Punjab grapples with fallout of grave ecological disaster as leak from sugar factory kills thousands of fishes in Beas river

Ludhiana: In what could be Punjab’s worst environmental disaster in recent history, a leak from a sugar factory in Gurdaspur has contaminated the Beas river water, killing thousands of fishes and destroying the aquatic ecosystem before flowing towards Rajasthan, which uses the water for drinking and agriculture.

On 17 May, 12,000 litres of boiling molasses got spilled over into Beas from a mill of Chadha Sugar Industries following an exothermic reaction in its storage tanks. As the mill is located next to a drain connected to the river, the impact was immediate. Within hours, locals started spotting dead fishes floating on the water.

Punjab’s wildlife department has found more than five varieties of fish that became victims of the spillage. The list includes Bagarius bagarius, Wallago Attu and Chitala chitala, all near-threatened species according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Fish sellers in the area are worried over their future as they are finding it hard to get fishes from Beas.

Iqbal Singh Faridi, a fish contractor from Tarn Taran, says the demand for fish has suddenly declined in Punjab after the incident. “We used to get 1.5 quintal of fish from Harike daily but besides the severe decline in quantity, the demand for fish has also dipped. People fear that they may get contaminated fish,” says Faridi.

Dead fish in the Beas river. Image: Siddharth Arora

Dead fish in the Beas river. Image: Siddharth Arora

Indus water dolphins seem to be lucky enough to have survived the lethal attack of molasses. Estimated by the WWF to be in the range of 5-11 along a 185-km-long stretch of Beas river, dolphins have been sighted after the spillage.

WWF’s dolphin researcher Gitanjali Kanwar says after the molasses contaminated the water, these dolphins must have went on to the cleaner side of the river and survived. "Whatever said and done, the food base (fishes) for the dolphins in the river has been eliminated and we need to keep an eye on further developments," Kanwar alerts.

Ecological damage could be irreversible

The intensity of the industrial accident, alleged to have been caused by negligence of the mill management, was so severe that the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) imposed a hefty fine of Rs 5 crore for first time in the history of the state, on the mill. The establishment has since been sealed. As per the orders, the mill will undertake an endowment programme that will be prepared by PPCB, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) and Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (GADVASU). The programme will run for five years.

In a report, the pollution watchdog describes the incident as an “environmental catastrophe of a very high level” that occurred due to spillage of molasses from the mill into Beas leading to killing of large number of fishes and other aquatic species.

The report also fears that it will take years to regenerate the ecology of the river after the degradation. According to experts, the company did not make appropriate arrangements to store molasses scientifically and safely.

PPCB chairman KS Pannu has stated in the inquiry report that a criminal complaint shall be filed against the mill and against the person who at the time of the “offence was committed was in charge of and was responsible to the company for the conduct and business of the company”.

Risk to Rajasthan

After creating much aquatic destruction in Punjab, the contaminated water is now flowing towards Rajasthan through the Indira Gandhi canal in Ferozepur district. Water from the canal feeds several districts in the neighbouring desert state including Hanumangarh, Sri Ganganagar, Bikaner and Jodhpur.

Undoubtedly, farmers in Rajasthan are afraid that the polluted water, unfit even for bathing, may destroy their crops.

Unholy nexus between politicians and industrialists?

Noted environmentalist Balbir Singh Seechewal, who has been working on water pollution issues, points out that rivers in Punjab are being polluted indiscriminately with no action being taken by the state government, as most of the industrial units dumping effluents and chemicals in the rivers have political patronage.

“The incident that killed tonnes of fishes in Beas is new but no one talks about the condition of Sutlej river where we used to see fishes a few years back. They died due to the dumping of hazardous chemicals in the river through drains in Jalandhar and Ludhiana districts,” says Seechewal.

The sugar mill in question here in Gurdaspur is owned by Jasdeep Kaur, wife of Hardeep Chadha who met a tragic end during a shootout with his brother Ponty Chadha at a south Delhi farmhouse in November 2012, and is believed to be politically well-connected.

After the Gurdaspur incident became an environmental issue, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh held a review meeting on 24 May with officials of different departments and instructed them to prepare a comprehensive river cleaning programme, assigning environment minister OP Soni the task to find ways to clean all rivers in the state.

Punjab not new to river pollution

The incident has also acted as an alarm bell for the state government to act against hundreds of industrial units in different cities of Punjab that are dumping pollutants in water streams.
Effluents are also dumped in a stream called ‘Buddha nullah’ in Ludhiana by industrial units that further mixes with Sutlej river and reaches the Harike-Pattan on border of Tarn Taran and Ferozepur districts. The area also has a wetland that is house to a variety of flora and fauna. Beas meets Sutlej at the same point.

According to a research by Punjabi University in Patiala, the Harike wetland receives heavy metal laden water from industrial cities of Jalandhar and Ludhiana.

(Authors are Punjab-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)


Updated Date: Jun 01, 2018 22:01 PM

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