– Mohit M Rao
In June, farmers in water-starved Kolar were overjoyed when the newly inaugurated KC Valley Project began supplying treated sewage water from Bengaluru . But things went horribly wrong in July when the pipeline began to spew out raw sewage, contaminating the land, the lakes and the groundwater.
Manjunath N., 33, looks on as his brother Murali, 31, opens the lid of their drinking water sump. The lid comes up, revealing black, stagnant water emitting a foul stench. This is their drinking water source, pumped up from a community borewell barely 50 metres away. “We used to drink this water until the project began,” says Murali.
Dark clouds have gathered and thunder rumbles over Bellur village in Kolar district, 70 km from Bengaluru. The persistent drizzle turns into a downpour. Water drips down the bund of the Narasapura lake that faces their house. “We built this house just three years ago, using all our savings. What if the entire lake starts to smell?” asks Murali.
This year, for the seventh time since 2011, Kolar was declared drought-hit. The day’s rains will do little to reverse this. But this is not what’s on Manjunath’s mind. He is thinking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expected visit to the village in mid-December, to pay tribute to B.K.S. Iyengar, the yoga guru born in Bellur nearly a century ago.
“I’m going to tell him about the water in the village,” says Manjunath. When the conversation turns to the layers of security around the Prime Minister, he elaborates, “I’ll go earlier than everyone so that I get time with the PM. I don’t speak Hindi. But we’ll give him a letter in English so that he can understand. We’ll tell him to include it in his speech. We have to do this, or we’ll end up drinking Bengaluru’s sewage throughout our life.”
A little more than 60 km away on the eastern outskirts of Bengaluru, sewage treatment plants (STPs) churn million of litres of the city’s sewage. From the city’s Varthur lake — which, like the neighbouring Bellandur lake, is overrun by froth and filth — a gigantic pipe cuts across putrid waters and plunges underground, from where it winds its way beneath habitations for 55 km, in the direction of Murali and Manjunath’s house. Seven kilometres short of the brothers’ home, the wide pipe turns into a concrete channel, which opens into the Lakshmisagar lake in the parched Kolar district.
A first-of-its-kind experiment
Popularly known as the ‘KC Valley Project’ (named after the Koramangala-Challaghatta valley drainage system in Bengaluru) and originating from Bengaluru’s sewage treatment plants, the pipeline is the district’s first ever irrigation project. Estimated to have cost of ₹1,400-crore, this controversial experiment is the first-of-its-kind in the country.
When it was inaugurated on June 2 this year, hundreds had gathered by the outlet near Lakshmisagar lake for its inauguration. Dull, green water with a faint smell of sewage gushed out of the pipe, filled a collection tank, and gradually flowed towards the lake. When the lake began to overflow, the treated water made its way through open channels to four other nearby lakes. The gathering cheered loudly and plenty of selfies were taken along the canals.
Almost like a stream from the mountains, the pipeline became the source of a man-made, perennial river. In the future, 400 million litres per day (MLD) of treated sewage is expected to eventually flow through this pipeline, filling as many as 126 lakes in the Kolar region.
Spurred on by deadlines linked to the Assembly elections held in May 2018, the government accomplished the seemingly impossible in barely two years. Kolar, however, is only a pilot, an early and partial element of a vision that would eventually see nearly half of Bengaluru’s sewage output of 1,500 MLD become life springs for the vast agrarian plains where groundwater levels have plummeted. Pipes are being laid for a ₹950-crore project that which will see 210 MLD of water flow towards Bengaluru rural and Chikkaballapur districts in the north; and for another ₹400-crore project, under which 120 MLD of treated water will fill the lakes in the south, in the arid region abutting the campuses of Infosys and Wipro.
On July 16, barely 43 days after the inauguration of the KC Valley Project, things started to go wrong. The piped ‘river’ turned black. By July 18, it began to spew out white froth. Just 46 days after the project went operational, pumping was stopped.
But it was too late. Tens of million of litres of Bengaluru’s raw sewage had been pumped — ‘accidentally’, say officials — into Kolar district. Blackish sewage had seeped into nearby borewells, including those in Bellur village, and also into the sump of Murali and Manjunath’s house. In a matter of days, fish, reptiles and snakes that lived in Lakshmisagar lake began to wash up on its shore, dead.
At Narasapura lake, which provides drinking water to five villages in its vicinity, the vestiges of the sewage pumped are still visible. The surface of the lake is full of macrophytes (floating aquatic plants that are often the most visible markers of pollution) and the water has turned black near the shore.
“For more than a decade, the lake had been little more than a collection of small puddles. When it filled up with rain water last year, we were all overjoyed,” recalls Lakshman, a sprightly man in his early sixties. He used to have a one-acre farm, where he would grow carrots and beans. But when the water tables sank, his well dried up, and he was forced to give up farming. Now, he ekes out a living selling vegetables.
For most people in Bellur village, Narasapura lake has been a lifeline. While the nine borewells sunk in the lake bed provide drinking water, its various channels are used for washing clothes, and sometimes also serve as sites for open defecation.
Fear spread in the village. On July 30, after the borewells around the lake began to stink, the Narasapura Gram Panchayat distributed pamphlets to its 6,000-odd residents. The short note said: “We have tested the water and it is not fit for drinking. Please drink only treated water from our filter unit.” A warning was issued to shepherds that cows and sheep should not be allowed to drink water directly from the lake. Janardhana Rao, the secretary of the local milk cooperative, says some farmers have begun to feed their cows filtered water.
A divided district
The 50-acre family farm of Syed Saddam, 23, at K.B. Hosahalli extends through rock quarries and eucalyptus plantations. Eleven borewells dig deep into fractures hundreds of meters below the ground. Persistent drought has forced Saddam’s family to invest in drip irrigation initiatives for half of its land, where tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, and other water-intensive vegetables are cultivated. “There is no doubt the project is good. So what if there is sewage? It will help farmers lower their fertiliser inputs,” he says with confidence.
At Uddappanahalli village, which is home to the second tank to be fed by the KC Valley Project, Kodandappa, 52, and Uday Kumar, 34, can’t seem to agree on most points. Each calls the other person ignorant when it comes to the project. Kumar, whose six acres of land is fed through four deep borewells of lowering yields, believes that the project is a gift to the drought-prone district. The yields in the borewell have already started to pick up, and his field of ragi, tomatoes, and vegetables uses the borewell water. Kodandappa doesn’t share his neighbour’s optimism. Drought has made him abandon his 2.5-acre land and take up work as a driver. The project in its present form has brought him only misery. “What kind of life is it when we can’t drink directly from the lakes? Everything needs to be filtered now. Livestock that can only drink lake water will fall sick soon,” he says.
Kolar’s water distress
To understand the project and its intentions is to come face-to-face with the magnitude of the water crisis in Kolar faced by the farmers. With no canal irrigation project, and erratic monsoons, the hundreds of tanks in the region as well as the Dakshina Pinakini river have completely dried up, leaving the groundwater as the farmers’ only hope for both irrigation and drinking.
There were an estimated 12,670 borewells in the district in 2002. By 2014, the number had touched 85,000. Borewells saw the district shift from rain-irrigated ragi (finger millet) to water-intensive tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables.
By 2013, the net annual groundwater availability — for extraction without depleting the table further — in Kolar was 32,746 hectare metres (ham) (327.74 billion litres approximately), says the ‘Dynamic Groundwater Resources of India Report 2017’ prepared by the Central Ground Water Board, New Delhi. Extraction, however, was at 62,359 ham, 95% of it agriculture. With an annual overexploitation rate of 190%, Kolar can be considered the agrarian district south of the Aravalis with the highest extraction rate. The problem is further compounded by persistent drought.
This thirst was the driving force behind another of the State government’s ambitious projects, aggressively pushed before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections: the diversion of the tributaries of the Netravathi river on the Western Ghats towards Kolar. Pipelines and pumping stations were set up as part of the venture, partly known as the Yettinahole project, amidst lush forests and elephant corridors. The project hoped to pump out than 24 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water towards the plains. Estimated to cost ₹13,000 crore, it was expected to supply nearly 10 TMC of water to Kolar and Chikkaballapur. But multiple studies had expressed scepticism about these figures.
Delayed by environmental clearances and National Green Tribunal (NGT) cases, Yettinahole did not take off. By 2016, matters reached a boiling point. After a year-long protest in the districts went unnoticed, over 10,000 farmers broke barricades and marched towards the Chief Minister’s house in Bengaluru. They were caned, and 35 criminal cases filed. It was this political storm that forced the announcement of the KC Valley project.
“Are we third-rate citizens, that we should be fed treated sewage while industries in Bengaluru get Cauvery river water?” asks Anjaneya Reddy, 38, one of the leaders of the 2016 protests who has since filed a PIL against the KC Valley project. His own 30-acre farm in Chikkaballapur has 13 borewells, some over 1,500-feet deep. Only three of those yield water now. “To be clear, we are not against the project. But the least they could have done is to treat the water through tertiary treatment plants rather than only the secondary treatment ones,” Reddy says, pointing out that if the idea is to supply treated sewage, then at least it must be treated to the maximum, using the best possible technology the state can afford.
There are multiple levels of sewage treatment. Primary treatment only filters out floating particles, plastics and heavy sediments. Secondary treatment, done at the relatively common Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), removes organic matter through bacteria, producing sludge and relatively free-flowing water. But a majority non-organic pollutants remain. Tertiary treatment plants, which are quite rare in India, remove inorganic compounds, nitrates, and phosphates. In countries such as Singapore, they even generate drinking water.
Reddy stresses that there is lack of a baseline, long-term study of the impact of secondary treated water on groundwater and human consumption. “We are like mice in a laboratory,” he says. This was the crux of his petition in the Karnataka High Court, which on July 24 directed the pumping to be stopped, a week after raw sewage had been sent to Kolar. The court observed orally that while there was “nothing wrong” in the project, without proper implementation and some assurance of water quality, it could prove “disastrous”.
At odds with research findings
State government agencies insist that the water proved to be safe on the 36 parameters for which it was tested. Only nitrate nitrogen was higher than permissible limits. But this, says the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, is “useful for agricultural purposes”. High amounts of faecal coliform (gut bacteria typical of domestic sewage) was detected at the outlet but the count subsequently became lower as the treated water passed from one lake to another. But these tests used the standards prescribed for treated sewage, not drinking water standards.
“The point of the project is to increase groundwater levels and not provide direct drinking water. As the water seeps down, contaminants will be filtered out, and water extracted from the borewells would be safe,” says an official from the Minor Irrigation Department, which is implementing the project.
However, a report by a team of researchers that had been asked by the petitioners to conduct independent samplings, contradicts the Minor Irrigation Department official. It has found six heavy metals — chromium, cobalt, copper, zinc, cadmium and lead — to be above the permissible limits for drinking water. This naturally raises the question: is it a good idea to depend solely on tanks and pump “undrinkable” water into a district, expecting everyone to use filters? Wouldn’t this have health consequences?
Bengaluru’s sewage, like that of most Indian cities, is not just what is flushed down toilets. It includes large quantities of industrial effluents too. “Secondary sewage treatment does not remove these metals. It only dilutes it. The government’s assumptions are based on soil filtering them out. But even soil has a threshold, particularly when 400 MLD will be pumped into it for decades,” says one of the researchers who worked on the report. He requested anonymity as the report had attracted political ire. “Our research on the contamination of borewells around Varthur lake in Bengaluru indicated seepage of heavy metals. For Kolar, this could be slow poison, leading to diseases caused by metal contaminations at toxic levels,” he says. The researchers have also recommended tertiary treatment and a system of constructed wetlands. The wetlands would serve as breeding grounds for macrophytes and other aquatic plants, which tend to suck out excess nutrients from the water and even absorb metals, nitrates and phosphates. The natural wetlands are what make the sewage in Cauvery tolerable to farmers. With its piped river, Kolar has no such luxury.
Urban sewage, however, is not just about chemicals. It is also about the antibiotics consumed by millions of people that get concentrated in the sewage. A recent done in 2017 study by the Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru (ATREE) warned of increased antibiotic resistance among the bacteria in the severely-polluted Bellandur lake. “STPs do not filter out the antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. Persistent release to Kolar must be studied in greater detail,” says Priyanka Jamwal, an ATREE researcher.
Springing back to life
Towards the end of September, the High Court gave permission to resume pumping of water from the STPs, provided the water is tested and reports submitted on its quality. On October 6, after a gap of two-and-a-half months, Kolar’s man-made river sprung back to life.
The Lakshmisagar lake is yet again being filled to the brim. The tank near the mouth of the pipe has been freshly painted to remove the stains of the “mistake” that had seen sewage flow from it. Farmers from the neighbouring villages who have come to check out the site look cheerful. Political messaging and the court order for release has reassured them. There is even talk of setting up a tea stall nearby to profit from the influx of “local tourists”.
“There is some relief in knowing that we will get some kind of water to use, even if it is treated sewage,” says Shankarappa, 70, from Doddayyur village, further upstream in Kolar, which is yet to receive the water. His own well went dry two decades ago. He anticipates that the project will bring it back to life.
They hope that no more mistakes will happen. Murugesh Rajanna, 38, a farmer and a vocal opponent of the project ever since the sewage inflow destroyed his two-acre radish crop, issues a warning: “I hope Bengaluru remembers that all our vegetables, which are grown in these waters and washed in the lakes, end up in their markets. For their sake, they better give us clean water.”