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Chandigarh: Sensing that the public protests against the proposed textile park near the Mattewara forest and Sutlej river in Ludhiana have turned into a massive movement, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab announced on July 11 that the project will be scrapped.
The 1000-acre project, according to environmentalists, posed threats to the Mattewara forest as well as the river.
The government made the announcement with tweets from the party’s and its leaders’ handles after Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann held a meeting with members of the Public Action Committee (PAC), a group of environmentalists and members of the civil society who had been opposed to the project.
ਮੱਤੇਵਾੜਾ ਵਿਖੇ ਪਿਛਲੀ ਕਾਂਗਰਸ ਸਰਕਾਰ ਵੱਲੋਂ ਮਨਜ਼ੂਰ ਕੀਤਾ ਗਿਆ ਟੈਕਸਟਾਈਲ ਪਾਰਕ ਨਹੀਂ ਲੱਗੇਗਾ…ਅੱਜ PAC ਨਾਲ ਮੀਟਿੰਗ ਤੋਂ ਬਾਅਦ ਸਾਡੀ ਸਰਕਾਰ ਨੇ ਇਹ ਫ਼ੈਸਲਾ ਲਿਆ..ਸਗੋਂ ਇਹੀ ਨਹੀਂ ਕੋਈ ਵੀ ਹੋਰ ਇੰਡਸਟਰੀ ਜੋ ਪਾਣੀ ਗੰਧਲਾ ਕਰਦੀ ਹੋਵੇਗੀ ਉਹ ਦਰਿਆਵਾਂ ਦੇ ਕੰਡੇ ਨਹੀਂ ਲੱਗੇਗੀ…
ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੀ ਧਰਤੀ ਤੇ ਪਾਣੀ ਬਚਾਉਣ ਲਈ ਅਸੀਂ ਵਚਨਬੱਧ ਹਾਂ… pic.twitter.com/23TeXiwOua
— Bhagwant Mann (@BhagwantMann) July 11, 2022
The decision comes a day after more than 10,000 people – including politicians, members of farmers’ unions, student leaders, and NGO workers – assembled at the project site in Mattewara, vowing to start a permanent movement against the project.
It was the previous Congress government in Punjab which first mooted the project in July, 2020, and even arranged land for it. Mann had, significantly, opposed the project when he was in the opposition.
Out of the 955 acres identified for the project, 416 acres were forcefully acquired from the Dalit-majority Sekhowal village despite the Gram Sabha of the village having passed a resolution against it.
In his party’s first budget meeting, Mann on the floor of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha, announced the mega, integrated textile region and apparel park under Union government’s PM-Mitra scheme on the same land that the previous Congress government had identified.
Mann had then said that 463 acres of government land in the villages of Ghari Fazal, Haider Nagar and Garcha had been transferred to the Punjab Urban Development Authority (the agency executing the project). Another 493.99 acres of panchayat land in Sekhowal, Sailkiana and Salempur villages had already been acquired after paying compensation, he said.
Later responding to critics who said that this project will ruin the local ecology as it borders the Mattewara forest and Sutlej river, Mann responded that his government would make sure that “not even a drop of Sutlej gets polluted due to this textile park.”
“All environment clearances will have to be taken and the pollution control board will regularly monitor the area,” Mann had said.
U-turn on Monday
Mann, in his public address on his Twitter handle, put the entire blame on the previous Congress government.
He said previous chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh was instrumental in conceiving the project without taking stock of the environment damage.
“Once AAP formed the government, it reviewed the project and finally decided to cancel it after holding a meeting with PAC who for long had been opposing the project,” he said.
“Better late never never,” PAC member Jaskirat Singh told The Wire, reacting to Mann’s announcement. He said Mann should not have revived the project in the first place.
“But PAC is extremely pleased that our efforts bore fruits. This victory would not be possible without immense support of all Punjabis who are deeply concerned about the immense loss to Punjab’s ecology,” said Jaskirat.
He said that part of the Sutlej river near Ludhiana is already polluted. “There were reports that over million trees in the state were cut due to road projects in the past one decade. One can imagine how fragile the environment is. We request the AAP govt to focus more on saving Punjab. Their decision to cancel the project is welcome and is a good beginning. It should not stop here,” he added.
Govt to return acquired land
The government land will be used for a biodiversity park and the acquired land will be returned to villagers, the government said.
“This common land was the only source of income for 70 Dalit families of the Sekhowal village. We are happy that this land will now be returned to us,” said Kashmir Singh, a resident of Sekhowal who has been fighting a legal battle to take back the acquired land.
Responding to Mann’s announcement, the opposition gave credit to the public movement.
“It is the power of the people that has forced Bhagwant Mann to scrap the textile park at Mattewara! Congratulations to the brave people of Punjab,” said Congress MLA Sukhpal Khaira.
I attended the PAC sponsored “Dharna” at Mattewara today and vehemently opposed setting up of textile park by @BhagwantMann govt that’ll ruin our forest,pollute Satluj & destroy our environment. We’ll continue to oppose this until govt withdraws its anti Punjab decision-khaira pic.twitter.com/pW1mlngqI5
— Sukhpal Singh Khaira (@SukhpalKhaira) July 10, 2022
On the other hand, AAP Rajya Sabha MP from Punjab Raghav Chadha said the decision was a reflection of a true statesman. “Our commitment towards environmental issues remains undeterred,” he added.
#Mattewara Forest purifies Ludhiana's air and is home to vibrant wildlife. The Mattewara Industrial Park design demanded a sacrifice of thousands of trees, and plants and threatened the Sutlej. Bhagwant Mann Government will not allow environmental degradation. (2/3)
— Raghav Chadha (@raghav_chadha) July 11, 2022
Chadha also said the Mattewara Forest purifies Ludhiana’s air and is home to vibrant wildlife.
“This decision will keep Punjab’s air and water clean for us and our future generations. Governance without corruption always leads to green outcomes,” he added.
What made Mann reverse the decision
There are a couple of factors that led to Mann’s decision.
First, the revival of the project exposed the doublespeak of the AAP, which often claims to have a high moral ground on public issues. Initially opposed to the project, the government then claimed it could generate income. PAC members said it was local industrialists who had put pressure on the government to go ahead with the project.
Second, several leaders within AAP had also been unhappy with Mann’s announcement.
Third, AAP’s recent and embarrassing defeat in the Sangrur parliamentary by-election could have compelled it to rollback the project – something which a large number people were clearly against.
Fourth, AAP which won Punjab on perception built significantly through social media would have noted how campaigns on the same platforms were affecting its popularity and acted just in time.