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Why Punjab govt decided to scrap textile park off rare forest supporting Dalit livelihood

By Bharat Dogra* 
Punjab has one of the lowest forest covers in the country. It has only about 4 per cent of the land under forests. Hence, apart from making longer-term efforts to increase its forest cover, it is extremely important to save its few remaining precious forests. It is in this context that the impressive mobilization that has taken place recently to protect the Mattewara forest in Ludhiana district should be widely appreciated.
Mattewara is an important forest spread over about 2,300 acres near the bank of the Satluj river in Ludhiana district. The forest has a rich and diverse wildlife include sambars, antelopes, nilgais, monkeys and many varieties of birds, including peacocks, apart from serving as a corridor for leopards.
This forest serves as lungs for the highly polluted city of Ludhiana, and also helps to protect dense habitations from floods. The green cover is important for water conservation in the flood zone, which is of crucial importance in a region where the water table going down steadily is a very serious concern. A national level policy was announced recently to increase green cover around rivers, and here is a much cherished forest that already exists and hence should definitely be protected from any harm.
Besides, this forest has strong cultural linkages including those associated with the great Sikh Gurus -- Guru Govind Singh is said to have composed the famous poem of 'Mittar Pyare Nu' in this forest (which was much more extensive and widespread at that time).
This forest was threatened by the Punjab government’s decision to set up a textile park or industrial centre just next to it. The government had stated that it would not cut any trees of this forest to set up this industrial centre, but activists opposing the creation of the big industrial centre spread over about 965 acres so close to the forest stated that this would inevitably led to the forest being harmed seriously.
The rising opposition to the textile park forced the state government to scrap the proposed industrial park. The state was on the boil over the issue as it had become a rallying point not only for environmentalists but organisations of farmers, intellectuals, the general population as well as the entire Opposition.
Blaming the project on the previous government, chief minister  Bhagwant Mann said, "The Central government had sent a proposal to the government led by Captain Amarinder Singh for setting up a textile industry, seeking 100 acres of land for the purpose. The 'Captain government' without taking into the consideration the damage it would cause, the displacement that would occur, or how much it would poison the river gave a clearance. When the file came to us again we enquired into it. We found that it would destroy the forest and polluted water would go into the Sutlej."
Pollution from industries would have surely harmed the forest. There would also have been so many other pressures detrimental to the health of the forest and its wild life. Reports say, contrary to government claims, hundreds of trees would have likely been axed for constructing a road as an initial step.
In addition, there was strong apprehension that the textile industries would also have led to higher pollution of Satluj river, a river which has already been depleted by water diversion in upper areas. Very serious cases of water pollution leading to a large number of fish deaths have been reported earlier from Beas river as well as other rivers and streams, while people have suffered from serious diseases due to excessive exposure to water pollution.

Satluj river
Another important aspect of this project related to the use of coercive methods to obtain land from villages. Nearly 40 per cent of the land for this project came from Sekhowal village, which has a significant Dalit population. Its community land has been an important source of livelihood here.
Indeed, evidence indicated that the textile industry centre proposed to be set up here was ill-advised and would have harmed the forest, its wild life, the Satluj river and its flood plains, their water recharge ability. In addition, the environment of Punjab’s largest city and its vicinity will be adversely affected.
Prof. Jagmohan Singh, chairperson of the Shahid Bhagat Singh Research Committee and a long-time resident of Ludhiana, said:
“This used to be a much bigger forest area spread far and wide and it is now very important to protect what remains of this. Unfortunately the government has been very callous towards the urgency of protecting trees and as a result so many roadside and canal side trees have faced the axe. It is high time that the government becomes much more conscious towards its responsibility of saving trees and forests. The forest of Mattewara must be protected.”
Yet, an ecologically sensitive area of a forest and a flood plain was chosen by the government to set up the industrial centre. The view went strong, this was a highly mistaken decision and it should not be difficult for the government to take back the decision and to find some alternative site, or better still, ensure better utilization of the existing industrial spaces.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Planet in Peril’ and ‘Protecting Earth for Children’

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