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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Village fightback: How a village stood up against industrial pollution

Yellow water coming out of submersible pumps united the residents of Isapur in their struggle to stop their village from becoming an industrial wasteland. The NGT order on the closure of 57 industrial units in Derabassi has given them a shot in the arm.

Written by Jagdeep Singh Deep | Mohali |
November 12, 2018 2:45:12 pm
An overview of Isapur, one of the most affected villages in the vicinity of industrial units in Derabassi. Residents claim there are 46 people in the village who are suffering from cancer. The youngest cancer patient is a four-year-old girl. (Express photo by Jaipal Singh)

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on October 25 ordered closure of 57 industrial units in Derabassi, around 22 kilometres from here, as these units were found flouting pollution norms. The NGT’s orders came after six years of legal battle fought by the residents of Isapur village, one of the most affected villages in the vicinity of these industrial sheds. Besides air pollution, villages in the vicinity of these industrial units are also allegedly suffering from immense water pollution — the grounds residents took to seek closure of these industrial units.

Out of the closed units, 15 units that are under the red category manufacture paints, chemicals, wires and medicines. Out of the remaining units, around 20 are involved in assembling parts such as parts of ceiling fans and coolers, and the remaining include workshops where work for cutting of iron plates, girders and angles is carried out.

Six-year-long struggle

Isapur village, which is one of the most affected villages, has a population of 1,300. The majority of the villagers are farmers and grow vegetables, wheat and paddy. Total landholding of the villagers is around 550 acres. Most of the village farmers grow vegetables and they use tubewells for irrigating their fields. Annually, the villagers grow around 2.5 tonnes of vegetables and around six tonnes of paddy.

Isapur residents claim that although the NGT has ordered closure of these units, the polluted water continues to flow in the seasonal Dhabi choe that touches the village’s periphery. The choe further merges into Ghaggar river near Shatabgarh and Bakarpur villages. The industrial waste further flows in the water towards Rajpura and Patiala district side. The villagers allege that their crops got damaged during the last monsoon season as the polluted water entered their fields.

The fight against industries polluting the water and air started in 2011, when Karnail Singh, a Nambardaar of Isapur village, started installing a tube-well on his land located adjacent to the choe.

“As villagers ran submersible pumps in their fields, yellow water came out of it. We thought that water will be normal in a few days, but that did not happen. Later, we realised that water’s colour had turned yellow because of excessive chemicals and pollutants that got mixed into it because of repeated discharge of industrial waste in choe. Because of excessive pollution, chemicals had even contaminated the groundwater. Same facts were later established in a study conducted by Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) experts. PAU scientists tested water samples from the village and termed it unfit for drinking,” Karnail Singh told Chandigarh Newsline.

“As I realised the level of contamination of water, I discussed it with other villagers. I told them it will cause health issues for us and even damage our crops. All of us first approached the industrial unit owners and requested them not to release untreated water or industrial waste in the choe. But they did not pay any heed to our repeated requests. Then we approached Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) officers in Patiala. Still nothing happened. Then, we decided to go to the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Our case was referred to NGT in 2013,” Karnail Singh added.

Karnail Singh, Nambardar of Isapur village, led the fight against the polluting industrial units. (Express photo by Jaipal Singh)

The villagers claim there are 46 people in the village who are suffering from cancer. They are undergoing treatment from PGIMER and GMSH in Sector 16, Chandigarh. The village’s youngest cancer patient is a four-year-old girl, Rupit Kaur. She is Karnail Singh’s granddaughter and is suffering from the deadly disease. At present, she is taking treatment from the PGI. “Besides, many villagers are suffering from skin ailments. My sister-in-law died of cancer. Now people have got Reverse Osmosis (RO) systems installed at their homes,” Hardev Singh, another villager, told Chandigarh Newsline.

Swaranjeet Kaur (48), another cancer patient in the village, told Chandigarh Newsline that her disease was detected in 2013 and she was getting treatment from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER). She added that when the disease was detected, she took treatment from a private hospital in Patiala where doctors used to ask her whether they were living near any polluted water source.

“When my condition did not improve, I decided to go to PGI. There are a few other people from our village who are taking treatment from there. After we heard from our men that the groundwater was polluted, we got RO system installed around three years ago, but I don’t know how I got this disease as I did not have any family history of cancer,” she added.

Advocate Karan Jund, who represented the villagers in the Punjab and Haryana High Court and also represented them in the NGT, told Chandigarh Newsline that when the villagers approached him, he went to the village and collected water samples from two tube-wells.

“We got these two samples tested from a government-approved water testing laboratory in Panchkula in 2011 and both the samples failed chemical tests. We attached these reports with our petition and filed a case in High Court. The court then asked PAU in 2013 to form an experts’ committee and examine groundwater of Isapur village. PAU too found the village’s water unfit for drinking,” advocate Jund said.

“PAU experts collected water samples from eight tube-wells, including one 800-foot-deep borewell that was operated by Derabassi Municipal Council. Out of the total samples collected, three samples failed due to the detection of heavy metals in the water. Three other samples that were collected from the tube-wells of the villagers revealed presence of three chemicals: Aldrin, Atrazin and Pendemethyline,” Jund said, adding that the presence of these chemicals in the groundwater could cause male infertility and prostate cancer.

Villagers still apprehensive

Even though the NGT has ordered closure of these industrial units, the villagers of the area are still apprehensive. “Still blackish water flows in the choe. When the rains come, situation will worsen. These units release stored polluted water so that it drains with the rainwater. That’s a typical modus operandi of these industrial unit operators. One can still see how large amounts of fly ash is accumulated on the surface of this choe. This indicates the extent of polluted environment in which we are living. This fly ash comes from the chimneys of these factories. When it gets deposited in our fields, it pollutes the soil and destroys the crop, making it hazardous to consume,” said Hardit Singh, another villager who too spearheaded the fight against industrial pollution in the area.

Complying with NGT’s directions: PPCB

Executive engineer of the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) Kuldeep Singh told Newsline that PPCB is complying with the NGT’s orders. “We have got these units’ water and power connections disconnected. We shall be filing the status report in NGT on November 13, which is the next date of hearing in the case,” Singh said.

Industrialists term NGT’s orders harsh, will file review petition

The industrialists describe the NGT’s orders on closure of their units as “harsh”. They say that they will be filing a review petition, requesting the NGT to consider their viewpoint as well. They claim that closure of their units will leave 5,000 people unemployed.

Ramesh Bhargav, the president of Focal Point Industries Association where most of the industries are located, said, “We respect NGT’s decision, because we are law-abiding citizens. We do not want to comment anything on NGT’s orders at this stage. We shall fight our battle in the court. Although the NGT’s decision is harsh, we are complying with it.”

“Most of the units which were closed fall under ‘white category’ industrial units. These units have nothing to do with water pollution. Many of these units are new and the owners did not know the proper norms of PPCB,” Bhargav told Newsline.

Vinod Mittal, president of Derabassi Industries Association, told Newsline that the focal point was notified in 1989. He added that the most of the units which were ordered to close down fall under the categories of white and green industrial units which do not pollute air and groundwater.

“As per my information, there are about 40 industrial units which are either green or white units. These units do not use water for their work. Although some of these units did not have necessary permissions from the PPCB which could be the cause of their closure, some of these units were having only small workshops for cutting iron plates,” he added.

Regarding heaps of fly ash accumulated in the area, Mittal said that the industries that pollute water or air comes under red and orange category and out of the 57 units, 15 units were under the red category. He added that he did not say that the industry was not spearing pollution. “The PPCB should act against such units, but my concern is that the industries not involved in the pollution have to suffer,” he added.

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