The contribution of Industrialisation to water pollution in South East Asia

Water being the physical source of life, access to adequate supplies is of vital importance to all human populations. Within South Asia, its rivers have played an important role throughout history, even transcending mere survival. Indeed, culturally, the River Ganges has traditionally been viewed as sacred by its Hindus. The Ganges is used in certain Hindu rites, as well as for bathing, irrigation, and domestic and industrial purposes (Bhargava, 1992, p.104). India’s river system alone is made up of eighteen river basins, of which fourteen have a catchment area exceeding 20,000 km2 (Tiwari and Ali, 1988, p.273). Yet despite South Asia’s dependence on rivers as a source of life, pollution has, in recent years, seriously threatened their potential to sustain this role. It is my intention in the course of this essay to examine the extent to which industrialisation has contributed to such pollution.

While attempting to provide specific examples, it must be noted that the number of sources related directly to the context are limited. While there are several texts available dealing with water pollution in the South Asian locality, while also taking the affect of industrialisation into account, these are not relevant to river systems. Tripathi and Pandey (1990), for example, present a study of water pollution in Kanpur, on the upper Gangetic planes, but limit their research to the case in two ponds.

Having rejected a number of sources on this basis, therefore, this essay is based on only a few texts. Providing an array of examples, Bhargava’s Pollution and its Control (1990) is especially useful, as is Kumra in Chapman and Thompson (1995), relevant to the Ganges. Pamandiker’s (1991) Pollution Control in Indian Industry provides a number of industry specific, rather than location related, examples. As a perspective on Indian legislation regarding water pollution, Desai’s (1990) Water Pollution in India: Law and Enforcement is useful. Although I do make reference to a few other sources, it is unfortunate that the majority of this essay must rely on a basic selection of literature. Despite this restriction, I will examine here the extent to which industrialisation has contributed to water pollution in South Asia’s rivers.

Defining Water Pollution

According to Bhargava (1992, p.93), when any body of water is unfit for “for human or animal consumption, industrial or agricultural use, navigation and recreation purpose”, it is classified as polluted. Where in some situations degradation of the environment may not be classified as polluted, as it is not viewed as a human resource, very rarely would a body of water escape this classification. Water has multiple uses, many of them being vital for life.

Although it is most common to attribute water pollution to waste disposal, it could be argued, on the basis of the above definition, that water pollution could, for example, be a mechanical problem. While hydro-electricity does not directly affect the quality of water, the removal of silt from the flow by a dam may result in faster moving water, with perhaps detrimental effects on land use downstream. Nevertheless, the disposal of sewage water and industrial effluents into water bodies, as well as the drift effect of fertilisers, are viewed as the most common causes of water pollution.

In order to measure its level, there are a number of indicators. Argawal and Bhargava (1977), for example, developed “a composite water quality index according to water uses” to assess the quality of water in the Ganges (Kumra, 1995, p.137). Bhargava (1992, p.15) states that water conditions may be measured on the basis of oxygen content. If the water contains a high concentration of organic and inorganic pollution, the level of dissolved oxygen decreases. A consequence of this is that aquatic organisms disappear, and anaerobic decomposition is accelerated.

A further measure of water pollution is an aesthetic analysis. Odour, colour, turbidity and surface appearance may be the first indicators of water pollution. Bhargava (1992, p.91) writes that anaerobic decomposition of organic material is the commonest cause of odour, which, as already mentioned, may be caused by decreased oxygen content as a result of pollution. Floating material, foaming, oil on water surfaces and turbidity are all indicators of pollution. By decreasing light penetration, turbidity inhibits photosynthesis below the surface. It must be noted, therefore, that pollution is not simply the addition of harmful substances to water. The disposal of some substances may act simply or also as a catalyst to further effects which would be counted as pollution.

Industrialisation in South Asia

Aiming for economic growth and public welfare, industrialisation is viewed as the key to change. Industrialisation, however, presents every country with a dilemma, as to whether the offset between economic production and environmental degradation is worth capital investment. In the short term, the former presents itself as an attractive proposition. In wealthy countries, the latter may be reduced due to the availability of capital investment in pollution reducing technology. This is not so in poor regions like South Asia. Bhargava (1992, p.1) argues that although a developing country has relatively few major industries, the physical environment is “likely to suffer much more from their pollution than would the environment of corresponding projects in the rich countries.” Few people, after all, in wealthy countries are directly dependent on rivers as a source of food and water.

Over recent years, many industries have grown up in South Asia. Relevant to this essay are those which rely upon river water within their processes. According to Chaudhuri (1982), industry itself utilises 35Mm3 of water per year, of which it consumes 10Mm3 and returns 25Mm3. Power supply, upon which most industries rely utilises 150Mm3, yet returns 145Mm3. One of the largest users of water in India is the paper industry (Dewan, 1991, p.3). Situated in rural areas, the tanning industry is also of importance, located mainly in Southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, as well as near Calcutta and Kanpur (Pasha, 1991, p.77). Kumra (1995, p.136) writes that the most important industry in Bihar on the bank of the Ganges is an oil refinery at Barauni. In Calcutta, there are more that 150 industrial units on the banks of the river; 90 of these are jute mills (ibid. p.137).

Further to more traditional industries, Bhargava points out that the last few decades has seen a chemical revolution. With the expansion of industry, “thousands of new chemical substances have been produced and put on the market and their numbers increase every year” (Bhargava, 1992, p.10). The effect of this within industry has been the substitution of organic inputs with synthetic chemicals. In the tanning industry, for example, vegetable tans were replaced in the 1970s with chromium (Pasha, 1991, p.77). Such substitution has had important consequences for water quality as a result of waste discharges.

Water Pollution from non-Industrial Sources

One source states that seventy percent of available water in India is polluted; the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute state that this amount is now unfit for drinking (Bhargava, 1992, p.98). Both Bhargava and Kumra (1995, p.131) agree that the “major cause of the Ganga pollution is sewage being dumped in the river along its 2525 kilometres route” (Bhargava, 1992, p.99), although industrial waste is also a significant factor. Prior to reaching the plains, the Ganges is relatively clean. At Rishikesh, however, sewage is discharged directly into the river (Kumra, 1995, p.132). Further down the Ganges, in Bihar, sewage constitutes a greater problem by quantity than industry. 2500kg of domestic waste is generated each day, compared to the total Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) generated by industries of 8000 kg/day (ibid., p.136). At Kanpur, the total sewage generation dangerously exceeds a legally prescribed limit of 270mg per litre (ibid. p.133). At Allahbad, too, domestic waste is a major contributor to river pollution. Here, however, industrial waste is not a significant factor, due to industry’s absence (ibid. p.135).

It is important to take non-industrial sources of pollution into account in examining the extent of industrialisation’s contribution to water pollution. Sewage disposal constitutes a much larger proportion of all water pollution in South Asia’s rivers than industrial effluent disposal. It is noted, however, that quantity is not necessarily the most appropriate measure in estimating extent. Bhargava (1992, p.99) points out that although it is smaller, industrial waste is a much deadlier source of pollution. Furthermore, Ahmed (1995, p.146) notes that Indian sewage is mostly weaker than that found in the West due to the fact that the Indian diet is largely vegetarion. The extent of its contribution will be examined in the following section.

Industrialisation’s Contribution to Water Pollution

Within South Asia, Bhargava (1992, p.2) identifies eighteen industries as causing water pollution, these including the formulation of pesticides and fertilisers, the paper industry, refineries, paint and dye industries, leather tanning, and various chemical industries. As one of the largest industrial water uses, the paper industry has been put under increasing pressure to reduce its effluent output (Dewan, 1991, p.3). In Calcutta, pulp and paper industries are the source of about half of all industrial effluent generated (Kumra, 1995, p.137). With regards to tanning, pollution arising from effluent discharge is largely associated with modernisation within the industry and industry in general. Since the 1970s, the “use of chromium tanning and dyeing of other chemicals for finishing” has made pollution a very significant problem (Pasha, 1991, p.77). The introduction of common effluent treatment plants amongst industrial clusters has helped to address this problem in most tanning centres in Tamil Nadu. According to Kumra (1995, p.136), the oil refinery at Barauni is the most important industry on the Ganges in Bihar. Table 1 summarises various other sources of industrial pollution in India’s rivers.

Rivers Sources of pollution

1. Ganga at Kanpur Jute, chemical, metal and surgical industries, tanneries, textile mills and a great bulk of domestic sewage of highly organic nature.

2. Hooghly near Calcutta Paper and pulp, textile, power stations, chemicals, jute, paints and varnishes, metal and steel, hydrogenated vegetable oil, rayon, soap industries, match, shellac works, polythene and municipal waste.

3. Sone at Dalmianagar (Bihar) Cement, pulp and paper mill.

4. Daha at Siwan (Bihar) Sugar and distillery wastes

5. Suvaon at Balrampur (U.P.) Sugar factories

6. Kali at Meerut (U.P.) Sugar, distilleries, paints, soaps, rayon, silk, tin and glycerine industries.

7. Rihand Dam near Mirzapur (U.P.) Chemical industries.

8. Gomati near Lucknow Paper and pulp, and sewage.

9. Bajora in Bareilly (U.P.) Synthetic rubber wastes.

10. Yamuna near Delhi DDT Factory

11. Domodar between Bokaro and Panchet Fertiliser, Fly ash from coal washeries and thermal power station.

12. Chaliyar in Calicut (Kerala) Rayon, pulp and domestic sewage.

13. Cooum (Tamil Nadu) Slum, cattle yards, sewage, automobile workshops and other factories.

14. Cauvery and Bhavani (Tamil Nadu) Paper and viscose rayon.

15. Godavari Paper mills.

Table 1 (after Bhargava, 1992, p.15)

The addition of industrial effluent into rivers will not necessarily lead to a pollution problem. Bhargava (1992, p.12) points out that a “a reasonable amount of waste”, such as acids, alkalis, suspended solids, oils and organic matter, “can be absorbed without detriment by a “healthy stream”. There are a number of issues to take into consideration, such as velocity of river flow, the state of the river already and the quantity of effluent discharged into the water supply. Bhargava (ibid. p.16), notes that “Chemical pollutants from industrial wastes vary from short-lived to the permanent and from the locally to the globally distributed.” Under industrialisation, the effect of effluent discharge is very significant and quite different from that in cases of isolated pockets of industry. The existence of a few industries might not constitute industrialisation; the issue, therefore, relates to an extensive concentration of industries, as well as a general association with modernisation. In this case, it can be illustrated that water pollution is a major consequence of industrialisation, although, as Bhargava (ibid. p.99) notes, it is difficult to generalise about industrial effluents.

Kumra (1995, p.137) finds that the Ganges and its major tributaries “carry a wanton discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents from various polluting sources spread all along its course in the plains.” Reference to the oil refinery at Barauni on the Ganges in Bihar, already mentioned, could be made in order to suggest that industrialisation has made a major contribution to water pollution in South Asia’s rivers. In the mid 1980s, its discharge of untreated, flammable effluent into the river was so serious that a 2km stretch of the Ganges caught fire for sixteen hours. Similarly, also on the Ganges, but downstream at Mokamah, river water can no longer be used for drinking or bathing because Bata Shoe Factory and McDowell Distilleries discharge their effluent directly into the river (Kumra, 1995, p.136). 9023m3 of waste is discharged into the Ganges by Hindustan Antibiotics Limited every day. This effluent contains highly toxic chemicals. Indian Drugs and Pharmaceutical Limited and Bharat Heavy Electronics Limited discharge effluents into the river (ibid. p.132). Increased temperature causes the depletion of saturated oxygen, affecting aquatic life. Only sixteen percent of about 125 million litres of waste water produced each day in Varnasi is treated before being discharged into the Ganges (Ahmed, 1995, p.146). Furthermore, the tanneries and textile mills near Kanpur are thought to have destroyed all fish life up to five kilometres downstream of the city. In rendering the river unusable as a source of food, of drinking water and for washing, it is evident that it is seriously polluted. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Ganges is thought to be the most polluted major river in India (Bhargava, 1992, p.95).

If further evidence is required to show that industrialisation is a major contributor to water pollution in the Ganges, reference may be made to areas which do not contain large-scale industries. At Haridwar and Kannauj, where the main source of pollution is sewage rather than industry, there is a high concentration of dissolved oxygen within the water, which suggests minimal pollution (Kurma, 1995, p.132).

Bhargava (1992, p.13) writes that severe pollution would cause fish to be killed, yet many of the examples of industrial discharge record this occurrence. In the Duragapur region, the river was found to be both an unfit source of drinking water and detrimental to fish stocks (ibid., p.17). According to the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute, the annual fish catch has decreased by more than seventy percent in certain parts of the Hooghly estuary (ibid., p.95). The effluent from jute mills and other industries, combined with untreated domestic sewage and hot water from power stations, has destroyed fish stocks, their eggs and larvae (ibid. p.97). Other effects of industrial pollution include alteration of pH levels or simply change of colour. The discharge of untreated effluent from a group of dye industries near Bombay into the Kalu river caused the pH to lower to pH 4.0 (ibid. p.17). The river Chaliyar in Kerala has been reported to have turned brown as a result of industrial pollution (ibid. p.97). Table 2 summarises the contaminants causing pollution from effluent discharges in a number of common industries.

Industry Liquid waste characteristics

1. Meat Products Alkalinity, suspended and total solids, high temperature, oil and grease, chloride, ammonia, phosphorous, BOD, organic nitrogen.

2. Canned and frozen foods Suspended solids, BOD.

3. Sugar Acidity, alkalinity, total and suspended solids, oil and grease, ammonia and organic nitrogen.

4. Textile mill products Acidity, alkalinity, colour, odour, total and suspended solids, BOD, oil and grease, detergents, chromium, copper, zinc, ammoniac nitrogen, nitrate, nitrite, phenols, surfides, turbidity, sulphate, theosulfate.

5. Paper and allied products Alkalinity, colour, solids, temperature, BOD, oil and grease, detergents, chloride, ammonia, organic nitrogen, sulphide, sulphate, mercaptans, linguins, sulphur, phosphates, potassium, calcium, polysa-chlarides, sodium.

6. Fibres, Plastics and rubber Colour, odour, total solids, suspended solids, temperature, oil and grease, detergents, chloride.

7. Fertilisers Colour, odour, total solids, temperature, ammonia, organic ammonia, phosphates, silica, toxicity.

8. Petroleum refinery Acidity alkalinity, colour, odour, suspended solids, BOD, COD, oil and grease, chloride, iron, lead, ammonia, phenols, sulphide, turbidity, sulphate, mercaptans, calcium, sodium, magnesium.

9. Leather tanning and finishing Acidity, alkalinity, colour, odour, suspended solids, BOD, chloride, chromium, ammonia, organic nitrogen, phenols, turbidity, tannin, sodium, cyanide.

10. Steel rolling and finishing Acidity, alkalinity, total and suspended solids, temperature, BOD, COD, oil and grease, chloride, iron, ammonia, phenols, sulphide, fluorides, cyanide, thiocynate.

Table 2 (after Bhargava, 1992, p.29)

Legislation as Evidence of Industrialisation’s Contribution to Water Pollution
Faced with the problems of industrial waste disposal and water pollution, the Indian government enacted legislation to control water pollution. In 1974, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, was adopted by all but a few states in India, and improved by the Amendment Act, 1988. Desai (1990, p.63), however, finds the Act outdated and inefficient in addressing the problem. Legislation lacking any form of deterrent, he writes, provides “very meagre punishment for a water polluter which, in practice, amounts to a “licence to pollute”. The Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985 to attempt to monitor and control the water pollution in the river Ganges (Ahmed, 1995, p.142). These attempts to control water pollution all acknowledge that industrialisation plays a significant role as a contributory factor. They do, however, have little power in reality to control effluent discharges. This is not to say that there has been no success at all in controlling pollution. The Andhra Pradesh State Board, for example, “realised that by tackling 13 industrial units in a total list of 113 units in the city of Hyderabad, more than 90 percent of the industrial waste water by volume would be controlled” (Bhargava, 1992, p.4).


In this essay I have attempted to examine the extent to which industrialisation has contributed to water pollution in South Asia’s rivers. In order to do this I defined water pollution specifically as water unfit for human usage, and mentioned its various measures. I then examined non-industrial sources of pollution to illustrate that other factors contribute to water pollution. Here I found that on the basis of quantity, domestic sewage contributes to more water pollution that industrialisation. In the following section, however, it became clear that industrialisation poses definite dangers to water quality and that it, too, is plays a major role in increasing water pollution. In industrialisation’s case it is not quantity which is the driving factor, but the type of waste discharged. In conclusion, therefore, it may be said that to a large extent, industrialisation can be blamed for water pollution in South Asia’s rivers.

Industrialisation, however, is not the only contributing factor. In relation to the Ganges, Bhargava identifies a rapidly growing human population, disproportionate development and a number of social factors as also contributing to water pollution (1992, p.103). Kumra (1995, p.130) reaches the same conclusion, but states that the “disposal of effluents from domestic and industrial sources… has caused great damage to its water quality.” A better conclusion than that previously stated, therefore, is that industrialisation together with domestic sewage disposal has contributed very significantly to this problem.


• Ahmed, S (1995) Whose Concept of Participation–Society Dynamic in the Cleaning of the Ganges at Varanasi. In Chapman and Thompson (1995) Water and the Quest for Sustainable Development in the Ganges Valley.

• Awasthy, S (1991) Pollution Control in Petrochemical Industries. In Pamandiker, DHP (ed.) (1991) Pollution Control in Indian Industry. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

• Bhargava, G. (1992) Pollution and its Control (With Special Reference to Physical, Chemical and Industrial Environment) New Delhi: Mittal Publications.

• Desai, B (1990) Water Pollution in India: Law and Enforcement. New Delhi: Lancer Books.

• Dewan, D (1991) Advances in Effluent Treatment. In Pamandiker, DHP (ed.) (1991) Pollution Control in Indian Industry. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

• Kumra, VK (1995) Water Quality in the Ganges. In Chapman and Thompson (1995) Water and the Quest fir Sustainable Development in the Ganges Valley.

• Pasha, BA (1991) Pollution Control in Tanning Industry. In Pamandiker, DHP (ed.) (1991) Pollution Control in Indian Industry. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

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