Dead fish found in Beas River Thursday. (Express photo)
A massive quantity of molasses from a private sugar mill in a Gurdaspur village has spilled into the Beas river, triggering anger and outrage among people in villages downstream, and raising concerns for the Harike lake and wetlands 110 km away, into which it flows.
Officials said that from Wednesday morning to Thursday afternoon, 10,000 kilolitres of molasses spilled into the Beas at Kiri Afghana village from Chadha Sugar Industry Pvt Ltd. The spill was, however, reported on Thursday morning to the Amritsar district administration by some residents of Beas, the town named after the river. District forest officer Charanjit Singh said the impact of the spill was being “assessed” and filed a police complaint at Beas police station against unidentified persons for causing damage to wildlife. The SHO, Beas, however, said they were not taking any action on the complaint as the source of pollution is “out of our jurisdiction”.
Meanwhile, people living along the Beas have been uploading videos and pictures of dead fish from the river, alleging that the molasses was killing all life in the water.
Narinder Singh of Gram Vikas Society Beas said, “We were shocked after seeing dead fish in the river on Thursday morning. Thy were floating on the surface. The water itself had turned dark and it was smelling like brewing liquor. I had never seen the river like this. We informed forest officials and the deputy commissioner also came. They came and went away. Nobody has done anything to remedy the situation.”
Harvinder Singh, member, panchayat of Chitta Sher village, said, “My fields are adjacent to the river and I visit its banks every morning. On Thursday, I saw dark water in Beas. It really frightened me. I saw some dead fish flowing. My first thought was something really bad has happened with the river.”
Amritsar deputy commissioner Kamaldeep Singh Sangha has requested authorities to pump fresh water into the Beas from the Ranjit Sagar and Pong dams to dilute the molasses, but this is likely to reach the affected stretch of the river only by Friday afternoon. By then, the molasses spill would have reached Harike.
XEN (Drainage dept) Amritsar Avtar Singh Kahlon said, “The molasses will travel to Harike by Friday morning. Its impact has been felt most along an 80-km stretch from the point where the spill occurred.”
Amritsar DC said the Punjab Pollution Control Board had ordered the closure of the sugar mill. However, PPCB Gurdaspur XEN Kuldeep Singh, who is also probing the reason behind incident, said that he had no such information.
According to initial information, in alleged violation of norms, the mill was storing the molasses in tanks not meant for the purpose. The tanks had been constructed for effluent produced during sugar making process.
But the PPCB official suggested that Gurdaspur administration would have to share the blame. “This particular sugar factory houses both sugar and distillery units. I have come to know that after a bumper sugar crop, farmers had staged a dharna in front of the mill as management had stopped taking more crop because the mill had reached its processing capacity,” Kuldeep Singh said. He said the factory was using the molasses, a by-product of the sugar making process, in its distillery to make alcohol. “It has two tanks of 1.35-lakh kilolitres to store effluent and these tanks were full when farmers staged dharna and district administration asked mill to take more sugarcane crop for processing.”
“The mill processed more crop, producing more molasses. The extra molasses in the two tanks which were actually constructed to store treated effluent. These tanks were not to store the Molasses. When molassess is not stored properly, it starts boiling over. That is what happened here, and around 10,000 kilolitre Molasses over spilled over after boiling at 60 to 80 degree celsius,” said Kuldeep Singh.
A molasses tank has to be equipped with facilities for re-circulation and for pumping the molasses from one storage tank to another. It should have an air injection system and adequate ventilation on the roof top.
The spill began at 8 am Wednesday, Kuldeep Singh said. “It was not possible to control the flow due to high temperature. We could control it completely only by 2 pm on Thursday.” The mill is located a kilometre from the river and the molasses made its way to Beas through a storm water channel passing near the mill.
“Till now we were busy in controlling the spilling and our next action in such cases should be ordering closure of the mill,” said Kuldeep Singh.
SDM Batala declined to comment on whether the administration had forced the private mill to process extra sugarcane in excess of its capacity. “Kuldeep Singh has been appointed to probe the matter. I can comment on the issue only after I get a written report.”
Minister for Environment, School Education and Freedom Fighters O P Soni, inspected river along with other departments. Soni said teams from wild life department, pollution control, Guru Nanak Dev University and other wings were called and till now they have found no other toxins in water. “Lack of oxygen has been determined as the cause of this damage,” said Soni. He further said the factory operation has immediately been shut and the cause of accident is being determined. He said, “No one is allowed to pollute our natural resources… the errant will be penalised.” The management of Chadha Sugar Factory Pvt Ltd was not available for comment despite repeated attempts.