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India: How water pollution triggers migration waves

April 23, 2024
tags:#India, #water access, #migration, #water pollution
by:Lavanya Jha
In 2024, pollutants contaminating groundwater affected over two million people in India. What drives this trend and what can be done to reverse it? Farmers and experts offer their insights.

Sunil Kumar, 45, a former resident of Bindhroli - a village in Haryana approximately 30 kilometres from India’s capital, New Delhi - relocated to Sonipat, about 44 kilometres from the capital, with his family after escalating water contamination in his hometown compelled them to leave.

"Several industries have been established around our village over time, and life has been difficult since then," Kumar told FairPlanet. "Many people, including myself, have migrated to bigger cities in the hope of a better lifestyle and clean drinking water, which has become a luxury in rural communities."  

"A majority of them are forced to stay back and work in the same factories that are causing this bane due to a severe lack of options in employability," he added. 

Several industries, including those producing textiles, food, paper and pharmaceuticals, discharge significant amounts of untreated wastewater directly into nearby water sources - a practice that is widespread in India. In major cities, approximately 38.3 billion liters of wastewater are produced daily, but only 60 per cent undergoes treatment. As a result, the untreated wastewater contaminates the underground water supplies of adjacent villages.

When wastewater is not properly segregated, it releases toxic substances such as heavy metals, acids and pesticides, leading to significant health and occupational hazards.

Bindhroli is but one of many Indian villages plagued by water pollution, and people from several hundred villages across the country are migrating to urban centres in search of better drinking water facilities. 


Industrial development in rural India, which began in the late 1990s, has transformed small-scale cities into industrial hubs. But while this trend has spurred significant market growth, it also severely deteriorated water quality standards in rural communities.

In 2024, over two million people were affected by pollutants contaminating groundwater in India. And while heavy metals and nitrate emerged as the main pollutants, arsenic and fluoride contamination has increased in number as well. 

As of December 2023, water contamination from arsenic and fluoride affects approximately 230 districts in 25 states and 469 districts in 27 states across India, respectively. 

Multiple water quality assessment tests conducted by The Central Ground Water Board under the Ministry of Jal Shakti (Ministry of Water Power) indicate that groundwater, a crucial resource for industrial, domestic and agricultural sectors, is consistently contaminated beyond acceptable limits. According to a report by the Central Ground Water Board, approximately 85 per cent of the rural population in the country uses groundwater to go about their daily activities.

Dharam Singh, a former resident of Akhbarpur Barota, a small village in Haryana State with a population of 4,000, moved to New Delhi to save his family from the environmental hazards arising from water pollution. In recent years, Akhbarpur Barota has seen a surge in industrial activity, with many of these industries failing to implement proper water disposal techniques.

"The nearby industries use cheap disposable methods to dispose of the chemical water into the underground water supply in the name of rainwater harvesting," said Singh. "A majority of the residents in my hometown used tap water to go about their daily activities such as cooking, cleaning and drinking water; now we have to think twice before doing the same." 

Some industries resort to inexpensive disposal methods for their wastewater, such as direct discharge into nearby water bodies, thus promoting environmental malpractices. Furthermore, this wastewater is often discarded onto agricultural lands in rural communities, which are used for farming.

"This issue has specifically targeted the livelihood of farmers within these villages," Singh added. "Managing farmlands and crop growth is a task on its own, and now with the arsenic contamination of groundwater their income is at [further] risk."

Pradeep Kumar, the elected head of 48 villages in the Sonipat district of Haryana, told FairPlanet that contamination of the underground water supply has been an issue in all the nearby villages since 2013.

"When more than five complaints on this matter were reported to me and many other senior officials serving these villages, we decided to conduct an audit and have a conversation with the Haryana pollution control board along with many health centres," he said.

"The inaction led to several villagers just accepting their fate. While employability and financial constraints play a role in this, the inactiveness of the local authorities is one of the root causes."

Residents with the means install home-based water filtration systems, such as reverse osmosis units, to mitigate the hazards of contaminated water. But the majority who cannot afford these systems continue to suffer from the adverse effects.

"The poor water quality prevents seed germination leading to stunted growth in crops. If there is barely any food to produce, there is barely any food to consume," Kumar said. "The stress of debt will kill a farmer faster than the slow death the water contamination in our villages has to offer."

Shri Bhagwan, a resident of Akhbarpur Barota's Sonipat district, primarily earns his living through farming. Unfortunately, the gradual contamination of the water supply has led to crop failures on his farmland.

Bhagwan claimed that he had brought up the issue of his damaged crops with the local authorities in his district but there was no result. He reported that he had raised the issue with the local authorities in his district, but there was no resolution.

"There was a water quality test done in the neighbouring village, Saboli, but despite a high level of nitrite being found there was no outcome due to the high rates of bribery and corruption that take place," he said. 

Deteriorating health

A study by the Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology has shown that the overall water quality has deteriorated due to industrial water waste, leading to severe waterborne health hazards such as Diarrhea and Cholera.

The health hazards from contaminated water can vary widely, ranging from severe conditions like the development of cancer cells to more common ailments such as skin irritation, dysentery and throat infections.

Ferozepur Jhirka, for instance, a sub-town in Haryana with a population of 28,000, is now being referred to as a 'cancer village.' Over the past decade, the village has seen a total of 150 cancer-related mortalities, with each family in the village having experienced the death of at least one member due to the contamination of their underground water supply.


According to Satish Sinha, an environmental specialist and the Associate Director of Toxics Links - a nonprofit that addresses water contamination issues - many industries, especially those in rural areas, frequently violate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for wastewater disposal.

"The industries are supposed to treat chemical waste through segregation before its disposal as laid down by the Central Pollution Control Board," said Sinha. "But unfortunately, the treatment they perform may be inadequate, contaminating the surface and groundwater." 

According to the Environment Protection Act of 1986 and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, industrial units and local bodies are required to install Effluent Treatment Plants (ETPs) to recycle wastewater safely. But many factories still bypass this requirement, leading to significant water contamination.

A report by the State Pollution Control Board indicates that over 2,000 industries in India operate without ETPs. Violations can result in significant fines or imprisonment.

Additionally, a study conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2011-12 found that about 193 Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) have been installed across the country to date.

ETPs are crucial for removing both toxic and non-toxic chemicals from water, allowing it to be safely released into the environment or reused. It does so by employing a centrifugal action that separates solids from liquids, segregating toxic substances and chemicals from the water.

"Installing an ETP is the most common and affordable option for industries when talking about innovative and reasonably priced technologies," Sinha added.

But despite ETPs being effective solutions for managing wastewater contamination, many industries resist installing them due to the additional costs involved. 

By not adhering to SOPs, Sinha concluded, industries, especially those in rural India, are putting the lives of the local population at risk. 

Image by Lavanya Jha.

Article written by:
Lavanya Jha
Contaminated underground water supply.
© Lavanya Jha
Contaminated underground water supply.
Contamination of water bodies with toxic waste in Akhbarpur-Barota, Haryana.
© Lavanya Jha
Contamination of water bodies with toxic waste in Akhbarpur-Barota, Haryana.
Crop failure at a cauliflower plantation due to toxicity in the water in Bindhroli, Haryana.
© Lavanya Jha
Crop failure at a cauliflower plantation due to toxicity in the water in Bindhroli, Haryana.
Contaminated water being utilised for agricultural practices.
© Lavanya Jha
Contaminated water being utilised for agricultural practices.
Crop failure due to the use of water consisting of toxic substances.
© Lavanya Jha
Crop failure due to the use of water consisting of toxic substances.