On the morning of May 17, Harvinder Singh of Chitta Sher village in Beas, the town named after the river in Amritsar district, went to check his fields near the river. What he saw in the water scared him.
“For the first time, I saw the water had turned dark. I saw dead fish floating. My first thought was something really bad had happened to the river,” he says.
Harvinder was right. In the early hours of May 16, a security guard at the Chadha Sugar Mill in Kiri Afghana village in Gurdaspur, barely a kilometre from Beas, called up a manager to inform that the molasses stored in a tank at the mill was boiling over. The mill is located on a sand rise, and due to the gradient, it was flowing into a drain that connected with the Beas.
The management of the sugar mill, owned by the wife of the late liquor baron Ponty Chadha, battled to control the spill over the next day and a half. By 2 pm on May 17, nearly 10,000 kilolitres had flowed into the drain, and from there into Punjab’s most important river, affecting the network of canals that feed off the Beas and Satluj in Punjab and Rajasthan. The Harike wetland ecosystem at the confluence of the Beas and Satluj was also affected.
Dead fish floated downstream and into the canals for three days after the spill. Over 3,000 cusecs of fresh water had to be released into the Beas to flush the molasses.
The Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) has fined the mill Rs 5 crore, and ordered criminal prosecution of the management. As per the PPCB report, the sugar mill was storing molasses in two bricklined 20-ft deep tanks, neither of which was meant for the purpose.
While the PPCB rejected the management’s excuse that it had processed sugarcane more than its capacity during this season, this is a story being repeated across sugarcane-producing areas in Punjab and other states.
For every quintal (100 kg) of cane crushed, mills produce around 10.7 kg of sugar and 4.6 kg of molasses, which is sold mainly to distilleries for manufacture of alcohol. With mills in India expected to crush over 300 million tonnes (mt) of cane in the current 2017-18 season, it translates into a record 32.2 mt production of sugar as well as 13.9 mt of molasses. This is against the 20.26 mt sugar and 9 mt molasses in 2016-17.
Read | A sugar rush
Across major cane-growing states, molasses stored in the open is now a common sight. Punjab’s 16 sugar mills alone produce an average 30 lakh quintals of molasses annually. This season, a bumper sugarcane crop has sent this up to 38.64 lakh quintals, apart from the molasses held over from last year.
Good weather and improved cane varieties — especially Co-0238, covering 63.5 per cent of Punjab’s total sugarcane area — have boosted the cane yield. “We have recorded average yields of 89 tonnes per hectare in 2017-18, compared to 57-75 tonnes in the last few seasons,” says Punjab Cane Commissioner Jaswant Singh.
Distilleries in Punjab have the capacity on paper to consume 25 lakh quintals of molasses. In reality, though, they use up only 17 lakh quintals. Mills manage to sell around 5 lakh quintals to other states, while the rest is carried over.
With no space to store molasses in tanks, mills are dumping the dark brown syrupy liquid in open pits.
In one such open pit in Bhogpur near Jalandhar city, molasses, coagulating into yellow lumps in parts, shimmers in the 40 degree heat. The black tarpaulin lining the pit, 8-ft deep and 60 ft x 60 ft in size, is held down by bags of cement and sand around the edges, to ensure it does not give under the weight of the liquid. Next to the pit stands a round steel tank, 65 ft in diameter and 35 ft high, also filled to the brim. Behind the tank is a wall, marking the boundary of Punjab’s first cooperative sugar mill.
“This is not a scientific method (to store molasses) and there can be serious problems if the liquid comes into contact with soil and water sources,” warns Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) Chairman Kahan Singh Pannu.
District Health Officer of Jalandhar Sewa Singh also admits a brewing health hazard. “Such pits should be made with proper brick and cement lining, so that molasses doesn’t seep into the soil. And there should be proper sheds over them,” says Singh.
A senior officer of the Bhogpur cooperative mill says they are helpless. “We have two steel tanks with total 65,000 quintals storage capacity for molasses, which is what the mill produces every year. But this time, we crushed at least 4 lakh quintals more cane, producing around 20,000 quintals extra molasses. Since there was no time to make a new steel tank, we simply dug the pit.” According to him, the mill was forced to dispose of some of the surplus molasses at Rs 100-120 per quintal.
B S Gill, the general manager of the Bhogpur mill, says, “What is lying in the open is actually quite less now and will not spill out. We will even shift it to the tanks in a day or two, once some space is created by the sale of molasses there.”
At Wahid Sandhar Sugar Limited, a private mill in Phagwara town in nearby Kapurthala district, molasses lies in a kuchcha 100 X 100 feet and 10-ft deep pit, also lined with tarpaulin. Its owner Jarnail Singh Wahid says the mill’s tanks can store one lakh quintals of molasses, but this year’s production has been 2.80 lakh quintals.
“We kept the molasses for a few weeks and now we are selling at abysmally low prices, just to get rid of it. When there is no market for it, what can we do?” he says. “If the government can decide the State Advised Price for sugarcane, what stops it from fixing a minimum rate for molasses and making it compulsory for distilleries of Punjab to buy from mills in the state first?”
R S Jhingar, chairman of the Nawanshahr cooperative mill, one of the largest in Punjab, says, “We sold molasses at Rs 685 per quintal a couple of years ago and last year the rate was Rs 550 per quintal, but this year we lost heavily in both sugar and molasses.”
The Punjab State Federation of Cooperative Sugar Mills recently floated a tender for sale of molasses at the nine factories under it. The tender had to be cancelled. The reason: the low quoted rate of Rs 85 per quintal.
But there is worse news emanating from Uttar Pradesh. Mills in the state have had to sell molasses free of cost — and, on top of it, bear the cost of transportation to distilleries.