The Circulation of Toxicity Between Urban and Peri-urban Frontiers

Using a flow-based approach, this article uses the example of water in Ghaziabad in an attempt to reveal how toxicity is circulated and re-circulated between the urban and the peri-urban. 

Kartik Chugh

Development and Peri-urbanisation

Since the economic liberalization in 1991, India has experienced an upsurge in urbanization. In 2019, 34.5% of India’s total population was living in the urban as compared to 25.7% in 1991. This trend is expected to continue with more than 43% of Indians expected to be urban dwellers by 2030 (McKinsey, 2010). As the urban population increases, so does the pressure on the cities to acquire resources to accommodate and fulfil the needs of the people. As a result, the cities expand their compass, engulfing the countryside in the process.

When a rural centre comes in contact with the urban, it experiences rapid and large socio-economic and environmental changes over space and time. And since this development is usually unplanned, the changes result in the formation of a mosaic outlined by mixed features of both rural and urban, and ambiguous institutional arrangements. We call this process peri-urbanisation. While many authors argue that peri-urbanisation is just a transitional phase of the rural towards the inevitable urban, others contend that the peri-urban interface is relevant in a number of ways. For instance, to meet the demands of the growing cities, it is usually the peri-urban resources such as water that get acquired, sourced and polluted. In other words, the environmental cost of development is usually borne by those living in the periphery. To understand it better, let us look at the example of Ghaziabad. 

The Case of Peri-urban Ghaziabad

Once a rural centre, the majority of the population of Ghaziabad relied on agriculture for subsistence. Since then, it has experienced a rapid transition in various phases of development, thanks to its proximity to Delhi. The acquisition of land for industrialization started in the 1960s and has continued ever since. A lack of affordable housing in the capital city encouraged the development of real estate in Ghaziabad. In 1983 and 1987, agricultural lands were acquired by the Development Authorities to set up residential areas. In the late 90s when Delhi was looking to depollute its environment, several industries in the city were shut down only to find refuge in the satellite town of Ghaziabad where they were relocated (Priya et al., 2017). 

In per-urban Ghaziabad, agriculture remains an important livelihood activity. Still from: Did you Do It? | Credits: Aditi Bhande

The landscape of Ghaziabad serves as a typical example of a peri-urban space. In this landscape, agriculture remains as an important means of livelihood for a lot of people. The process of industrialization and real estate development in Ghaziabad has resulted in the deterioration of the environment. Not only has the air quality taken a major hit, the water sources have also been contaminated by the industries. Moreover, overexploitation of groundwater and the acquisition of commons such as village ponds have resulted in the depletion of groundwater table to such an extent that many parts of Ghaziabad have been declared as ‘dark zones.

The Circulation of Toxicity

Because of the scarce availability of groundwater in Ghaziabad, many farmers use water from the Hindon river (a tributary of Yamuna) to irrigate their fields. Others rely on wastewater from the city for the same. While the use of wastewater can be instrumental in supporting the livelihoods of poorer peri-urban farmers, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is important to note that its usage can also pose numerous health problems to farmers and consumers. 

Many studies have revealed dangerous levels of heavy metal concentrations in the Hindon river water and its surface sediments. According to Suthar et al. (2009), the river Hindon is moderately polluted by heavy metals Copper (Cu), Chromium (Cr) and Ferrous (Fe), and strongly polluted by Cadmium (Cd). The major cause of heavy metal contamination in river Hindon is attributed to industrial and urban discharge. And since the water from Hindon is used to irrigate fields, it leads to the contamination of agricultural soil. Consequently, the vegetables produced in these areas also get contaminated. According to Chabukdhara  (2015), the concentration of certain heavy metals such as Lead (Pb), Nickel (Ni), Cadmium (Cd), and Zinc (Zn) in vegetables grown in peri-urban Ghaziabad exceeded the safety limits set up by WHO. Similar findings have been reported from other peri-urban places such as Okhla, Najafgarh and Alipur which surround the capital city (see Singh and Kumar, 2005). Due to its proximity to the urban market, the peri-urban produce flows towards the city centre, raising health concerns for those who consume it.

Circulation and Re-circulation of toxicity between the urban and peri-urban frontier. Credits: Author

By citing the example of Ghaziabad, this article demonstrated the flows of toxicity between the urban and the peri-urban. To meet the demands of the burgeoning city, peri-urban resources such as water are first appropriated. The peri-urban water circulates through the urban where it is utilized for industrial, domestic, and recreational purposes. The aspirations of the city to achieve ‘world-class’ status means that the waste-water and industrial effluents cannot prevail in the urban frontier. Unsurprisingly, the waste-water (and also vehicular emissions, solid waste, etc.) are dumped (or flow) in the peri-urban hinterland. The circulation of toxicity from urban to the peri-urban results in the contamination of peri-urban resources, commons and agricultural plots. Since the agricultural produce is generated using these contaminated resources, toxicity is re-circulated to the urban centre when this produce flows to the city centre and is consumed by its inhabitants.     


  • McKinsey Global Institute. (2010). India’s urban awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth. Available here
  • Chabukdhara, M., Munjal, A., Nema, A., Gupta, S., & Kaushal, R. (2016). Heavy metal contamination in vegetables grown around peri-urban and urban-industrial clusters in Ghaziabad, India. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal, 22, 736 – 752.
  • Suthar, S., Nema, A. K., Chabukdhara, M., & Gupta, S. K. (2009). Assessment of metals in water and sediments of Hindon River, India: impact of industrial and urban discharges. Journal of hazardous materials, 171(1-3), 1088–1095.
  • Priya, R., Bisht, R., Randhawa, P., Arora, M., Dolley, J., McGranahan, G. and Marshall, F. (2017) Local Environmentalism in Peri-Urban Spaces in India: Emergent Ecological Democracy? STEPS Working Paper 96, Brighton: STEPS Centre
  • Singh, S., Kumar, M. (2006). Heavy Metal Load Of Soil, Water And Vegetables In Peri-Urban Delhi. Environ Monit Assess 120, 79–91.

Kartik Chugh
Kartik Chugh

Kartik is a research intern at CUES-NIPGR under project TIGR2ESS. He is interested in the political ecology, and geography of human-animal interactions. When not absorbed in the research work, Kartik enjoys cooking, and loves playing football.

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