Punjab’s new challenge: uranium in ground water

Even as he accepted Punjab’s case for enhanced allocation to augment the rural water supply system, as it faces the problem of presence of uranium, arsenic, and heavy metals in ground water used for drinking, Union Rural Development and Panchayats Minister Jairam Ramesh on Friday advised the State government to introspect and analyse its performance record on utilisation of previous grants for the purpose.


Mr. Ramesh was talking to reporters after laying the foundation for a one-of-its-kind laboratory in Mohali, which would be dedicated to testing drinking water.

The Rs. 4-crore facility would cater to the needs of the northern States. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre would coordinate with the laboratory to assess the presence of heavy metals and hazardous materials in drinking water. It would analyse the causes, besides suggesting remedies and viable alternatives to deal with the situation, the Minister said.

Ever since some environmentalist raised the issue, water from 2462 tubewells was collected from across Punjab. Of the 1642 results available so far, at least 1142 tested positive for presence of uranium.

While most of the water was from the cotton belt in the south-western districts of the Malwa region of Punjab, Gurdaspur from the Majha belt reported the presence of arsenic in ground water.

Mr. Ramesh said that though the exact cause could not be pinpointed immediately, the most popular theory doing the rounds indicated that the heavy metals could have leached into the soil from the excessive use of phosphate-based fertilizers.

Presiding over a regional review meeting on drinking water supply and sanitation, in which representatives from most north Indian States participated, Mr. Ramesh revealed that Rs. 10, 500 crore would be spent in the current fiscal to provide clean drinking water in rural areas.

At least Rs. 525 crore was earmarked for areas where ground water had unique issues, like uranium in Punjab.

Mr. Ramesh said the allocation for rural water supply schemes in different States in the North had been increased substantially compared to last year. Jammu and Kashmir would get Rs. 511 crore this year, against Rs. 435 crore the previous year; Uttrakhand Rs. 160 crore, compared to Rs. 139 crore last year; Haryana, Rs. 250 crore, compared to Rs. 211 crore. However, Punjab would get Rs. 103 crore in 2012-13, compared to just Rs. 88 crore last fiscal.

Seeking to deny any discrimination, Mr. Ramesh said Punjab had to introspect on its priorities. Of Rs. 151 crore provided through central grants for rural water supply so far, Punjab could utilise only Rs. 29 crore.

Similarly, while the rest of the States made major strides in sanitation, Punjab lagged behind. He pointed out that by providing toilets to all, Sikkim was the first State to become a “Nirmal Raj.”

By November, Kerala was expected to clock 100 per cent coverage under the Nirmal gram scheme of providing sanitation.

Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were expected to be declared “Nirmal Raj” in 2013. But Punjab, which reported just 2 per cent coverage, required at least four years for guaranteeing provision of sanitation facilities to 100 per cent of the population.