Protesters have the last laugh as govt shuts Zira distillery

CM Mann has ordered closure of a distillery at Zira in Ferozepur district following persistent protests by the residents of 40 villages in the area who were suffering from health issues because of the groundwater contamination allegedly caused by the distillery, writes Aayush Goel

Yet another green war has been won in Punjab as the AAP government has gone ahead ordering closure of private distillery at Zira in Ferozepur district. The environmentalists, farmers and local villagers had been protesting since last year seeking closure of the distillery owing to water contamination by the unit which was leaving local residents and cattle sick.

Suffering from various hepatic, nephrology and oncological issues over two lakh residents of 40 villages in the area refused to die this way and staged the war. This is the second such project to have been closed in the last few months by the AAP government with the first one being now scrapped as a textile park project at Koom Kalan village near the Mattewara forest in Ludhiana district over pollution allegations. 

“No one would be allowed to pollute the environment of Punjab. For purity of Punjab’s water, air and its land, and keeping in view the interests of the people, after consulting legal experts, I announce that orders have been issued to shut down the liquor factory in Zira with immediate effect. In future, too, if anyone takes the law into his hands, be it concerning pollution norms, laws related to mining or the transport department, any law framed by the government, if anyone violates that deliberately or for any vested interests or for economic gain causes harm, no matter how big (powerful) that person may be, will not be spared,” CM Bhagwant Mann said in a video message announcing the distillery’s closure.

The unit in question Malbros International Private Limited is an alcohol-making unit in Mansurwal village of Zira in Ferozepur. The unit was established as a distillery in 2006 while in 2014 it was redeveloped as an ethanol unit. The controversial unit is spread over 48 acres and owned by former Akali Dal MLA Deep Malhotra. The locals accused the unit of discharging effluents in ground water thereby contaminating water and soil.

United by pain, villagers sought chance to live

The struggle started from Mahian Wala Kalan village. A video took the internet by storm when while boring the langar hall of Gurdwara Baba Bhagat Dhuni Chand ji, the villagers found alcoholic residue oozing out of it. This was around 600 feet deep and that is what startled the residents. “We have been facing this problem since long time. Our cattle died and they would say its urea in fodder. We would get muddy water but never knew the true reason. The boring showed us that the distillery was secretly discharging its residue in the ground by reverse boring and that was killing us. We had uploaded the video on social media and got support,” said local Roman Brar who had shot the video.

Effluent coming out the distillery at Zira in Ferozepur district

“They have tried a lot to suppress us, we were cane charged and even jailed”, he added. Soon all villagers gathered and formed a Sanjha Morcha and filed a complaint on July 18, 2022, about the alleged groundwater contamination by the factory at Mahian Wala Kalan. The PPCB took tubewell water samples from 11 sites, including three from the premises of the distillery. Interestingly, two audits conducted since July last year by Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) and National Green Tribunal (NGT) did not find evidence of environmental degradation by the distillery.

The state monitoring committee of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) led by its chairperson justice Jasbir Singh (Retd) visited the protest site, and samples were taken from seven sites, including the factory compound. The water samples were sent to three reputed laboratories in Patiala, SAS Nagar and New Delhi. The report of groundwater samples analysed by all the three laboratories, indicate that groundwater contamination is probably due to faecal matter, which may be due to domestic sources.

“They had set this up promising employment and better life for our children and us but they snatched them away. Young men started getting kidney issues and some even died of kidney failure. Every time we tried to speak they would shove reports giving the factory clean chit. We are relieved that the CM has paid heed to our concerns”, said Mansurwala sarpanch Gurmail Singh while talking to Tehelka. The protestors however refused to accept it.

“We had long been suffering. Over 70 cattle died in Mansurwal and nearby villages and the factory owners went ahead stuffing money in the farmer’s hands and officials went ahead making all believe urea killed them. They kept on taking samples but never gave us the right report. I have my 40 acres of land in front of this factory and every year face farm losses, loss of cattle and diseases. I have been screaming since 2006 but nobody heard”, local farmer Fateh Singh Dhillon told Tehelka.

Closure not enough

It’s once bitten twice shy for the protesters who are seemingly in no hurry to lift the dharna notwithstanding Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann’s announcement to close the ethanol plant situated at Mansurwala village in Zira. Harinder Singh Lakhowal, the general secretary of a faction of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), said it was “better late than never”. Though they are celebrating the closure announcement, villagers have refused to abort the dharna. “The factory has been closed for the last six months but it changed nothing for us. We still can’t drink this water, children are sick and cattle are dying. They have to give back what they took from us. A normal healthy life,” added Gurmail Singh.

The protestors have demanded irrigation channels for villages in addition to installation of ROs in the villages. They have sought medical compensation and relief for all who fell ill owing to the effluent discharge by the factory. “The effect of this pollution will stay for years even if the unit is shut. We want our lives back and the government will have to support us. Give us clean water, health facilities and rehabilitate those who lost everything,” says the demand letter of Sanjha Morcha.

Legal recourse only after govt order, says counsel

Senior advocate Puneet Bali representing the factory unit said they are yet to get an order on closure from the government. “Legal recourse options can only be discussed and shared only when the government order is made available. It appears the principle of natural justice has not been followed by the government as the firm was not given show cause notice for the same,” said Bali. 

The factory says it invested a whopping 300 crore in the plant out of which of Rs 200 crore was raised from financial institutions entailing a monetary liability of more than Rs 2 crore per month. It has been closed since the protests started in July 2022. On July 29 last year, the unit moved the Punjab and Haryana high court seeking the removal of protesters and resumption of normal factory work at the plant.

As the government failed to resolve the impasse, on October 11, 2022, the court directed the government to deposit Rs 5 crore with the registry. On that day, the unit had claimed that it had suffered losses to the tune of Rs 13 crore till then. On November 22, 2022, after the government still failed to remove the protesters, the court asked the government to deposit Rs 15 crore more with the high court registry.

On December 23 hearing, the state told the court it has constituted four committees to examine various aspects with regard to issues raised by protesters sitting on a dharna and to amicably resolve the issue. Upon this, the court deferred the hearing for February 28.