants,” the study had recommended.
Need to recognise the problem
Heavy metal contamination of water bodies in the Peenya Industrial area is simple because most of the water being let into the water bodies is untreated, says Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health Expert. Dr Sylvia says that contamination of water bodies has a direct effect on the health of locals. However, the effects are seen only after a long period of time, she says.
“The pollution in this area has been going on for over a decade. The problem is that the effects of this kind of pollution on human life is not manifested immediately. In most instances, people exhibit generalised symptoms like headaches and body aches. Gradually they begin to show difficulty in breathing, the number of cases of kidney stones in this area is high and over time, there is a rise in cancer and cases of Osteomalacia. This is because the people have been exposed to the toxic water for years,” Dr Sylvia says.
The larger issue, however, is that the problem itself has not been recognised. Speaking to TNM, Pramod Baliga, a member of the Peenya Industries Association, said that one of the primary reasons for the pollution to go unchecked is because the KSPCB has not recognised the problem. “KSPCB officials are busy pushing paperwork. When we approach them and inform them of the illegal effluent dumping, they turn a blind eye. The issue can be resolved only if it is recognised first,” Baliga says.
In July this year, the Peenya Industries Association decided to pool in CSR funds along with the government-allotted Rs 10 crore and construct a common effluent treatment plant in the area to avoid the illegal effluent dumping. One of the crucial observations made by the association was that the smaller industries were resorting to illegal effluent dumping simply because the cost of treating industrial waste was too high.
“The cost of treating one litre of effluent is Rs 7. At this rate, each industry has to spend anywhere between Rs 10,000 to Rs 25,000 per day to treat effluents. Once the common effluent treatment plant is constructed, then the cost will come down to 90 paisa per litre,” says Myladri Reddy, President of the association. However, experts say that the construction of an effluent treatment plant alone will not solve the problem. “We need citizen representatives on the board of the KSPCB. Without that, all the government agencies will think they have a free pass when it comes to pollution of the city and its water bodies. That is the way forward,” Ramprasad adds.
Watch: How polluted water bodies in Peenya has spiraled into a public health crisis
Graphics by Debabrata Bhattacharjee