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Will Area Water Partnerships give people back their rivers?

By Surekha Sule

The people living near the Patalganga river have been fighting for two decades against the pollution of their water source. Now there's new hope in the form of the Patalganga Area Water Partnership, initiated by the Indian Water Works Association, that will give them a say in how this natural resource is used and maintained

The Patalganga river pollution issue is over two decades old. And the people have given up all hope of winning their battle against the chemical industries in Rasayani, in Maharashtra 's Raigarh district. "We agitated as the chemical industries in Rasayani and along the Patalganga not only polluted our river but our land and air, snatching away our farming and fisheries and making us drink polluted water to the detriment of our health," says a resident Santosh Thakur. "Our simple demand is, give us back the river, air and land like it was before the first industrial unit, Hindustan Organic, came up here in the late '60s," says Madan Marathe who spearheaded the agitation against pollution in the Patalganga during the late '80s and early '90s.

In a move that went against the movement, the industries pressured the government into providing the agitating people with piped drinking water. This took the air out of the struggle, as people soon lost interest in the decade-long fight for the restoration of their livelihoods and their health.

During high tide and heavy rains, polluted water from the river Patalganga surges into fertile fields burning crops and rendering the land useless. This was once one of the best rice-growing areas in the country; now nothing grows here. Fishing trawlers used to ply the river; now there is no fish. In 1980, hundreds of fish died during a spate of heavy industrial discharge. Angry residents carried the dead fish in truckloads to the collector's office, in protest.

Since then a lot of water has flown under the bridge.

In August 1988, the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) made the plea that water in the Patalganga was unfit for human consumption, endangering the health of people downstream, especially in the talukas of Khalapur, Panvel and Pen. That this case has been dragging on for 16 years, with no final order in sight, is a pointer to government apathy towards the issue.

Although the industries claim they treat their effluents, the Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) only became functional in February 2004. But factories that are not members of the Patalganga Rasayani Industries Association (PRIA), and the CETP, let off both treated and untreated effluents into the municipal drainage system that flows into the river.

In 2000, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) carried out an evaluation of the water in a 17 km stretch of the Patalganga from the point of its origin (Tata Power's tailrace) in Khopoli. The study revealed pollution by domestic and industrial waste at every point, except at the source. What is the latest reading? Nobody knows as no independent study has ever been carried out after industry's claim that, since February 2004, effluents are being treated at the CETP.

So, is there any hope of reversing the ecological damage? Perhaps.

It springs from certain new developments in the form of the Patalganga Area Water Partnership (PAWP) initiated by the Indian Water Works Association, Mumbai chapter of the national body of professional engineers, as part of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) concept.

The GWP was initially sponsored in 1996 by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to promote Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in river basins. The GWP helps Area Water Partnerships (AWP) with start-up funds, bringing stakeholders onto a common platform to develop a water vision of sub-basins and to suggest a related strategy for IWRM. Later, AWPs are expected to become self sufficient through funding by partners and other sources. Some examples in India are the AWPs of Tamraparni (in Tamil Nadu), Kshipra (in Madhya Pradesh), upper Bhima, upper Godavari and Patalganga (in Maharashtra ) and the Purna sub-basin of the Tapi (also in Maharashtra ).

Although there is no set pattern for AWPs, Bhima and Patalganga have taken the heavy techno-managerial approach, as the initiators are retired irrigation engineers. The Godavari initiators are educationists, while the Purna is managed by the local people.

According to Dr M A Chitale, a renowned water expert, AWPs need to be encouraged where there is conflict between various types of water use, as they help initiate the process of dialogue amongst the different stakeholder organisations.

The Patalganga Area Water Partnership was mooted in 2002, with around 22 stakeholder members of whom 20 are government bodies (the irrigation department, forest department, revenue department, MIDC, MPCB, MJP, CIDCO, municipalities, etc) and representatives from industry like PRIA, the Khopoli Industries Association, etc. There are only two non-government organisations -- the Yusuf Meheralli Centre and the Rural Community Research Centre. The list of 22 includes all the gram panchayats in the PWAP.

The PWAP, at this stage, lacks proper people's representation, not to mention their active participation. This is mainly because the initiator -- the Indian Water Works Association -- has not reached out to all the stakeholders and is busy with the technical documentation even before talking to the people. Over the past two years, the PWAP has organised a couple of meetings but those who attended them did not seem to understand the objectives and were sceptical about its success. There does not seem to be much communication between the initiator/coordinator and the stakeholders. Some members of the steering committee have never attended any meeting.

It is only recently that the Yusuf Meheralli Centre has begun to realise the PWAP's potential and has contacted the Khopoli Municipal Council and the Khopoli Industries Association. A meeting of people's representatives from 40 village panchayats has been planned to help get across the idea of the PWAP.

The draft vision document of the PWAP makes some realistic observations:

  • While nearly half the available water in the Patalganga goes out of the Patalganga area to the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC), the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) and the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), villages in the basin have no reliable source of drinking water. Many hamlets continue to be served by tankers. Water sources are being tapped by cities outside the Patalganga sub-basin that are freely claiming rights over these natural resources without accommodating the local people as beneficiaries. This is happening to other water sources in Mumbai like Vaitarna, Tansa, Surya, etc, where people are agitating over their right to be included in schemes. It should be made mandatory for people who take water out of an area, via pipelines, to first provide water to the local population.
     
  • The quality of water in the Patalganga river is suspect. People are wary of using it even for non-potable purposes, without treatment. During an agitation in the early '90s, people offered an MPCB official a glass of water from the river and asked him to drink it. They said that if he drank the water, they would stop their agitation. The official refused to drink the water, agreeing that it was unfit for human consumption. Farmers allege that the water burns their crops and it cannot even be used for irrigation.
     
  • The sewage treatment plant for the town of Khopoli , with its sizeable population, is not yet functional although it was sanctioned way back in 1978. As a result, sewage from the town finds its way into the Patalganga river. The Khopoli Municipal Council's chief officer Vijaykumar Mhasal says that the sewage treatment project, that originally was to cost Rs 1 crore, now costs Rs 12 crore. Open drains running from various localities in Khopoli town along the Patalganga discharge straight into the river. The project is almost complete.

Madan Marathe, an activist from the Yusuf Meheralli Centre suggests a parallel pipeline carrying domestic sewage and treated industrial effluents up to a point near Dharamtar creek near the village of Avre where, after further treatment, the waste can be emptied 5-10 km into the sea.

Despite arrangements to carry treated effluents to a point downstream, near Kharpada, where the river forms a creek, inadequately treated effluents continue to be discharged into the river. During one visit, on a weekday, there was no discharge from the Hindustan Organic Chemicals (HOC) effluent channel near Kharpada. But on another visit, on a Sunday, the water was a foaming dark grey. According to the local people, the industries are notorious for discharging untreated effluents at night or on holidays, as then they are not troubled by visits by the MPCB. In fact, the CETP and HOC/Lona have been asked to shift their discharge points ahead, on advice from the National Oceanographic Institute.

  • Most industries have automated processes, which require skilled operators. Since there are no facilities in the area to acquire such skills, the percentage of local workers in the employ of these industries is very small. Panvel's veteran politician D B Patil says industries should have training programmes for the local youth to help them meet the expected level of skills for employment. Industries that benefit from operating in this region employ people from outside, edging out the local population.
     
  • There appears to be substantial unutilised potential to develop minor irrigation schemes and adopt newer irrigation techniques, especially growing vegetables and fruits for which there is a ready market. This is a neglected point. Almost no effort has been made to develop a watershed in this heavy-rainfall, sloping terrain. Traditional water conservation methods would make people less dependant on outside water sources.

PWAP coordinator S N Patankar, also honorary secretary-general of the Indian Water Works Association, spells out the future course of action for all stakeholders:

  • Water resource development: rainwater harnessed through watershed development can augment aquifers and groundwater that can then be used for drinking and irrigation. The PAWP still has to reach out to people in villages across the Patalganga sub-basin.
     
  • Water resource management: managing the resources once they are developed or managing the demands of various stakeholders, financial management like billing, collecting revenue, etc.
     
  • Water for food: increasing productivity under rain-fed and irrigational farming.
     
  • Water for health: providing a safe and reliable water supply and monitoring its quality to initiate timely corrective measures. Although the MPCB is supposed to monitor water quality, the water is far from safe. An industry-MPCB nexus is openly discussed. The villagers say if the industries can manage MPCB reports at one hundredth the cost of waste water treatment, what monitoring and what corrective measures are we talking about?
     
  • Water for environment: protecting the river and estuarial ecosystem to sustain aquatic life.
     
  • Institution and governance: establishing river basin organisation to plan Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and to execute, operate and maintain the system.
     
  • Social, economic, industrial and technology development for the area's overall development.

There is a lot at stake here with the conflicting interests of industry and local communities. The PAWP can bring all the stakeholders together, but unless people's participation outweighs other interests it cannot bring about a change in the system with a rightful share of the water going to the people whose natural resources are blatantly being polluted by stakeholders belonging to the powerful and privileged class

The Patalganga river is a west-flowing river in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. It rises in the northern Sahyadri range in Raigarh district and flows north to Khopoli where, from the year 1910, tailrace water from the Tata hydro power station has been let off into the river, making it a perennial water source. After flowing through Khopoli and Khalapur the river turns southwest near the HOC company at Mohpada, and then on into the Dharamtar creek. The river is considered a creek downstream of the Chavana bund.

Because water upstream of the Chavana is polluted, it was being collected at Mohapada, upstream of the industrial discharge point. But this water too has become unsafe thanks to upstream pollution from Khopoli and en route. Meanwhile, some villages were provided water under the Hetavane scheme.

The MIDC industrial area along the Patalganga at Rasayani hosts 27 industries including major companies like Reliance Industries, Bombay Dyeing, Cipla and German Remedies. These industries now discharge their pre-treated effluents into the river through the CETP common channel ahead of Chavana. Public sector companies like Hindustan Organic (HOC), Hindustan Insecticides and Lona Industries have their own treatment plant and a separate pipeline to discharge effluents at the same point near Kharpada. Besides this, the river receives waste at enumerable points along its route -- from towns, colonies, small industries, etc. At Khopoli, industries discharging effluents directly into the river include Zenith, Mohan Meakin, Isibar and Indian Organic. Then there's sewage from Khopoli itself, which empties directly into the river.

(Surekha Sule is a Mumbai-based journalist and researcher)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004