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Sandeep Singh: Protests Succeed in Protecting Mattewara Forest From Industrial Project
“In today’s meeting between the Punjab government and the PAC, it was decided not to set up any industry close to any of Punjab’s river floodplains."
July 11, 2022 | 5 min. read | Original Reporting
Yielding to consistent pressure from protestors in response to threats to the Mattewara Forest, Chief Minister (CM) Bhagwant Mann has decided to cancel the textile project which would have impacted the sensitive environmental area.
The decision was taken during CM Mann’s meeting with members of the Public Action Committee (PAC) which was formed by environmentalists and social activists to challenge the planned industrial park.
Kuldeep Singh Khaira participated in the meeting. “In today’s meeting between the Punjab government and the PAC, it was decided not to set up any industry close to any of Punjab’s river floodplains. Government land close to the Matterwara Forest would be used for a biodiversity park and a night safari world while the land acquired from panchayats (village-level governing bodies) would be returned to them.”
CM Mann shared his decision with Punjabis in a video that was posted on his social media platforms. He blamed the previous Congress government for the project that would have polluted the Sutlej River while taking credit for cancelling the project.
Mann’s decision, however, came after thousands of Punjabis, including environmentalists, social activists, Sikh intellectuals, farm leaders, and youth turned up in Sekhowal village of Punjab’s Ludhiana District this past Sunday, amid a downpour, to protest against a government-proposed project. The proposed textile park’s boundaries would have touched the forest and the Sutlej River, in addition to being built directly upon a floodplain.
Activists from Haryana and Rajasthan had also attended the protest to show solidarity with Punjabis.
The PAC against the proposed project had called for the protest and a campaign had also been launched on social media. This issue reignited in Punjab after CM Mann mentioned in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha that the government will acquire more land for the proposed textile park.
Amandeep Bains, a member of the PAC, articulated some of their longstanding concerns with the project.
“Firstly, the textile industry is water-intensive and our state is already running out of water. Secondly, polluted water will get released and it will pollute groundwater and the Sutlej. At least one crore people are directly dependent on the river. Thirdly, our people usually do not work in factories so villagers will be forced to migrate from the village. And lastly, the Mattewara is a reserve forest of 2,300 acres and it will get impacted by industrial pollution.”
The government party change at the state level did not alter their determination to stop the project, Bains said.
“We protested against the project even during Captain’s rule, they had slowed down the process, but now contrary to our expectations the Bhagwant Mann government [had sped up] the process to set up the textile project. It [had] given the go-ahead to cut at least eight thousand trees to build a road in the area.”
With limited forest cover left in Punjab, Gangveer Rathore, an environmentalist and vocal critic of the project, had made it clear at the Sunday protest that they would never ever let the project become reality.
“We have gathered here to get this project cancelled and demand the shifting of the project to somewhere else in Punjab,” he said at the weekend demonstration, “this project at its current planned location will pollute the Sutlej River as the industrial park is being planned in the catchment area of the river. This land should be declared a no-construction zone.” His wish would become true today.
Many protestors and locals effectively drew parallels to Buddha Nullah, a small river which got polluted by the release of industrial water in Ludhiana. Buddha Nullah hits the Sutlej near Walipur village of Ludhiana District. In a documentary by Trolley Times, residents of Walipur village explain how polluted water caused by the textile industry has created health problems for the entire village. Many are suffering from skin problems, premature greying of hair, tooth decay, liver, kidney, and cancer issues.
In 2020, when Captain Amarinder Singh was Punjab's Chief Minister, the industrial Mattewara Forest project was first announced. It was met with protest and condemnation at the time as well.
Punjab governments Punjab Urban Development Authority (PUDA) acquired 955.67 acres of land from several village panchayats and other government departments.
Sekhowal, a village of Dalits would have been the biggest loser as the village’s 416.1 acres of land would have been acquired. Baaz has explored the unique pressures and concerns of the local Dalit community, which had also been protesting the project, in an earlier piece.
Sekhowal’s land was to be taken in combination with 27.1 acres from the village of Salempur and 20.3 acres from Sailkan. Punjab’s government animal husbandry department provided 207.07 acres of land while another department provided 285.1 acres.
India’s central government has planned several mega textile parks under the PM-Mitra scheme with an outlay of thousands of crores within the next five years. The Mattewara Forest project was a part of that central scheme.
During the previous Congress regime in Punjab, environmentalists demanded that the government cancel the project. While in opposition, Punjab’s now-ruling AAP leaders were against the project. Bhagwant Mann and several other AAP leaders had raised their voices in support of environmentalists and other activists at the time. But after securing government, CM Mann began justifying the project, suggesting it will not harm the forest.
While many expressed disappointment in AAP’s flip-flop at the time, Akali Dal (Mann) President, Simranjit Singh Mann, delivered a fiery speech amid cheers at the protest on Sunda. Before Mann, a communist farm leader, Kulwant Sandhu, was not allowed to speak with youth protesting his appearance by stating he had led a witch-hunt against late actor and Panthic activist Deep Sidhu.
Social activist Lakha Sidhana called out Punjab’s Congress President Amarinder Singh Raja Warring for hypocrisy around the Mattewara Forest project. “It was during the Congress government when this project was planned and the land was acquired. Now Congress leaders are protesting,” he said.
Gurdeep Singh, a leader of the Ambedkar Student Association of Panjab University, participated in the protest along with his team. “Residents of Sekhowal village are from the Dalit community and they will lose the right to cultivate their village’s Panchayati land. We want this project cancelled,” he said, with his words eventually becoming reality the next day.
Sandeep Singh hails from Machhiwara, Punjab. As an independent journalist, he has worked with many prominent Indian news organizations. Sandeep has been following the farmer’s protest in Punjab since its onset and traveled with them to Delhi. You can follow Sandeep on Twitter @Punyaab
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