The Punjab excise and taxation department is disposing lakhs of litres of lahan (kachhi daaru or the raw material that is used for distilling country-made liquor) into the Sutlej, the river which is already under watch of a National Green Tribunal (NGT)-appointed monitoring committee. The river has already been carrying the burden of the toxic waste that the Buddha Nullah stream of Ludhiana dumps into it everyday.
From August 1 to 3, following the hooch tragedy that killed at least 121 persons in Majha region, the excise and police officials in a crackdown on illicit liquor manufacturing, seized at least 2.5 lakh litres of lahan in Ludhiana.
An official press communication from the office of Ludhiana deputy commissioner, issued on August 3, read: “Acting on the orders of Deputy Commissioner Ludhiana, the excise department has destroyed more than 2.5 lakh litres of lahan by throwing it in Sutlej river at village Bholewal Jadid and Rajapur of the district. Such raids would continue in the coming days as well and no person would be allowed to prepare illicit liquor”.
The disposal of lahan in the river not only leads to the pollution but also leads to high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), posing threat to life in water. The greater the BOD, the more rapidly dissolved oxygen depletes in the water, said an expert from Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB). With high BOD levels in water, aquatic organisms become stressed, suffocate, and die.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Dr Amandeep Aggarwal, Sangrur-based environmentalist and a petitioner against Punjab government in several cases in the NGT, said, “Lahan is highly toxic because it contains several by-products, which are produced after water and jaggery mixture is fermented using yeast etc. It might also contain high levels of ethanol and methanol, depending on the procedure adopted for fermentation. Before the distillation, which is done to refine the lahan, it remains a poisonous mixture which is harmful to not only human but also aquatic life.”
“Flora and fauna in the river will be highly affected. There has to be some other way to dispose lahan instead of throwing it in the Sutlej, which is already under NGT watch for high pollution levels. Already industries, domestic waste, dairies, Buddha Nullah is polluting Sutlej and now the government’s own excise department is polluting it officially, without realizing its environmental impact,” he said.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, a former excise department commissioner-rank official, said, “Lahan is produced by fermenting a mixture of water, jaggery, dry fruits and other ingredients but once it ferments, it contains alcohol and several other by-products which are impure and poisonous. Even the jaggery and its related products, such as molasses, are highly harmful for aquatic life. There are no proper rules on how lahan should be destroyed and hence officials dump it in water, which otherwise is wrong and should stop immediately.”
Rajpal Singh Khaira, deputy commissioner excise, Patiala zone (incharge Ludhiana), however, claimed that ‘lahan’ is not ‘toxic’ and is only a ‘simple mixture of water and jaggery’.
“Methanol, ethanol and other by-products are formed only after distillation. Lahan is simply a mixture of water and jaggery even after it is fermented. It is not harmful for aquatic life and doesn’t lead to water pollution. When raids are conducted near the river banks, it is not easy to carry or transport such huge quantities of lahan so we destroy it there itself by throwing it in the river,” he said.
Asked if there are any rules framed for disposing of lahan, Khaira said, “I am not aware of any such rules specified or any other way to dispose of lahan.”
Sub-inspector Davinder Singh, SHO Ladhowal police station, where FIRs were registered for recovery of 2.5 lakh litres of lahan said, “Though seized lahan is our case property, it is not easy to transport or bring such huge quantity to police station. So it was destroyed by excise officials by throwing it in the river.”
What does the Punjab Excise Act say?
Section 13-A of the Punjab Excise Act, says: ‘Lahan means any solution made from any kind of gur or molasses or both, to which a fermentation agent has been added to promote fermentation; or which has undergone the process of fermentation; and from which spirit can be obtain by distillation”.
On the disposal of the seized intoxicants, liquor etc, the Section 59 of the Act empowers the Financial Commissioner of the state to make rules. The section 59 states that “the Financial Commission may, by notification, make rules” for . “sub section (h) providing for the destruction or other disposal of any intoxicant deemed to be unfit for use”.
Lahan very harmful, will take action: PPCB
Meanwhile, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) has remained mum, despite the fact that in 2018 the NGT had slapped a fine of Rs 50 crore on Punjab government for failing to control pollution in Sutlej and Beas rivers.
Contacted, Gulshan Rai, chief environmental engineer (CEE), Ludhiana, PPCB said that disposal of lahan in rivers is strictly not allowed and is extremely harmful for aquatic life. “Even if it is not fermented, lahan or jaggery/high sugar solution is highly harmful. It leads to an increase in the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) in the water, which further deteriorates the natural oxygen levels required for survival of flora and fauna,” said Rai. “And after fermentation, lahan is even more harmful with toxic by-products and alcohol content”.
Asked if PPCB has initiated any action against the excise department, he said, “We will be issuing a showcause notice to them. They cannot dispose an alcoholic product in the river.”
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