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Steel City tackles its water woes

By Manipadma Jena

The Steel City of Jamshedpur suffers severe water stress. But over the last decade, steel giant Tata Steel has reduced pollutant discharge by 98% and cut water consumption by 67.3%. Today, India's largest iron and steel production facility boasts a zero groundwater extraction record. The conservation efforts of the industry that dominates this town are being replicated by citizens in the old city. InfoChangeIndia travelled to Jamshedpur to document this pathbreaking corporate-citizens initiative

For Anjan Ghosh's large family, the water situation has been getting steadily worse over the last two years in the old town area of Jamshedpur . In 2000, the 15-foot well in their courtyard dried up. They dug it down to 30 feet and managed for a few months with the few feet of extra water they got. When the well went dry a second time, Anjan called in the borewell people and asked them to conduct a preliminary survey. What they uncovered sent shock waves through the old Bhatia basti in Steel City : there was no water even at a depth of 100 feet.

The Ghosh family, like others in this lower-middle-class basti -- populated for three generations by every kind of petty trader -- now bathe standing in a large tub to collect the runoff. Bath water thus collected is reused to flush the toilet and swab the house. Precious government water, supplied twice a day, is barely enough for large families to cook with and drink.

This alarming water situation in the old town area of Jamshedpur is a result of the population boom and the mushrooming high-rise apartments that suck up scarce groundwater.

The entire district of Singhbhum has a problem with groundwater retention as much of it sits on hard pre-Cambrian crystalline rock. Only 10% of the area is covered by semi-consolidated rock, grit, gravel and alluvial soil, which are conducive to healthy groundwater levels.

Situated on a slope with underlying rock, most of the rainwater that falls in this region quickly runs down into the Subarnarekha river before the rock fissures and fracture zones can absorb much water. Given the topography, the region's annual rainfall of 1,216.80 mm (2001-2002) is of little help.

Although Jamshedpur town sits on the confluence of the Subarnarekha and Kharkai river, the grim reality is that the total dynamic groundwater reserves in Jamshedpur block are an alarming 30,000 million litres only. The depth of the water table remains 1.5 m to 16 m below ground level. Borewells drilled to a depth of 75 m yield 2 to 17 m3/h of water.

Adding to these woes is the fact that Jamshedpur is a major iron and steel-manufacturing region. Steel is the fifth-highest water consuming industry in India , using 516.6 million cubic metres (mcm) of water annually and discharging 396.8 mcm as effluent (Central Pollution Control Board data 1999-2001, aggregated by the Centre for Science and Environment).

Thus, nearly 80-85% of freshwater is discharged as wastewater by the iron and steel-manufacturing sector as a whole in India ; in the US 95% of this water is recycled.

For close on 100 years, Jamshedpur has flourished around the Tata Steel plant -- today the largest integrated iron and steel production facility in the country. Given the city's geographical location and the nature of steel production, in the early-'80s (much before global industry parameters were being quoted and water conservation became such a burning issue), Tata Steel decided to install its own water conservation measures. With its trademark foresight and concern for community welfare the company phased out polluting, energy-intensive and low productive technologies. In a four-phase modernisation drive that continued for 10 years until 2002, the company closed down five rotary lime kilns, four old stoker-fired boilers, three steel-melting shops, four top-charge batteries and one plate, narrow strip and sheet mill each -- all of which accounted for 2 million tonnes of steel production per annum.

Installed in their place, at a cost of Rs 7,000 crore, were a number of state-of-the-art facilities with closed-circuit water systems -- two steel-melting shops, a blast furnace, a hot strip, wire rod and cold rolling mill each, to mention a few. Water harvesting systems and cooling ponds have been constructed to catch the rain.

A lot of water in the steel industry is required to cool the iron products and equipment. While most steel plants in India still use the once-through water-use system, Tata Steel switched to the integrated water recycling system that cools both directly (spraying) and indirectly. The total intake in this process is just
2-4% of what is required in a once-through system. As the water progressively degrades it is put to 'lower-end' use like dampening raw material stockpiles and washing roads.

According to R P Sharma, chief, environment and occupational health at Tata Steel, and an award-winning environmental manager, these measures, put into place over the last 12 years, have yielded rich dividends with a 98% reduction in pollutant discharge and a 67.3% cut in water consumption. From using 22.4 m3/tss (cubic metres of water for one tonne of saleable steel) in 1991-92, the steel producer used 7 m3/t in 2003-04, which it aims to bring down to 5 m3/t by March 2006.

On an average, the Indian steel sector uses 10-80 cubic metres of water to produce a single tonne of steel. Global best practices in integrated steel plants use just 0.1 cubic metres of water for the same. Today, the 4-million-tonne-producing steel major boasts a zero groundwater extraction record.

Tata Steel received the 2002-03 TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) Award for its corporate social responsibility, good corporate citizenship and sustainable initiatives.

One of the more interesting effects of Tata Steel's water recycling efforts can be seen at the cooling ponds inside the steel plant in Jamshedpur . For the last eight years migratory birds have been making their way to these ponds, speaking volumes for the water's low pollution levels. In a census last year, 10,000 birds were counted here including species like the tree pic (Dendrocitta vagabanda), pied kingfisher (Eryle rudis), shoveller (Anasclypeata), cotton teal (Nettapus coromandelianus) and blacktailed godwit (Limdsa limosa). The company plans to erect a bird watchtower soon.

If Tata Steel has achieved a record of zero groundwater extraction it has much to thank the Jamshedpur Utilities & Services Company Ltd (JUSCO) -- one of its subsidiaries whose services include managing civil water sources and supplies. JUSCO has two sewage treatment plants in Jamshedpur -- at Bara and Karkhai -- which together process 14 million gallons of wastewater per day collected from 550 km of domestic connections.

In a symbiotic and coordinated effort to recycle wastewater, Tata's steel plant uses 75% of JUSCO's purified effluent; the rest is let out into the Subarnarekha. Using a high-tech activated sludge process at the treatment plants, the TSS (mg/1) of treated discharge at the two plants -- at 10 and 6 respectively -- is well below the normal count of 30. Similarly, while the BOD (mg/1) norm is 20, JUSCO's treated sewage shows a low count of 8 and 5. This certainly helps the industry put recycled sewage water to semi-sensitive use.

G S Basu, head of water management at JUSCO, however, says the company is working on purifying the water still further so that 100% is channelised into steel-making.

But JUSCO has its limitations. Its water supply chain does not extend to the old settlements of Jamshedpur where most families like Anjan Ghosh's recycle bath water in tubs for 'lower-end' use. Government water supply is both erratic and inadequate.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have their work cut out. Last year, the Jamshedpur chapter of the Association of British Scholars (ABS) stepped in with one of the district's Rotary International clubs. The ABS roped in the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi , to provide technical training in rainwater harvesting to volunteers -- the only ray of hope for people living in old Jamshedpur today.

Houses with existing wells are being equipped with water harvesting structures at a cost of Rs 3,000, which is something large families are willing to spend. By this monsoon, old wells were already storing 15 feet of harvested water. The wives of employees at Tata Steel are pitching in to create awareness about water harvesting and conservation. Debates are being conducted among school children on issues like 'should water harvesting be legislated' and 'is water harvesting part of corporate social responsibility'. Steel City is preparing its next generation of water managers to tackle the all-important water issue.

(Manipadma Jena is a senior development journalist and consultant working from Bhubaneswar, Orissa. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2004