Plans for the creation of an industrial park in Punjab has resulted in opposition from political parties and environmentalists alike ahead of the assembly polls due next year. The Punjab government has proposed an industrial park spread across over 955.67 acres in the ecologically sensitive Mattewara Forest along the banks of the river Sutlej.
While launching the project in 2020 the government had claimed that it would give a boost to the economy. However, the fear of growing industrial and river pollution with disastrous effects on farmers' fields has stirred up protests.
Spread over 2,300 acres, Mattewara Forest is the largest forest in Punjab, inhabited by a large number of wildlife species, including deer, sambar, antelopes, wild boar, among others. The Botanical & Butterfly Garden is one of the finest and fastest developing gardens being maintained by the Ludhiana Forest Division. Environmentalists say that the plan for the industrial park reflected that the state had not fully realised the repercussions of setting up an industry on the river bank.
A Public Action Committee (PAC) – constituted by several organisations – to save Mattewara Forests has written a letter to the heads of all political parties in Punjab, asking them to "take a clear public stand" ahead of the 2022 Punjab polls on the "proposed industrial park in (an) ecologically sensitive zone". Protests at the office of the Greater Ludhiana Area Development Authority (GLADA) under the PAC banner have been ongoing since earlier this month.
One of the protesters' key demands has been the zoning of the Sutlej floodplains, which has not happened yet and is likely to adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of farmers in the villages of villages of Garhi Fazal, Salempur, and Sekhowal, which lie adjoining the protected forests of Mattewara.
The villagers have been reiterating that the gram sabhas had flagged their opposition to the project in 2020, yet the process of creating the industrial park was given a go ahead.
The organisations state that Sutlej is already severely polluted due to industrial run-off and sewage. The protesters maintained that the agitation would be intensified in the future if GLADA failed to follow the directions of the National Green Tribunal in the matter.
Kashmir Singh, one of the activists and farmers participating in the movement, told Newsclick: “The presence of industrial waste in our region has meant that our fields have slowly been destroyed. It has proven to be a threat to our earnings and our livelihood. To add to this, we have witnessed consistent bullying by the factories; the industrial activity threatens our ecosystem and our very existence. If a project with the estimated scale of the industrial park is not opposed it will only aggravate our woes, causing enormous destruction to our environment."
In a letter written to political parties across the board in Punjab, the action committee on Mattewara had pointed out that the "groundwater situation in Punjab is very precarious with water table falling. Experts have predicted desertification of Punjab in the coming decades if this trend continues. This region is a biodiversity hotspot and helps to maintain the health of the river. It also contains lush forests which are called riparian forests or floodplain forests. Flood plains help to recharge groundwater by providing channels of flow between underground aquifers and the river. Damage to floodplains harms the riverine ecosystem, lessens groundwater recharge capacity, and poses threats of flash floods.”
For the youth of the area who are actively spearheading the movement, the issue is not merely one of environmental justice, but also for farm and land rights. Speaking to Newsclick, Jujhar Singh from the student organisation 'Sath' said: “The issue of Mattewara Forest is very sensitive. Firstly, it is an environmental issue as Punjab is facing a big environmental crisis. Ground water is being depleted day by day and the area under forest land is less than four percent; the amount of rainfall is decreasing each year as well. Secondly, the way land is being grabbed by authorities is a direct intrusion of the state in farmers’ fields. At a time when farmers are protesting in Delhi to save their land, authorities are hell bent on snatching it. The present acquisition of common village land in Sekhowal was under the new amendment that the Captain governement made in the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1961. Sath will fight for the land, rivers and forests of Punjab.”
Alongside the protests on farm laws, the opposition Congress Party is also using the issue as a poll plank to seek solidarity with farmers in the area and has joined civil society organisations to oppose the project. A petition has been filed in the National Green Tribunal to halt the proposal immediately.