In recent months there have been growing signs of increasing assertiveness of environmental movements in Punjab. This should be widely welcomed and is much needed, given the rapid degradation of environment here at several levels in recent decades.
There was an impressive and successful mobilization recently to save the Mattewara forest in Ludhiana from the onslaught of an ill-conceived industrial project. Less attention has been drawn to another welcome protest against the pollution caused by a liquor factory near Zira in Ferozepur district. There are early signs also of people getting mobilized in Ropar district to protect environmental concerns in the context of an upcoming paper mill near Budha river and Sirhind canal. In this context the setting up of paper mills and distilleries near rivers and canals has come in for special scrutiny as these industries are known to be particularly problematic in the context of water pollution.
All of these movements have raised important issues and this increasing assertiveness of environmental movements should be widely welcomed. In fact at no other time in its history has Punjab faced so much and such many-sided environmental degradation as during the last 55 years or so. Hence a strong environmental movement in Punjab is clearly a very important need of these times.
The forest cover in Punjab is very low. Even when afforestation and tree planting work is taken up, there is often a tendency to go in for exotic species and monoculture plantations which can never provide the same protection as natural forests. Hence bird and animal life has also suffered much loss. Birds have also suffered a great loss due to excessive use of poisonous agri-chemicals in farms, orchards, gardens and lawns, leading to very sad episodes of large-scale death of birds including parrots.
The impact of excessive use of agri-chemicals on human health has been very serious, due to direct exposure as well as contamination of both groundwater and surface water sources. The increase in the incidence of cancer in several parts of the state has been very tragic in this context.
From a somewhat longer term point of view the harmful impact of excessive and indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals as well as reducing biodiversity/increasing monocultures on soil health ,and hence on nutrition and health of people, is no less disturbing.
Water level has been falling in most areas, and as water level falls beyond a point the risk of arsenic and other contamination also increases. Ponds and village water bodies which helped to store rain water and recharge groundwater have diminished greatly. Many rivers are polluted while some of the smaller rivulets face perhaps even more serious threats of survival and identity. As several rivers are threatened in various ways also in the upper Himalayan catchment areas by excessive dam building and in other ways, problems have increased.
Time honored crop rotations and mixed farming systems have been badly disrupted. Even such a more obvious need as maintaining the cereal-legume rotation and inter-cropping was ignored, leading to a rapid loss of free nitrogen fixing abilities of legumes. This happened despite legumes being such an essential part of the diet of local people and the most accessible form of protein. Increasing water intensity of new cropping patterns has played havoc with groundwater resources which have depleted faster in the last 50 years than in the past 5000 years. All this has been happening in the name of great progress. Unwise changes in crop intensity and rotations as well as harvesting practices have led to a situation of mass stubble burning, leading to loss of fodder and great increase in air pollution within rural areas, a relatively new phenomenon.
Garbage handling is an increasing problem in rural as well as urban areas, particularly with growing component of polythenes or other non-biodegradable wastes, as well as various hazardous wastes. Air pollution is another serious and increasing possible of cities.
These and other environmental issues must be considered in more comprehensive and holistic ways. To give an example, while distillery pollution has created many problems in Punjab and this must be opposed, this opposition must also be extended to opposition of excessive liquor in Punjab. Otherwise there is hypocrisy in saying that we do not want any distilleries because of their pollution but we want to keep getting all the booze we consume at present. Similarly protection of rural environment must be related to the spread of more sustainable and protective farming practices.
Punjab needs a well-coordinated environment movement with a wide enough horizon to embrace all serious environmental problems with all their linkages and roots in distorted development and lifestyle patterns. This movement should have a good and continuing relationship with environmental activists and movements elsewhere, particularly in neighboring states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Another very important concern is to not consider environmental issues in isolation but instead to integrate environmental issues well with justice and equality based issues.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.