Punjab has a basket full of health problems such as the nation’s highest rate of cancer per capita and drug issues but it also has a major problem of deaths caused by contaminated drinking water from sewage. Many people in rural Punjab dig a big hole underneath their home for sewer which directly contaminates their drinking water. People are having major health issues stemming from gastrointestinal illnesses to even cancer due to the contaminated water.

In a press conference, Punjab Local Bodies Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu said at least 95 per cent sewers in Punjab towns were blocked.

Sidhu went on and stated, “Not even one government sewage treatment plant was working when we took over. Now, no less than 13 are functional.

Punjab Water and Sewar board says, “About 80% of diseases such as Cholera, Typhoid, Diarrhea, Jaundice etc. are caused by unsafe water. There is considerable leakage of water through unmetered connections, uncontrolled stand posts, leaking fittings and ferrules etc. In case, this is controlled, it would not only result in better efficiency of service being rendered but will also improve viability. Booster pumps installed directly on the Water Supply lines are the main cause of reduced water pressure and often cause contamination. Water is expensive to produce and to dispose off. ”

Urban water quality in Punjab has deteriorated dangerously over the past decade.

Leaking sewage pipes are allowing dirty water to seep into drinking water pipes, causing an increase in water-borne diseases.

Each day heavy smells greet residents as they step outside their home. Treacherously slippery, sewage-soaked mud greets them.

In a report released in February 2007, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said 20-40 percent of “people in hospitals are suffering from water-borne diseases – gastroenteritis, typhoid, cholera, dysentery… and other serious diseases”.

Since the mid-1990s, there has also been concern about bone deformities caused by contaminated water. Dozens of children were found with spinal and joint problems in 1998. The problem, which has also been seen in other parts of the Punjab, has been blamed on excessive fluoride in the ground water.

Experts have also warned that the leaching of pesticides and industrial effluent into the ground water is poisoning sources.

“We are dealing with bacterial and chemical contamination of ground water in an integrated manner here,” said Deepak Bajracharya, the UNICEF provincial chief for the Punjab.

According to the Indian Water Portal:

“”Whenever Nachatar Singh’s wife and children fall sick, he blames it on the groundwater they pull out everyday using a hand pump in his courtyard at Veere Wala Kalan village of Faridkot district. Singh swears that the problem started only recently. “The same tap used to fetch such good quality water thanks to seepage from the Gang canal which runs around 1 km from our place. It’s the toilet that was set up under a government scheme which is affecting our drinking water”, he claims.

The toilet lies near the hand pump and the water table is at 25-30 feet thus leaving little room for the wastewater to get diluted before it mingles with the groundwater.

At Ghallu village in Fazilka district, wastewater flows through open drains to a pond which spills over to the main road. “Almost everybody has a toilet at home. During the rains, the pond water floods the streets and enters homes. Children often get typhoid, and malaria outbreak is a regular event”, says a resident Mangat Ram.

These two instances offer a unique picture of Punjab, which can be a good case study for the Union government that is focussing on building new toilets under the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan scheme. With over 70 percent of toilet coverage, the state is one of the top performing states in tackling open defecation. However, in its race to be a ‘toilet state’, Punjab has neglected a bigger issue — that of waste management. ”

Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) are lacking

Neither does it have enough sewage treatment plants, nor the capacity to manage them. The excreta, which would earlier be distributed in agriculture fields and other open areas and decompose with time with dry environment and sunlight, now becomes more potent with addition of water in toilets. The waste is now diverted regularly to a central location like ponds or put into subsoil thus polluting surface as well as groundwater.

In urban areas, around 75 percent of the sewage flows untreated iThe overflowing pond of Ghallu village which floods the streets during rains.The overflowing pond of Ghallu village which floods the streets during rains.nto rivers and drains as only 43 percent of its 171 towns have sewage treatment plants (STPs). Also, 24 percent of these plants are inactive for want of money. A single STP may cost Rs 30 lakh to Rs 1.2 crore depending upon the technology used with annual maintenance costs varying from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 14 lakh.

India has been struggling with open defecation mainly because of the low-level of acceptance for home-based defecation. This is why the government is funding behaviour change campaigns (BCC) across rural India. Punjab did not face such a challenge because most of the people were keen on having toilets at home. Rapid urbanisation, prosperity and exposure to western lifestyles due to a high rate of emigration, catalysed this desire.

Government schemes assisted by World Bank loans helped poor families like that of Nacchatar Singh who could not afford a toilet. The state government is now planning to cover the remaining 6.25 lakh toilet-less households in next three years. “Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Rs 15,000 will be given for the construction of individual household toilets. Of this, Rs 6,000 will be the state’s contribution with the support of the World Bank”, says Suresh Kumar, Principal Secretary, Water Supply and Sanitation.

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