Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Revenge of Ghaghar

Punjab and Haryana are today blaming each other for floods. A strange variety of discourse is being constructed and de-constructed as if the problems of the region are because someone diverted the flood water to its neighbour. It is time we stopped playing these games and focussed on the real issues. Nature is doing to us what we are doing to the nature. This article has been penned by well known social activist and environmentalist Umendra Dutt after a journey alongside Ghaghar. He met the people, the land, the river, and brought a tale so sordid that unless we act fast, we will soon have no more tales to tell. 
 A Punjab Today Special 

Umendra Dutt

About two years ago, my friend, the famous singer Rabbi Shergill, wrote: "There is no doubt that it was just because of a major environmental change that the great civilization of Indus valley had completely vanished. The same reasons, in the same form, today exist before us. The only difference between the two situations is that in those times it was a natural disaster but this time it is man made." Rabbi compared the present situation of Punjab with that of the Sindh valley which was destroyed because of scarcity of water.
Umendra Dutt
'Sindh ghaatti ajj fir maran nu tyaar  hai', wrote Rabbi Will this really happen? It is a fading ecosystem, a dying civilization, a whole community being put on slow death. As Dr Amar Singh Azad, my senior colleague in Kheti Virasat Mission, puts it: "It is crime against humanity and nature by our own governments that too in the name of development."
If you want to see crimes against humanity, all you need to do is to visit the villages near Dhakansu drain and Ghaghar River in Patiala and Sangrur districts.
This was our third visit to any river or drain area to educate ourselves on environmental toxicity and its multiple impacts. For me personally, it was the second river I was trying to follow after Jayanti in Ropar district where I did a padyatra about eight years back. I found several similarities between disappearance of Jayanti and Ghaghar. Both rivers have lost their relevance since the people have forgotten what they stood for. Over the years, the river eco-system at both places has been ravaged and ruined by the developmental activities carried out in the name of modernity, the so called new thinking.
Let me share some more about our recent yatra which in simpler words was more of a field trip to learn about multiple crises of water, environmental toxicity, condition of agriculture, biodiversity, health crisis on vast spectrum and socio-economic stress around the Ghaghar river. All in all, a veritable ecological disaster.

Villages Up for Sale

The riverscape is extremely frightening. In recent times, there has been  much more talk about the acute health and water tragedy going on in few districts of Malwa region. But we all need to stand corrected. The deadly devastation has spread to all of Punjab now. Even as this is happening, some of our well-wishers continue to ask us: "Why are you activists creating so much scare?" Let me respond in the words of Dr. Azad: "Yes, we want to create a scare because it is real and because situation is far more destructive then our government thinks it is."
I understand that these are big words, but must not these be used when the idea is that big and scary? Punjab is a dying civilization. Several people may find this offending, ugly and uncalled for. But the indications we are getting from across the Punjab are making it clear that our establishment is signing death warrants of the whole river and related ecosystems in this part of country.
In what kind of a socio-economic set up do you see villages setting themselves up for sale? It symbolises a state of deep distress and devastation across Punjab. Let me illustrate with a real example. It was March 2002, and it was the first of its kind of protests in India in Harkishanpura of Bathinda district. This was followed by Malsingh Wala in Mansa district in 2005. Both these villages, embedded in the cotton belt of Malwa, have one thing in common: an acute water crisis. It is this situation that forced both villages to put their land on sale. Now, such water-distress has engulfed the villages of ecologically more prosperous area of Puadh. A village in Patiala district near Chandigarh - Mirzapur Sandharsi - is willing to put itself on sale too.
A visit to the village showed that Punjab is fast turning into a waterless region. It can be Harkishanpura, Mandi Khurd or MalSingh Wala or Teja Rohella, Dona Nanka near Fazilka or Mirzapur Sandharsi - village after village is being captured by severe water crisis.
There are several indicators to reaffirm of why Dr. Amar Singh Azad said that Punjab is a dying civilization. Severe multiple environmental toxicity stared us in the face as we travelled from Mirzapur Sandharsi to Harpalpur to Shahpur Theri and Makrod Sahib in Sangrur. After confirmation of presence of uranium traces in hair samples of children from Baba Farid Centre for Special Children and water and soil samples, it is certain that Punjab is in the midst of multiple environmental toxicity.
 There is a drinking water crisis due to drying-up of upper aquifers, plunging water quality, destruction of river eco-system and vanishing aquatic life besides loss of biodiversity and crop diversity. This, along with increasing health problems, particularly those related to reproductive health, falling immune capacity, early ageing and cancers, calls for a collective sense of shock. Combine it with falling agriculture productivity, increase in external inputs and rising debts and you have a recipe for growing disconnect between farmer and his land. No wonder, the farmers are selling their farms.  

Acute Water Stress and its Impacts

Punj-aab is fast turning into Be-aab and Punjabis of Be-aab Punjab are bound to become Be-abaad (displaced). Mirzapur Sandharsi underlines this sorry transformation. Surinder Singh, Sarpanch of Mirzapur Sandharsi, says the water stress is forcing them to a situation where they are ready to sell their entire village.
Harbans Singh, chairman of village cooperative society, said as there was no water left in two upper aquifers at 70 feet and 150 feet respectively -  the aquifer at 70 feet went dry about a decade back while the 150 feet one dried off five years earlier  the villagers are forced to dig 12 to 20 feet every year.
When the Ghaghar River was "alive" about 15 year back and its people full of zest, they never anticipated they would face with such acute depletion of water.
But ever wondered about who is ready to buy these villages and agricultural land? The farmers of Mirzapur Sandharsi sold their land to a distillery company which is set to draw water from 1200 feet deep aquifers. Villagers are hopeful that company will change their lives after getting water from 1200 feet deep bore-wells. What is ironic is that after exhausting all upper aquifers, the villagers are finding a solution in a factory producing alcohol as if they are the harbingers of hope.  What they perhaps chose not to see is that it is a distillery which has primarily caused destruction of all water sources and contaminated Ghaghar river and its banks.
From the agriculture point of view, the water that a distillery will access is not the same as the upper aquifers. Although farmers are able to cultivate wheat and paddy, there is no scope for vegetables as the water is extremely hard. It is no surprise then that no farmer is growing vegetables for the last ten years in Mirzapur Sandharsi village.
Vegetables have simply vanished, and now are sourced from as far as Ambala. Harpalpur's farmers used to sell veggies at Rajpura and Chandigarh, but no more now. It is the same story for Shahpur Their, Mandavi, Chandu, Makrodr Sahib and Foold. The vegetable and food growers are now mere consumers, adding an additional economic burden.      
Wheat yields have dropped drastically in the last few years in the area. Some are getting a yield of five quintals per acre of wheat. Usage of chemical fertilizers is zooming and farming is becoming an even more costly affair. Diversity of crops has gone for a kick, and ditto for diversity of species in livestock. Long past have gone the says when farmers would grow through combination inter-cropping of single crops like corn, basmati rice, cotton, sugarcane, wheat, mustard; millets such as pearl millet, barley and pulses such as toria, moong, masar, moth, alsi, til, tara-mira, gwara, arhar as well as chillies.

Biodiversity and Riverscape Lost

Farmers and people living in those times will vouch for the fact that all these crops were grown without any chemical inputs simply by irrigating their farms with Ghaghar water. But as Ghaghar has gone dry, the biodiverse farming system which flourished here for hundreds of years has also shriveled up.
The real and life sustaining wealth of the farmers - water, earth and diversity - stand plundered.  
This has also eroded traditional knowledge system of farming and farming techniques which relied on low or no cost utilisation of natural materials around a household or fields. Now farmers are entirely dependent on externally purchased seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weedicides, confirms Jaswant Singh of Shahpur Theri.
All of this is further complicated by the acute situation on the farm debt front, said Harvinder Singh, Youth Club President of Shahpur Their. Our travels in the belt showed that it was not just Mirzapur Sandharsi. Too many villages would put themselves up for sale if they spotted a buyer. It is the saddest turn in human history when the farmers feel no more attachment to their village. In Punjab, that is a turn history has taken. Bad news is that our rulers haven't been jolted and worse is that we haven't registered the shock.
Our rivers are being murdered, their bounties are being plundered. Old timers recall a clean Ghaghar and the times when they used to drink its water. So many have seen the death of Ghaghar. So few are seen crying. Long lost are the memories of several perennial springs like Nadiya Taal from where people used to get water for the entire year, the memories of Dhaak and Dhaki trees, Jand, Kiker, and bushes of Duaansa. Now, forget about the diverse variety of birds, even spotting a crow or a sparrow has become a rare event.
Punjabis will find it hard to live with the tag of committing violence against nature. But are we ready for the time when nature will avenge itself?
The cancer cases that you see in the villages are one such form of revenge. Rising infertility and other reproductive health disorders are another. Add to this the neurological disorders, allergies and a severely injured immunity, childless couples, cases of miscarriages, spontaneous abortions and premature deliveries, congenital abnormalities, cerebral palsy, autism, learning and behavioral disabilities. The list of illnesses is much longer. The state of animal health indicates that toxicity has reached its threshold level.
We are fast moving towards total collapse of reproductive system. Apart from human beings, cows and buffalos are also losing their reproductive capacity. Lactation periods are down and reproduction cycles have come down to 5 from 15.

Question of Accountability

Today, Ghaghar is asking for justice. We need to fix accountability. Who is responsible for this ecological destruction? How we are going to give justice to Ghaghar, her inhabitants and the nature? Is it not clear to us that the liquor and wine distilleries at Banur, Patiala, Patran have killed Ghaghar? Everyone who issued those NOCs to these factories is responsible. And that includes the Punjab Pollution Control Board, the Revenue department and the Directorate of excise and taxation besides the Punjab's finance ministry. They are killers. Pure and simple.
Punjab needs a true and honest people's movement. Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal has already taken an initiative in this direction, but we need to go much further. . We need to talk political ecology and political economy of decision making. People have to start thinking politically to punish the environmental culprits of Punjab. We have to evolve newer ways to punish those who are responsible for this devastation.
The killers and destroyers of Kali Bein, East Bein, Budha Dariya, Sutlej and other rivulets of Punjab and the harbingers of water crisis in the districts of Faridkot, Muktsar, Bathinda and Mansa need to be named.
My friend Prof Shubh Prem Brar from Bathinda has rightly said, "The Southern Punjab is surrounded by toxic water ways; it is like garland of poisonous waters encircling the large area of Punjab." If you see the map of Punjab you see poisonous waters are encircling entire south, south-eastern and south-western region of Punjab. It is absolutely terrifying. Let's join hands to prove Rabbi Shergill wrong. Believe me, he will not mind. It is time to learn from the death of the civilization of Sindh Ghati. Rabbi does not want to sing any songs about how Punjabis killed their own rivers, their own civilization. Let's not give him the chance.

(The author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission, a Jaitu based civil society ecological action group working on natural farming and environmental health. For feedback, mail Punjab Today intends to continue this debate since we believe that our politics must be guided by the real concerns of the people. At a time when fights for jal, jungle and zameen are on in the country, it is sad that large sections of the media are not playing their due role. We intend to change that.)

1 comment:

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