Buddha Dariya, in Punjab’s Ludhiana city, was once a clear stream of water, flowing into one of the largest rivers of the state, the Sutlej. Today, it is a stream of toxic sludge, carrying tonnes of industrial waste from the city’s textile industry, as well as untreated sewage waste.

Numerous public campaigns, media reports, court orders, National Green Tribunal interventions and administrative deadlines have failed to clean the Buddha Dariya.

So, when in July 2020, the then Congress government approved a textile park in the vicinity of the Mattewara forest and Sutlej river, 20 km from Ludhiana, the city’s residents got together to oppose it.

The wastewater in the Buddha Dariya is considered one of the causes of the pollution of the Sutlej river. In fact, Ludhiana was recently featured in the top 50 most polluted cities of the world in 2021.

Given this, the city’s residents were concerned that a proposed textile park, spread over 1,000 acres, would further add to the pollution. The people formed a Public Action Committee soon after the project’s announcement.

The group included Jaskirat Singh, a mechanical engineer and environment activist, dentist Amandeep Singh Bains, industrialist Ranjot Singh, Colonel (retired) CM Lakhanpal, retired merchant navy officer Mohinder Singh Sekhon, Right to Information activist Kuldeep Singh Khaira, civil engineer Kapil Arora and Maninderjit Singh, a farmer.

The Public Action Committee sent numerous representations to the government, filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal and began a social media campaign, besides engaging with like-minded non-profits to oppose the project.

Change of governments

The project, first proposed by the previous Congress government, was subsequently shelved. The Aam Aadmi Party, which was the Opposition at that time, was also against the project.

However, what shocked the people of Ludhiana was the project’s revival by the new Aam Aadmi Party-led government in Punjab. Then in July this year, after protests, the AAP government scrapped the project. Party leaders, including current Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, had in fact been critics of the project when they had been in opposition.

“When AAP was in opposition, their leaders helped us fight the then Congress government on this issue. Once they came to power, they changed their stance. Instead of cancelling the project, they pushed it under the central government’s latest scheme under which seven mega integrated textile regions and apparel parks were proposed across the country,” said Amandeep Bains, a member of the Public Action Committee.

He said that the people were disappointed when they got to know that the new AAP government wanted the Centre to set up one out of seven proposed textile parks in Punjab. He claimed that in the proposal submitted to the Union Textile Ministry, the AAP government had proposed to use the same chunk of 1,000 acres of land near Mattewara, which the previous Congress government had identified.

Following this, when the AAP government officially declared the project in its first budget session in June this year, the Public Action Committee members began mobilising citizens to oppose it. A day after, on July 10, the committee members held a massive protest at the project site, where over 17,000 people turned up, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann invited the Public Action Committee members for talks and subsequently announced the decision to scrap the project.

Mann, who was earlier justifying his government’s nod for the project, pinned the blame on his predecessor Captain Amarinder Singh for ignoring the impact of the proposed project on local ecology. As an olive branch, Punjab’s chief minister proposed to convert the government land on the project site into a biodiversity park. However, the exact plan of the biodiversity park is yet to be unveiled.

Punjab’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forest RK Mishra told Mongabay-India that the biodiversity park is at a planning stage. He stated that the official approval for the project came only a week ago and details are being worked out. “As soon as it is finalised, it will be put before the appropriate authority for approval before implementing things on the ground,” he said.

PAC member Jaskirat Singh said that the proposal for a biodiversity park is a wonderful idea.

“At least it will make sure that there will not be any permanent construction in and around the Mattewara forest. Our request to the government is that they must expand the existing botanic butterfly park at Mattewara as part of their biodiversity project by including rare species. Besides, they must grow trees that are native to the state,” he said while adding that if the area can be developed as an eco-sensitive zone it will further enhance the protection. “We have already requested the government to execute the proposal at the earliest,” he added.

In addition, the AAP government has also started the process of returning the 416 acres of land that were acquired for the project from the Sekhowal village panchayat in Mattewara.

Mobilising public support

Public Action Committee member Jaskirat Singh told Mongabay-India how they mobilised support against the project from the moment the Congress government had announced the textile project.

“As we moved forward, we continued receiving huge public support. When we made a call for protest on July 10, 2022, a day before the AAP government scrapped the project, thousands of people including students, teachers, politicians, activists and NGOs came to oppose the project, which was unimaginable,” said Singh.

He said the first phase of their effort was to form a Public Action Committee with like-minded people, to obtain project details from concerned government agencies and then prevent the then Congress government from acquiring land for the project.

Singh said the government agencies had adopted unfair means to acquire land, which the Public Action Committee could not prevent. “But the good thing was that we could lay our hands on the project details, which confirmed beyond doubt that the project site was next to the 2,300-acre Mattewara forest, known for the flora and fauna. Also, the project was encroaching upon the floodplains of the Sutlej river,” he noted.

This, according to him, gave them optimum ground to move the National Green Tribunal, which was already hearing a case on the encroachment of floodplains in the state. He recounted that during the first hearing in May 2021, the National Green Tribunal directed the state government to demarcate the floodplain area near Mattewara forest, which was used to set up the project.

He explained that the Tribunal’s intervention slowed down the agencies and bought them more time. Meanwhile, the political developments within the ruling Congress government also went in their favour. The then Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who was keen on executing the project, stepped down from his post in September 2021.

“His successor Charanjit Singh Channi then could not take the risk of going against the public by executing the project during the election year. We also released a green manifesto in which the scrapping of the textile park in Mattewara was on the top,” Jaskirat Singh noted.

To the Public Action Committee, the project’s revival by the AAP government was shocking but according to Singh they were “ready to go to any extent including indefinite protest or hunger protest to save Mattewara and Sutlej river.”

Bigger goals

The civil society members are happy that for the moment they have been successful in preventing damage to a forest area and the Sutlej river from being polluted further but they know the problem of Buddha Dariya still looms large.

Kapil Arora, another committee member, told Mongabay-India that their next big focus after Mattewara is to put pressure on the state government to ensure that Buddha Dariya is free of sludge and chemicals at the earliest especially when the local dying industry is already claiming to have commissioned a Common Effluent Treatment Plant.

“This means that illegal discharge of chemical-ridden industrial discharge must be immediately stopped. We request the Punjab government to have a thorough quality check of the rivulet in light of the CETP commissioning and see if there is any visible change,” said Arora.

He said apart from industrial waste there is also the illegal discharge of untreated sewerage into Buddha Dariya. It is reported that a new Sewage Treatment Plant would be ready by year-end.

“We recently met the Punjab Legislative Assembly Speaker Kultar Singh Sandhwan and sought his intervention to make sure that there is a timely commissioning of the treatment plant,” said Arora while adding that they are already fed up with hollow promises on Buddha Dariya.

He pointed out that recently Punjab’s Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann fell ill after drinking water from Kali Bein, one of the tributaries of the Sutlej river, even though it is much cleaner than the Buddha Dariya.

“Imagine what will happen if people drink from here. Arora said that problem is that people are already drinking and facing severe consequences. Whether government agencies accept it or not, the flow of chemical-ridden Buddha Dariya water into Sutlej is the main cause behind this, which must be stopped at any cost. Cleaning of Buddha Dariya must be declared state emergency and work must be done on war-footing,” he said.

Arora warned that if “the situation does not improve in months of come, PAC will once again come out on the road to seek a solution.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.