Punjab: Protest Against AAP Govt's Plan for Textile Park Near Mattewara Forest

Members of civil society, politicians, farmers' unions, student leaders and NGOs were among hundreds assembled to "save" the planned project site.

Listen to this article:

Chandigarh: Environmental concerns rarely come to the forefront of public anger in Punjab, but that’s what has happened with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s move to set up a textile park in the vicinity of the Mattewara forest and Sutlej river in Ludhiana.

Weeks chief minister Bhagwant Mann announced the project, people from different walks of life came together on Sunday (July 10) and held a massive protest at the project site to send a strong message to the AAP government.

Members of civil society, politicians, farmers’ unions, student leaders and NGOs were among hundreds assembled to “save” the planned project site. Organisers claimed that more than 10,000 people were in attendance.

It was the previous Congress government under the chief minister Amarinder Singh which first mooted the project in July 2020. It had even managed to arrange land for the project. Out of 955 acres identified for the project, 416 acres were allegedly forcefully bought from a Dalit-dominated village Sekhowal, despite the gram sabha passing a resolution against it.

After the Congress was defeated in the Punjab assembly elections in March this year, people expected that Mann would reverse the perceived wrongdoings of the previous government. After all, Mann was the biggest opponent of the project when his party was in the opposition. Half a dozen other AAP leaders too, who now are in top positions in the new government, had opposed the project.

But Mann left everyone shocked when he, during the recent budget session, announced he was reviving the project under a Union government scheme on the grounds that Punjab needed new avenues of employment generation. He claimed that he would not let the local ecology suffer.

‘Cancel project’: Message from the protest site 

However, the message from the protest site on Sunday was clear. All speakers asked the AAP government to cancel the project. Jaskirat Walia, member of the Public Action Committee (PAC), a group of environmentalists working against the project and also the organisers of Sunday’s protest, told The Wire that Mattewara forest is the only surviving forest in central Punjab. Putting up an industrial park right next to it will kill the forest, which is spread over 2,300 acres, he argued.

He also pointed out that the project’s proximity to the Sutlej could make matters worse for the already heavily polluted river.

“Construction of industries will also damage flood plains of Sutlej which recharge ground water for Punjab,” Walia added. Another member of the PAC, Amandeep Bains, said that forest area in Punjab before independence was over 40%, which has reduced to a mere 6%.

Bains said the Mann government’s claim that they would not let the local ecology suffer is a mere drama. Textile is among the highly polluting industries. “If new textile park will come up at the spot where it is planned, it will ruin everything,” he added

Sunday’s protest. Photo: Special arrangement

Sunday’s event saw attendance from prominent farmers’ union leaders including Baldev Singh Sirsa, Balbir Singh Rajewal, Manjit Singh Dhaner and others.

The event also received strong support from NGOs in south Punjab who are working on health issues and with cancer patients. Speakers told the crowd that the river waters in Punjab are already spreading cancer. This project will further the health emergency in the state, they alleged.

Youngsters who participated in big numbers demanded their right to have a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. They asked what they would do with jobs if their earnings will have to be spent on medical treatment.

The political leaders who addressed the gathering were newly elected Sangrur MP Simranjit Singh Mann, former Patiala MP Dharamvir Gandhi, Congress MLAs Pargat Singh and Sukhpal Singh Khaira, and Akali leaders including Maheshinder Singh Grewal, Manpreet Singh Ayali and Hardev Arshi.

In a tweet, Khaira said that his party will continue to oppose the project until the government withdraws its “anti-Punjab decision”.

Sunday’s protest. Photo: Special arrangement

Mann called protesters for meeting on Monday, NGT hearing also scheduled

Colonel C.M. Lakhanpal of PAC said that they have received an invitation from the chief minister’s office to meet and discuss the Mattewara Textile Park issue on Monday (July 11) and the team has accepted the invitation.

Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal will also hear the matter on the textile park. In a petition field by PAC, it was argued that the government has planned on building on the flood plain area. They said that there are several judgements highlighting the importance of flood plain areas to protect rivers.

Sunday’s protest. Photo: Special arrangement

Earlier, the area where the project was planned was a non-manufacturing zone. But the state government modified the Ludhiana master plan to allow manufacturing here, a notification that is also under challenge in the PAC petition to the NGT.

The NGT, during its last hearing on April 8, 2022, constituted a joint committee comprising officials from the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), Greater Ludhiana Area Development Authority (GLADA), district magistrate, Ludhiana and Divisional Forest Officer and asked for a factual report within two months.

The NGT had also stated in its order that there should not be any damage to the flood plain zone of the river.

The report is likely to be discussed during the July 11 hearing.