Punjab: Support of Farmers' Bodies Gives New Life to 5-Month-Long Protest Against Liquor Factory

Since July 24, locals have been protesting against a factory, claiming it has contaminated soil and underground water in dozens of villages in and around Mansurwal village. Ten days ago, police allegedly led a crackdown against protesters.

Chandigarh: In July this year, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab had acknowledged the ecological threat to its river bodies and it scraped the industrial park near Sutlej river in Ludhiana following a massive agitation by civil society members.

Months later, the same AAP government is now accused of ignoring the negative ecological impact of a liquor factory in Zira Tehsil of Punjab’s Ferozepur district. Locals have been blaming the factory, commissioned in 2007, for contaminating the soil and the underground water in dozens of villages in and around its premises in Mansurwal village.

What began as a small movement by a handful of villagers on July 24 has turned into a statewide movement in the past 10 days, since the Punjab police made an attempt to forcefully lift the dharna outside the factory.

Amid huge deployment of the forces on December 15, the police conducted raids on houses of people spearheading the dharna and also nabbed over 40 people between December 18 and 19.

While the opposition condemned the AAP government of police excess, the ruling party has not yet reacted.

Farmers’ organisations join the protest at Punjab’s Mansurwal. Photo: By arrangement

Some quarters within AAP have claimed that police action was in compliance with the Punjab and Haryana high court’s orders, asking the state to shift the dharna 300 metres away from the factory premises. The order was in response to the petition filed by liquor factory Malbros International Private Limited, run by baron Deep Malhotra, which claimed huge financial losses due to its closure ever since the beginning of the protests in July.

According to AAP insiders, the Punjab government had held several rounds of talks to convince the agitators to move back from their present dharna site, but they failed to bear any results.

The government, as per media reports, had also submitted a Rs 15-crore penalty imposed by the high court for its failure to lift the dharna from outside the factory gates.

However, police action against the protesters used excessive force, said locals. All major farmer bodies also publicly supported the villagers soon after news of the police crackdown spread.

The situation turned tense on December 22 when the members of various farmers’ organisations including the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Dakaunda and the BKU Ugrahan forcibly removed police barricades to head towards the protest site at Mansurwal village.

They also clashed with security personnel. A jeep ran into policemen, leaving six of them injured.

While the day’s unrest has quelled since then, various farmers’ unions have been sending a daily jatha or group at the protest site, in a show of solidarity.

On social media, too, the phrase ‘Zira Sanjha Morcha’ has been trending for the last few days, with several raising concerns over the state’s failure to address the environmental concerns of common people.

Govt softens stand but protesters adamant

The confrontation that began with last week’s clashes appeared to have weakened after the AAP government softened its stand towards the protesters.

The first sign of thaw came when all 48 protesters arrested last week were granted bail last Saturday, December 24, after police said in the local court that they were not needed for investigation.

In the status report filed in the HC on the same day, the state advocate general too revealed that four different committees, which will examine the extent of damage caused due to the factory, will be formed. The committees have experts from agriculture universities officials from the Punjab Pollution Control Board and other technical experts who will examine the extent of damage caused due to the factory.

Roman Brar, the convener of Sanjha Zira Morcha, told The Wire that while they would extend all help to these committees to investigate reach the ‘right’ conclusion, the protesters will not lift the dharna till the factory is closed.

“If the state acts right, there is no way the samples will show anything other than what we are claiming. We know that our underground water and soil health has deteriorated ever since the factory was set up here in 2007,” said Brar.

“We want the AAP government to stand with the common man, not with big private corporations since it is the people who voted them to power to make a positive change in Punjab,” he added.

He said the initial response of the AAP government was negative. “Ever since farmer bodies and civil society organisations have come into our support, their attitude has changed,” he added.

Brar said that they are not against industries or jobs. “Our only fight is for the clean environment, which is also our fundamental right,” he added.

How did it start?

In mid-July, while digging a borewell at Gurdwara village in Maiyanwala Kalan, four kilometres from the factory premises, villagers were shocked to find that even at a depth of 670 feet, the water was clearly polluted, dark brown and smelled of liquor.

Villagers raised the issue with local authorities. But when the administration did not respond satisfactorily, they launched the dharna on July 24.

Initially, the dharna was started by residents of Mansurwal and Maiyanwala villages. Gradually, people from 40-45 nearby villages joined the protest. Soon it became a full-fledged public movement.

The protest site outside the liquor factory in Punjab’s Mansurwal. Photo: By arrangement

Meanwhile, the matter is also pending in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). A Ludhiana-based civil society organisation, Public Action Committee (PAC), which successfully forced the AAP government in July to scrap Mattewara industrial park, filed a petition in August in support of the Zira agitators.

NGT on August 30 constituted an expert committee with members from Central and Punjab Pollution Control Boards as well as Punjab Ground Water Board. The District Collector of Ferozepur was also its member. The expert panel, however, did not conduct the survey citing that another NGT monitoring panel had already conducted the monitoring so no useful purpose would be served repeating the exercise.

PAC found the expert panel report unconvincing and filed a review application in the NGT, questioning the expert panel’s stand. NGT in the last hearing on December 8 deferred the matter till February, 2023, while seeking comments from parties concerned.

Kapil Arora, a PAC member, told The Wire that sampling has still not been done properly in and around the factory.

“Every expert panel skirted the issue despite NGT asking them to submit a report within a month. We hope that four committees freshly constituted by the state government will do justice with the aggrieved people,” he added.