A state that became popular world over decades ago owing to its contribution to the green revolution has now got a dubious distinction of becoming environmentally a most freak region. The most shocking piece of information came recently when a World Health Organisation (WHO) report on air pollution revealed that Punjab’s four cities-Ludhiana, Khanna, Amritsar and Gobindgarh-figure among the most polluted 25 cities in the world.
Placed at 12th number in the list of polluted cities released by the WHO, Ludhiana is known world over for its hosiery industry and Khanna, figuring at the 16th spot in the list, is one of Asia’s largest grain markets. Amritsar is placed on the 21th spot and Gobindgarh, known for its steel industry, is on the 22th place in the WHO report. Obviously, as this bit of information is ignominious for the reputation of the state, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) reacted strongly against the WHO report terming it as absurd.
The PPCB may be having official reasons to condemn the report but the ground realities tell the story that the state is actually facing the crisis at the ecological and environmental level. Let us examine the issue point by point.
It is an established fact is that the trees are the best guard against the environmental pollution. To its bad luck, Punjab has the poorest tree cover in the country. Against the official requirement of 30 per cent of the total land area covered under trees, Punjab has only 6 per cent forest cover. In fact, only 4 per cent of it is proper forest area. Remaining 2 per cent is just a strip forest along the road sides, canals etc. In such meager forest cover, people of the state should never expect a healthy environment. The green revolution gobbled up state’s tree cover. There were times when each village had a large clusters of trees known as "jhiri” in local parlance.
What has added to state’s woes is depleting subsoil water table. As ground water is recklessly pumped out to irrigate crops, its depletion is natural. If this phenomenon continued, Punjab will certain turn into a desert. Data gathered by the official agencies have revealed that about 35 billion cubic meters (BCM) is taken out from the ground through 14 lakh tube wells for irrigation, drinking and industrial purpose. Against pumping out of water in such a huge quantity, the replenishment of the ground water is just to the tune of 20 BCM per annum due to rain water and seepage from various water bodies.
Of the total 138 water development blocks, 110 fall in the over-exploited category. There are areas where permission is required now to install tube well precarious ground water table. In certain pockets is going down up to one meter per annum. Interestingly, only 27-28 per cent of the total cultivated landed area in the state is dependent on canal water while remaining are is served, by and large, through tube wells for irrigation purpose.
More worrisome than it is the quality of the sub-soil water. All sort of toxic metals and sub-stances have been found in the subsoil water beyond permissible level in certain areas especially in the Malwa belt where high incidence of cancer has been another cause of trouble. Recent reports prepared by experts have brought out the high level of uranium in almost all parts of the Malwa region. Uranium is concerned highly harmful for human health. What is the reason for such a high level of uranium in particular belt has not been deciphered yet. Effluents from industries flow untreated in various choes, nadis and other water streams. The seepage of water from such water streams cause pollution in the subsoil water.
Actually, the experts have linked the high incidence of cancer in the Malwa region to the poor quality of water. Undoubtedly, Punjab has failed to check the industrial pollution. That is the reason for figuring of Ludhiana, Khanna and Gobindgarh high in the list of the polluted cities of the world. What has been added to the problem is that some of the polluting units are located in the populated areas of the Ludhiana. Such industries were identified and proposals were made to re-locate such industries to newly built industrial focal points. But due to various reasons, officials concerned failed to do much as far as relocation of polluting industrial units was concerned. Other major source of pollution in Ludhiana is vehicular traffic. It is one of the most ill-managed city, as far as traffic is concerned. Otherwise also, among states, Punjab has high density of vehicles. This small state has more than 50 lakh vehicles. As Khanna has become an extension of Gobindgarh Industrial town, main reason for pollution in this town is also industrial units. Other reason is two lengthy seasons of food grains procurement. Being a largest grain market, wheat and paddy arrives in this town in huge quantity. Operations related to procurement cause lot of pollution as food grains have to be cleaned before filling in gunny bags.
The post harvest burning of paddy and wheat residue has also been causing air pollution in the state. The NASA has pointed out aerosols in atmosphere in Punjab.
Highly injudicious use of the toxic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers has added to the pollution woes of the state. In Punjab, about 7000 tonnes of pesticides are used per annum. Main reason for extensive use of pesticides is state’s cropping pattern. On cotton crop, pesticides have to be used to protect the crop. To increase the per acre yield, the farming community resort to various such measures to grow and produce more. Of all the other predominantly agricultural state, the per acre use of pesticides is double in Punjab. Likewise, per acre administration of fertilizers in Punjab is highest in the country. Over the years, a good number of people, especially share-croppers, have been killed spraying pesticides in fields. Experts have found the penetration of pesticides in human blood at some places. Long back, a professor Punjabi University had come out with a study in this regard. Recently, CSE, a Delhi based organization, has made revelations in this regard. Toxic chemicals are also finding their way to food grains, vegetables and other field products having absorbing capacity.
In such a scenario, experts from PGI, various universities and other institutions such as Atomic Energy have conducted various studies to find that how reckless use of chemicals in farm sector has polluted the environment and causing issues related to human health.
On environmental front, Punjab is facing a hopeless situation.