Demonstration against the AAP government’s plan for a textile park near Mattewara forest

Chandīgarh: Environmental concerns are rarely at the forefront of public anger in Punjab, but that’s what happened with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s decision to set up a textile park near Mattewara Forest. and the 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 staged 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 the hundreds gathered to “save” the planned project site. Organizers said more than 10,000 people attended.

It was the previous Congress government under Chief Minister Amarinder Singh that first proposed the project in July 2020. It had even managed to develop land for the project. Of 955 acres identified for the project, 416 acres were allegedly forcibly purchased from Sekhowal, a Dalit-dominated village, despite the gram sabha adopt a resolution against it.

After Congress was defeated in the Punjab Assembly elections in March this year, people expected Mann to undo the perceived misdeeds of the previous government. After all, Mann was the greatest opponent of the project while his party was in opposition. Half a dozen other leaders of the AAP, who now occupy positions of responsibility in the new government, had also opposed the project.

But Mann left everyone shocked when, during the recent budget session, he announced that he was relaunching the project under a Union government program on the grounds that Punjab needed new opportunities for job creation. He claimed he would not let the local ecology suffer.

“Cancel the project”: message from the protest site

However, the protest site’s message on Sunday was clear. All stakeholders called on the AAP government to cancel the project. Jaskirat Walia, a member of the Public Action Committee (PAC), a group of environmentalists working against the project and also the organizers of Sunday’s protest, said Thread that the Mattewara forest is the only surviving forest in central Punjab. Building an industrial park next door will kill the forest, which spans 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.

“The construction of industries will also damage the floodplains of Sutlej which recharge groundwater in Punjab,” Walia added. Another PAC member, Amandeep Bains, said that Punjab’s forest area before independence was over 40%, which has been reduced to just 6%.

Bains said the Mann government’s assertion that they won’t let the local ecology suffer is a simple drama. Textile is one of the most polluting industries. “If a new textile park is born where it is planned, it will ruin everything,” he added.

Sunday’s demonstration. Photo: special arrangement

Sunday’s event saw the participation of 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 work on health issues and with cancer patients. Speakers told the crowd that the river waters in Punjab are already spreading cancer. This project will heighten the health emergency in the state, they alleged.

The young people who participated in large numbers claimed their right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. They asked what they would do with their work if their income had to be spent on medical care.

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

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

Sunday’s demonstration. Photo: special arrangement

Mann called on protesters to unite on Monday, NGT hearing also scheduled

Col. CM Lakhanpal of PAC said that they received an invitation from the Chief Minister’s office to meet and discuss the issue of Mattewara Textile Park on Monday July 11 and the team accepted the invitation.

Meanwhile, the National Green Court will also hear the textile park case. In a petition field by PAC, it was argued that the government had planned to build on the floodplain area. They said there are several judgments outlining the importance of floodplain areas to protect rivers.

Sunday’s demonstration. Photo: special arrangement

Previously, the area where the project was planned was a non-manufacturing area. But the state government amended Ludhiana’s master plan to allow manufacturing here, a notification that is also disputed in PAC’s petition to NGT.

The NGT at its last hearing on 8th April 2022 constituted a joint committee consisting of officials from the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), Greater Ludhiana Area Development Authority (GLADA), District Magistrate, Ludhiana and the Divisional Forest Officer and requested a factual report within two months.

The NGT had also stated in its order that there should be no damage to the floodplain of the river.

The report will likely be discussed at the July 11 hearing.

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