- Industrial and organic pollution from the Sutlej and the Beas is affecting southern districts of Punjab and parts of Rajasthan
- A popular movement straddling both states and helmed by eco-activist Baba Balbir Singh
- Seechewal has the election-bound state government worried
- Seechewal organised a massive exercise to prevent the Kala Sanghian, a highly polluted Sutlej tributary, from draining into it
The industrial and organic pollution of major rivers like the Sutlej and Beas in Punjab has continued without impediment for years, bringing death and disease not only to Punjab’s southern districts but also to Rajasthan, into which the waters of the two rivers have streamed via the 2,000-km Indira Gandhi canal. It has taken a people’s movement spread across the two states to get Punjab’s jittery, election-bound government on tenterhooks and put its industrial lobby on the defensive. Ironically, the campaign is led by a member of the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, the state’s best known environmentalist and the most vocal critic of the PPCB.
The resentment of the affected people was plain to see a few weeks back, when Seechewal organised a massive exercise to block Kala Sanghian, a highly polluted Sutlej tributary, from draining into it. Kala Sanghian conducts the waste from Jalandhar’s leather tanneries and surgical instruments industry and its untreated sewage to the Sutlej. Apart from the people of Jalandhar and the adjoining districts turning up en masse, what really rattled the administration was the response from Hanumangarh, Suratgarh, Ganganagar and Bikaner in Rajasthan. Shankar Soni, a lawyer from Hanumangarh who has filed a petition in the Lok Adalat to get Punjab to crack down on polluters, told Outlook, “Since the Indira Gandhi canal began bringing water to Rajasthan, people in the rural areas have been drinking the water as it is, because our groundwater is brackish. Over the years, we’ve noticed a rise in the incidence of cancer, hepatitis and skin ailments. The water smells foul, and we realised that it is flowing into our areas from Punjab.” Cancer is now endemic in about 100 villages on or in the vicinity of the Beas and polluted tributaries of the Sutlej such as Kala Sanghian, Buddha Nallah and Chitti Bein.
Much of the credit for fostering awareness about the issue in Rajasthan goes to Seechewal, who in 2009 undertook a tour of the affected areas and spoke to people about pollutants and their deleterious effects. “It opened our eyes,” says Soni. Seechewal, who in 2008 was on Time magazine’s ‘Heroes of the Environment’ list, told Outlook: “Neither the industrialists nor the municipal corporations bother too much about the notices sent by the PPCB. And why would they, when the mayors of Ludhiana and Amritsar, and some of the industrialists, are themselves members of the board?”
One of the first to show solidarity with the industrial polluters’ lobby was the BJP’s Manoranjan Kalia, who, a little more than a month ago, was Punjab’s industries minister. Even as industry representatives have begun a dharna to protest the campaign, Kalia is offering assurance that he will arrange for them to meet the chief minister. This time though, it appears as if the old tactics may not work. For one, with elections due next year, and opposition parties like the Congress extending support to Seechewal, the Punjab government is wary of soft-pedalling the issue. Now, with the people of Rajasthan beginning to point accusing fingers, the embarrassment has become hard to mask. As Seechewal points out, “Let the cities manage their effluents themselves. Villagers will not allow the waste to flow into their areas and ruin their lives.”