India: farmers mobilise against pollution in Punjab

For the past six months, there has been a movement around the subdivision (small town) of Zira in the North Indian state of Punjab. The movement centres around pollution of groundwater, caused by the Malbros International Private Limited distillery in the area.

According to The Times of India, in July 2022, when a bore was dug for a well at a Gurdwara in the village of Mahian Wala Kalan near Zira, the water smelled of undistilled liquor. The inhabitants of the village suspected that the water was contaminated due to a distillery owned by Malbros International Private Limited, at the nearby village of Mansoorwal Kalan. The campaign quickly took off on social media under the hashtag #ZiraSanjhaMorchaSanjha Morcha (साँझा मोर्चा in Hindi) roughly translates to ‘United Front’.

Balwinder Singh (aka Roman Brar) the convenor of Zira Sanjha Morcha, said to The Indian Express, “A liquor factory [owned by] Malbros International Private Ltd has been operational in [Mansoorwal Kalan] located about 4km from our village [Mahian Wala Kalan]. So we could join the dots. The polluted water’s colour was dark brown. We raised the issue with the authorities concerned, but as the administration remained unmoved, we launched an indefinite dharna [sit-in] outside the factory in Mansurwal village on July 24”.

A Public Action Committee visited the area to inspect the water. Underground borewells are an important source of water for irrigation and household consumption. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was informed about the situation but it scandalously concluded that the water was clean. Protesters were not satisfied with this and filed another application to the NGT.

“The Opposition parties have broadly remained silent on the issue as every political party is pro-corporate, one cannot deny this fact. The AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] government is also pro-corporate as it has remained very keen to get the liquor unit opened,” said Brar. The movement had to rely on its own strength, as all the parties are in the pockets of big business.

Collusion between capitalists and state bodies

Harwinder Singh Kotli, a farmer who spoke to The Indian Express, stated: “The owner of the liquor factory [Deep Malhotra] is a former Shiromani Akali Dal MLA. But now it seems that he is close to the ruling AAP government. And that is the reason the Punjab government easily gave away Rs 20,000,000, 000 to the factory as directed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, rather than contesting the factory’s pollution credentials”. It has become clear that a shady business baron is in cahoots with the courts and environmental bodies.

According to Brar, “Initially, the dharna was started by farmers from [Mansoorwal Kalan], [Mahian Wala Kalan] and 2-3 more villages. Gradually, within a month’s time it involved around 40-45 villages. I think the administration was first non-serious about it and thought what can 40 villages do. On August 20, we gave a call for Zira bandh [shutdown] over our demand for closure of the liquor factory which proved to be a huge success with the Zira people speaking in one voice that they want the liquor unit to be shut.”

While the second application to the NGT was being processed, the distillery management appealed to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which ordered the state government to forcibly move protestors 300 metres away from the distillery gate so that the distillery could resume operations. This did not work. The farmers and other protestors determinedly carried on.

Brar added: “But as the Punjab government failed to do so, ahead of the next court hearing on December 20, the government launched repression against us. On December 18, the police lodged an FIR [First Information Report] against 14 villagers and around 100 unidentified persons. On December 19 morning, they arrested nearly 46 persons and detained many others. They started conducting raids at different places to arrest the Morcha leaders and even arrested a few of them.”

The courts clearly defend the interests of corporate profits over the environment and health of farmers, workers, and other ordinary people. The police savagely attacked the protestors and jailed people defending their environment and livelihoods. This fuelled anger in the farmers’ and workers’ movement; other unions made their way to Zira Sanjha Morcha to fight for the release of prisoners and the closure of the Malbros distillery.

The participation of the Samyukt Kissan Morcha (SKM), a leadership body that emerged out of the mass movement of farmers against Modi’s anti-farmer laws in 2020, has also raised the profile of these protests and turned it from a local issue to something that encompasses all of Punjab.

On 18 January 2023, according to The Times of India, the Zira Sanjha Morcha demanded written assurance from the Chief Minister of Punjab who earlier made a statement, which called for the closure of the Malbros distillery.

The Zira Sanjha Morcha has listed their conditions upon which they will lift their dharna: Withdrawal of cases registered against protesters during the six-month-long dharna; compensation to the two families who lost their kin due to ailments allegedly caused by the contaminated groundwater; charging for environmental compensation against the distillery for polluting groundwater; compensation of Rs 5 lakh [500,000] to each person losing employment due to the closure of the Malbros distillery, and their employment to be provided by opening of a sugar mill and hospital in the area.

For democratic control by workers and farmers!

The farmers are learning in practice that their demands can only be conquered under their own strength, and are refusing to back down until this is achieved.

The convenor of Zira Sanjha Morcha Roman Brar has said: “The demands have been put before the state government and the morcha will wait for the state government’s response on these demands before taking a decision on lifting the protests”. Brar continued: “Now, when the people were pitted against the mighty industrialists and the state government, they got support from farmers and social organisations when again the opposition parties stayed away. The people’s power has emerged as supreme.”

The people are ready and willing to fight determinedly. This is a positive development and shows that it is right to not end the protests prematurely. The mass movement is what pressured the state authorities to at least pretend to take measures to address the pollution being caused by the factory.

But this is only one episode in a greater struggle. Important lessons are being learned in the battle against the barons of big business and banking in the Punjab. As we have seen time and again, the opposition and ruling parties all represent the ruling capitalist class. They are incapable of dealing with the environmental crisis that plagues the whole country.

Under capitalism, profits are prioritised above all, and it is more profitable to simply allow the waterways to be poisoned by byproducts from the distillery, than to safely treat waste water. As the Hindustan Times comments:

“The multi-stage treatment methods, being employed at present, make the process energy-intensive. High costs associated with establishing a proper system to treat the [waste water] renders it economically unattractive for the industry. That may be the reason why Malbros Industries, engaged in ethanol production at Zira, might not be employing a proper treatment system for its effluents and discharging the untreated or partially treated effluents into a water body, or injecting deep into the second strata of water aquifer underneath, or discharging it onto the land.”

While it is possible to run the distillery in such a way as to prevent poisoning of the surrounding environment, the profit motive means such measures are not taken, wreaking havoc on local farmers, and driving a wedge between them and the workers employed by the distillery.

In Punjab and beyond, only democratic workers’ control of industry under a planned economy, would enable the harmonious cooperation between industry and agriculture. On the basis of such a plan, it would be possible for all industries to be run in a way that would not harm the environment or ruin peoples’ health. But accomplishing this would require a combined struggle by Indian workers and farmers against their shared enemies: the capitalists, the multinationals, the big landowners, and the Modi regime itself.

The banks should be nationalised, and placed under workers’ control, to provide cheap credit for farming equipment and other necessities required for farmers. All of this should be paid for by expropriation, without compensation, of top monopolies and finance houses.

Only under a socialist planned economy can there be an end to the pollution that is laying waste to the fertile lands of Punjab and the rest of India.

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