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Investigation: Hidden water crisis behind India’s sugar dominance

Villagers living in the Uttar Pradesh sugar belt bear the brunt of poorly implemented environmental regulations and water scarcity
A villager shows a water sample taken from Sheikhpura village in the district of Muzaffarnagar. Contaminated groundwater is often all that people have to drink if they cannot afford bottled water. (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)
A villager shows a water sample taken from Sheikhpura village in the district of Muzaffarnagar. Contaminated groundwater is often all that people have to drink if they cannot afford bottled water. (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

On a cold morning in the early winter of 2019, Shekhar Chauhan reached his small sugarcane farm to start a regular work day, only to find it flooded. The boundary of a nearby drain had broken and water spilled into the farms in the Muzaffarnagar district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A significant amount of Chauhan’s crop was lost.

Chauhan complained to the management of one of the eight sugar mills in the district. He said the mill was releasing water in the narrow drain. “The sugar mill officials unclogged the drain and fixed it. But when the mill started operating the following year, it was the same story.” This time, however, Chauhan says nobody fixed the drain. 

His account is not an exception. In March 2020, Ram Bir, 48, also found his farm full of water. “Overnight my wheat farm was filled with water. The water receded in about a week, but my crop did not survive,” he says. “Paudhey jal gaye they hafte bhar mei” (the plants were destroyed within a week).

Farmers field sugar mill Uttar Pradesh
Farmers working in a field in Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

Sugar for the world

Chauhan and Bir are among the scores of farmers in Muzaffarnagar district who have been affected by wastewater released by the Triveni Sugar Mill in the city of Khatauli. The mill is the largest in Asia in terms of both production and storage capacity.

India is the world’s second-largest producer of sugar. Indian sugar and jaggery – an unrefined sugar popular across Asia and Africa – is found in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nigeria, Tanzania and the United States among other countries. 

Most of the country’s sugarcane is cultivated in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is known as the ‘sugar bowl of India’. With 155 sugar mills, the state is also home to the second-largest processing industry in India. Sugar is the backbone of the local economy, but its growing environmental impacts are being ignored – with potentially disastrous consequences.

Sugar mills and distilleries are one of India’s 17 highest-polluting industries, discharging water into the Ganga River. The sugar industry ranks third for the amount of wastewater produced, after the pulp/paper and chemicals sectors. A huge amount of water is required throughout the entire cycle, which starts with the production of sugarcane and ends with the release of effluent from the mills. This process has an impact on groundwater levels, with serious implications for human health, livelihoods and the ecology of local water bodies. 

In Uttar Pradesh, the biggest 56 sugar mills generate about 32% of the state’s wastewater and discharge up to 85.7 million litres per day (MLD) into the riverine system. 

Since 2014, about 23 court cases have been filed against sugar mills for damaging the environment in Uttar Pradesh alone. A landmark ruling in 2014 saw the Simbhaoli Sugar Mill, with a daily production capacity of 1,000 million tonnes, slapped with a fine of 50 million Indian rupees (USD 670,000) for polluting the Ganga River. Triveni itself was involved in several court cases for alleged violations of environmental regulations, at its Ramkola and more recently Rampur mills.

Beyond growth, the pollution left behind

The waste generated from a sugar factory is mostly organic with small quantities of inorganic material. Pollutants include wastewater, bagasse, pressmud and molasses. 

The Environmental Protection Act, 1986 requires every industry to treat wastewater before releasing it into the environment. With the right technology, an effluent treatment plant (ETP) unit should be able to treat its toxic wastewater laden with chemicals.

The water that the sugar mill releases is not as toxic as that coming from other chemical-intensive companies… But it has the potential to pollute water bodies by affecting streams and groundwater ecosystems 
Ankit Thakur, a businessman in the wastewater sector

“Various processes can be used to treat wastewater, depending on the contaminants it contains,” says Ankit Thakur, a businessman in the wastewater sector based in New Delhi. Mostly, he explains, this involves the decomposition of organic matter using microorganisms, followed by other chemical processes. “The water that the sugar mill releases is not as toxic as that coming from other chemical-intensive companies, like pharmaceuticals or paper,” he says. “But it has the potential to pollute water bodies by affecting streams and groundwater ecosystems.”  

One way in which industrial effluent pollutes healthy lakes and streams is by increasing the amount of organic matter in the water, which is then decomposed by bacteria and other microorganisms. This process requires a lot of oxygen, slowly choking the water body by reducing the natural presence of oxygen. Scientists measure this phenomenon using Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), or the amount of oxygen that bacteria need to dissolve the organic matter present in polluted waters.

India’s environmental regulations state that, to be disposed of in freshwater streams, the BOD of industrial discharge should be less than 30 milligrams per litre (mg/l), while 100 mg/l is allowed for disposal on land. 

Mill water passes between houses in Islamabad colony in Khatauli, Uttar Pradesh
Mill water passes between houses in Islamabad colony in Khatauli (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the average untreated sugar mill effluent has a BOD of about 1,000-1,500 mg/l, which can become black and foul-smelling when it stagnates. If the untreated effluent is released into water, more oxygen will be required by microorganisms to break down the pollutants, leaving little oxygen for other aquatic life. If discharged on land, the decaying organic matter present in untreated waste can clog the naturally porous ground surface, polluting what little amount of rainwater seeps into the aquifers through the layer of waste. This process affects groundwater quality and, in turn, the health of those who depend on it for drinking purposes. 

Poisonous water

In the village of Sheikhpura in Muzaffarnagar district, locals are eager to tell their story. Kusum, a 35-year-old resident, says that in the absence of proper sanitation services, a domestic wastewater drain has to be jumped over to get inside his house – which is right next to the Triveni Sugar Mill. 

She washed her baby’s clothes a few hours ago, but despite the bright sun outside, she hung them to dry inside her small room.

Sugar mills map Sheikhpura Muzaffarnagr Uttar Pradesh
The map identifies the mill, villages and collection points from which samples of water were taken for this investigation

It is impossible to dry clothes outside, the villagers say, because “everything turns grey and smells like ash”. Ash from the sugar mill coats the floors of Kusum’s house. As a newlywed, Kusum used to sweep the floors four or five times a day. Now she doesn’t care, saying, “How often should I keep cleaning this house?”

How sugar mills pollute the air

The processing of sugar canes releases a certain amount of ash which can be dispersed around the mill, but mills are also equipped with waste-to-energy plants that generate soot due to the incomplete combustion of organic waste. Waste-to-energy plants are commonly used to process a mill’s solid waste while generating the electricity it needs to run, but if they are fed wet waste, they are highly polluting. 

Villagers living around the Triveni Sugar Mill complain that the company dumps a huge amount of ash all around the village from the waste-to-energy plant. Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board officer Ankit Singh says that “the mill should dump the ash in spaces covered with greenery or within boundaries. Water should be sprinkled at it, so that it does not blow with the wind and the ash should stay moist at all times.” During her visit to the village, this journalist found that ash was blowing everywhere. 

The mill started operating in 1933, well before Kusum and her family moved there, but environmental impacts have increased with the expansion of the mill’s activities in the last few decades.

From a hand pump inside her house, she fills a glass with a yellow liquid that looks like beer. It’s contaminated groundwater, the only source of drinking water for many residents who can’t afford a steady supply of bottled water. The government built a water-purifying facility a few years ago, which has since deteriorated and never been repaired.

Water pond by sugar mill Muzaffarnagr Khatauli Uttar Pradesh
A view of the water pond near the Triveni Sugar Mill (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

The Third Pole ran lab tests on the water that Kusum, her family and many others consume. Two samples were collected: one from her home, and one from a similar hand pump in a nearby house. 

Coliform bacteria, which can indicate the presence of pathogens, was found in the drinking water, along with levels of inorganic salts such as calcium, magnesium, sodium, nitrates and others, reaching 1,190 mg/l. 

According to World Health Organization (WHO) standards, a level of these total dissolved solids (TDS) lower than 300 mg/l is considered acceptable, but anything above 900 mg/l is of poor quality. 

Protracted consumption of water with high TDS increases the risk of chronic health conditions, liver and kidney damage as well as weakening the immune system. The water analysed also contained 0.02 mg/l of lead, an element which can damage the nervous system, gastrointestinal tract and even lead to behavioural or learning issues. There is no proof connecting these unsafe levels of lead to the mill’s activity. 

Sheikhpura Islamabad housing colony Uttar Pradesh
Water discharged from the mill passes a house in Sheikhpura (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

Kusum’s groundwater comes from a hand pump which has a depth of about 35-40 ft. Her neighbour Seema Saini got her family’s borewell dug deeper in the hope of accessing water without an “odd colour” and  “pungent smell”. Currently, Saini gets her water from a depth of 110 ft. But digging deeper is not enough. “You keep the water in the open for a few hours, and it turns yellow as well,” she says. The residents joke that the water here is chamatkari (magical). 

Tests conducted by The Third Pole on the water supplied by Saini showed a slightly lower TDS level of about 760, considered ‘fair’ by the WHO. Pesticide residue in the form of chlorpyrifos was also detected in this water. 

Depinder Kapur, a senior development expert with the trust India WASH forum who saw the water reports, explains that generally “pesticide residue can cause genetic mutation, hormonal imbalance and can lead to irreversible damage, although we still don’t know [exactly] which chemicals can have certain effects on our body”.

What lawmakers say

“The problem of coloured water coming from hand pumps is likely due to lead and iron contamination,” explained Vivek Roy, a regional officer with the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) in a 2017 video discussing water pollution in Uttar Pradesh’s water bodies. 

According to Kapur, “groundwater contamination is a matter of concern throughout the country and effluents from the industries have been found to severely affect groundwater quality in several parts of India”.

Ankit Singh, regional officer for the Muzaffarnagar district branch of the UPPCB, says that “all the industries are inspected once every three months, and industries in red zones such as sugar mills are often inspected once a month”. India colour codes its industrial clusters depending on their environmental impacts. With a pollution index score of 60 and above, sugar industries are categorised as red. 

Singh adds that every industry and its ETP outlets are connected to a central monitoring system which continuously reads and sends data to State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) authorities. 

“If the pollution control boards receive any number that exceeds the permissible limit, the industry is sent a notice and serious action is taken,” he says. Five parameters are scrutinised for all industries: BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand), TDS (Total Dissolved Solids), Ph value, COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) and TSS (Total Suspended Solids). “If we receive any complaints regarding the presence of other pollutants, only then other parameters, like the presence of heavy metals or other chemicals, are checked.”

However, Himanshu Thakkar, an environmental activist and water expert with the non-profit South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), says the pollution agencies lack credibility. According to him, because the parameters that CPCB monitors are not available to the public, trust in the institutions “is hard to maintain”.

The Venice of Khatauli 

Crossed by a web of drains and small canals, the settlement of Islamabad, the area located near the ETP unit of the Triveni Sugar Mill, looks more like a small island than a village in a landlocked state. A long line of homes stretches along a medium-sized drain where the mill releases its wastewater. It is dotted with floating plastic bottles and cans. Big plastic pipes coming out of the buildings release discharge from toilets and kitchens in the same drain. 

At the back of the ETP, in the middle of the village, a cluster of ponds breeding mosquitoes, insects and flies now occupies what used to be farmland. After the mill bought it, all that is left of the previously arable land is polluted still water smelling of rotten vegetables. 

Effluent treatment plant India Khatauli Uttar Pradesh
One of the ETP outlets dumps water in the open ground in Khatauli (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

Ahmad Ansari, a 73-year-old social worker and resident of Islamabad village, explains: “There are many outlets coming out of the mill. Some pipes discharge wastewater right out of the mill, but others go as far as 3-4 kilometres to release it in storm drains further away.” 

Mohammad Arif’s house is located on the edge of a canal carrying wastewater from the mill out of Islamabad. He says that “the water from the mill comes unpredictably, at different times of the day and in different colours”. He adds that “the mill often releases so much liquid discharge that the drains overflow and water enters our houses. I have seen water ranging from dark brown to red many times. The water is sometimes hot and you can see vapour coming out.”

A water sample collected by farmer Shekhar Chauhan on the night of 9 February 2021 revealed a BOD of 637 mg/l and a COD of 2,149 mg/l – over 1,000% higher than the permissible limit

The Third Pole collected samples of the dark liquid oozing out from the end of the ETP unit right onto the ground without any concrete barrage. A sample collected in the daytime showed a BOD and a COD of 87 and 370 respectively, both compliant with the law. However, a second sample collected by the farmer Chauhan on the night of 9 February 2021 at 2 am revealed a BOD of 637 mg/l and a COD of 2,149 mg/l – which is over 1,000% higher than the permissible limit. When water is released into water sources, the safe BOD limit is 30 mg/l. The safe limit for water released on land is 100 mg/l.

Responding to an email from The Third Pole, a spokesperson from the Triveni mill said that “a three stage ETP with Activated Sludge Process technology is used to treat the wastewater”. The mill did not provide an explanation for the discrepancy in water quality between day and night.

What is the activated sludge process?

The activated sludge process is designed to treat industrial and urban wastewater, using microorganisms to degrade organic matter and nutrients present in liquid waste, producing an effluent that is less harmful to the environment. The sludge contains a variety of organisms, ranging from bacteria to small invertebrates, which are added to the wastewater in a controlled environment, usually in dedicated tanks. In order to maintain the aerobic conditions the microorganisms need to stay alive, the containers receive a continuous supply of oxygen.

Thakkar and other wastewater experts are not surprised by the findings. According to the 10 wastewater and pollution experts The Third Pole spoke with, avoiding the cost of water treatment by forging data to mislead pollution agencies is a consistent and widespread clandestine practice among a wide range of industries across India and elsewhere. 

Bhim Singh Rawat, associate coordinator of the non-profit SANDRP, says that “it is not very difficult to forge the data and continue such behaviour. The corruption is immense and accountability is low.” At many factories and effluent treatment plants, he adds, “I have seen probes dipped in clean water, as a way of bypassing the monitoring measures put in place by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board.”

Soon after the lab results came back, Chauhan filed a case with the National Green Tribunal, India’s environmental court, on 3 March 2021. 

The court took the complaint seriously. After the case was lodged, a judge ordered the creation of a dedicated team tasked with visiting Khatauli and collecting water samples. 

“Following the procedure, samples of effluent need to be sent for investigation with a copy of the same samples sent to the polluting industry,” Sanjay Upadhyaya, an environmental lawyer and Supreme Court advocate, tells The Third Pole. “It’s the regulator’s job to collect samples to monitor the industries.” 

However, he adds: “Thinking from a regulator’s perspective, we don’t have enough [officials], systems, facilities, methods and data in place to do continuous monitoring.” 

Implementing best practices is a mighty task. “If we wanted to regulate and monitor every industry [in the country], it would take more than four years, to complete the cycle,” Upadhyaya explains.

Villagers Khatauli complain sugar mill pollution Uttar Pradesh
Ansari Ahmed shows a folder which contains the complaints he has filed in the last two decades. (Image: Monika Mondal/The Third Pole)

Together with other activists, Ansari has been complaining to the authorities since 1990 to no avail. He says that while the ETP unit was being built in the early 1990s, local settlements were growing and thriving. “Though the construction of ETP was granted [on the condition that it would adhere to] environmental regulations, the villagers were never consulted,” he explains. From 1990 to 2017, multiple letters, notices and complaints were sent to both the Triveni Sugar Mill and government authorities. In 2000, courts slapped the mill with a daily fine of Rs 100,000 (about USD 1,350 with the current exchange rate) for breaching environmental norms.

When the mill’s management was asked about these grievances, they denied all charges and told The Third Pole that they have never received “any genuine complaint[s]” from the villagers or from any competent authority.

Health impacts

Being outdoors in Khatauli after sunset is a distressing experience. Mosquitoes rise from the stagnant waters as soon as the light dies and temperature drops.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of the doctors at the city’s primary healthcare centres says patients come to the centre with complaints of skin rashes and other skin-related diseases, which they allege are a direct result of industrial pollution. 

Chanchal Pal, a Delhi-based ENT specialist who studies the impact of pollution on health and the environment, echoes the local doctor’s concerns. “Nothing stays limited to one part of the body. If someone inhales the toxic gases produced by the mill or due to the combustion of waste from a waste-to-energy plant, it might start from the nose, but would further make its way to the lungs.” 

Sugar mill wastewater dumped into Khatauli village India Uttar Pradesh
Water from the ETP comes into direct contact with the ground (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

When someone is continuously exposed to toxic components in the air, she explains, the tiny particles they breathe eventually penetrate the bloodstream, which in turn can damage kidneys, intestines and other parts of the body. Prolonged exposure also increases the risk of developing cancer. “The source of pollution could be air or water, but its impacts on the whole human body are widely known,” she says. 

In India, “there are only a limited number of studies on the effect of industrial waste on human health,” says Vikrant Tongad, founder of the non-profit Social Action for Forest and Environment. “To establish a link between industrial effluents and human health, there is a need for independent and detailed research.” 

More importantly, he says, individual water samples are not sufficient to determine the extent of the potential environmental damage caused by polluting industries. Water testing is a good starting point, he concedes, but it should be complemented by soil testing, detailed mapping of the water quality from hand pumps and borewells across the area, and, where possible, blood tests to assess residents’ health; such detailed tests never get done.

Limited water, unlimited demand 

To mature in the field, one kilo of sugarcane requires 1,500-2,000 litres of water. After the harvest, crushing a single tonne of sugarcane requires another 1,500-2,000 litres of water, generating about 1,000 litres of wastewater. 

While sugarcane production has increased in the area, annual rainfall has been decreasing. The India Meteorological Department has compiled a set of rainfall data from 1989 to 2018 for the state of Uttar Pradesh, and found that the annual precipitation levels, mainly driven by monsoon rains, have decreased significantly. The study says that changes in mean rainfall patterns as well as in the intensity and frequency of extreme rainfall events in the area can be attributable to climate change. 

PK Singh, who heads Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), a local agriculture office working under the government of India, explains that “this area faces multiple challenges, including climate change and water depletion”. He says that over the past few years, temperatures have started to increase “abnormally around February”, affecting the production of crops like wheat. Despite the reduced precipitation, farmers are still cultivating sugarcane because they can tap into groundwater reserves to irrigate their fields.

In the village, Pankaj, a local mechanic, takes a break on his way to dig a new borewell. “Earlier, water could be easily found at about 40-50 ft [12-15 metres] underground, but this is not the case anymore,” he says. “Groundwater levels have dropped drastically, and now we have to dig wells down to more than 100 ft [50 metres] to find any water at all.” Singh from KVK confirms that “over the past decade average groundwater levels have gone down by 96 cm per year”.

Sugar mill waste dump Islamabad colony India Muzaffarnagr Khatauli Uttar Pradesh
A common drain passing through the Islamabad colony is used by the mill and residents (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

Wasting water in times of scarcity

While the region suffers from increasing water scarcity, ponds and artificial lakes are overflowing with wastewater from the mill.

UPPCB officer Ankit Singh says that “the permissible limit for a sugar industry as big as Triveni’s Khatauli mill is to release 1,935 kl of water from the ETP and 600 kl from the sugar processing mill every day.” 

Overall, the mill is allowed to release about 2,500,000 litres of water per day, a volume that while permitted by law often ends up flooding nearby farms such as Bir’s and Chauhan’s. Technologies such as Zero Liquid Discharge, which recovers wastewater and turns the contaminants into solid waste, would prevent such impacts, but the Indian government does not mandate their adoption.

The Third Pole asked the Triveni Sugar Mill’s management for details on how much water the structure is allowed to discharge every day, as well as the amount of water released, but the company declined to comment. 

If a water body where the waste is being dumped is not big enough or does not receive sufficient fresh water to dilute the concentration of waste, the components of waste can percolate inside the ground and impact the land and groundwater. 

For example, “one million litres of treated effluent with a BOD concentration of 100 mg/l will generate about 100 kg of organic waste,” says Dhawal Patil, director of the consultancy Saniverse Environmental Solutions in Pune. “So if the piece of land where the waste is dumped is confined, or if the water body does not receive enough fresh water, the amount of waste will not be able to break down and will surely impact the land, water body and eventually the groundwater quality.” 

The storm drains in the mills district of Muzaffarnagar are designed to carry clean water which ends up in rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean. 

Instead, they carry both urban and industrial pollutants. Most of the wastewater released from Muzaffarnagar ends up in the Kali East River or Nagin Nadi, a rain-fed rivulet originating from Antwada, a location 13 km away from Katauli, which eventually merges with the Ganga River. Over 27% of wastewater in Uttar Pradesh from industries is released in the Kali river alone. With limited access to water for irrigation, the farmers use the polluted water from the drains to irrigate their crops. 

Kali Nadi Uttar Pradesh
Most of the wastewater released from Muzaffarnagar ends up in the Kali East river or Nagin Nadi (Image: Monika Mondal / The Third Pole)

A report by the Indian government’s policy branch NITI Aayog found that 70% of water in Uttar Pradesh is polluted and cited unsustainable sugarcane production as one of the possible sources. However, a study from the non-profit Oxfam points out that the lack of information from monitoring agencies makes the investigation process difficult, and the economic dependency on the crop of about 60% of the state’s population saves the mills from following stringent environmental regulations. 

The sugar industry is a key part of India’s agrarian economy. It sustains areas such as Khatauli and supports both the farmers and the community at large. However, a fast-degrading environment and deteriorating water sources are undoing years of economic progress, threatening the health and wellbeing of thousands of people. 

“While the government assigns limits on effluent waste, it does not take into consideration the regeneration capacity of the water body or the local environment where the waste would be dumped,” Dhawal Patil says. “Though India has some of the best environmental laws, their poor implementation is their biggest limitation.” 

A previous version of this story stated that “In Uttar Pradesh, the biggest 56 sugar mills generate about 32% of the state’s wastewater and discharge up to 85.7 kiloliters (kl) of water per day”. This has been corrected to the right figure of 85.7 million liters per day (MLD). The error is regretted.