Zira in Punjab’s Ferozepur district has become the epicentre of a prolonged protest against an ethanol factory that is allegedly polluting ground water in nearby areas.
Protests began on 24 July in Mansurwal village when an alcohol-like stench was found emanating from a 650 ft. borewell dug in the Gurudwara compound of neighbouring Mainaiwala village.
The locals are accusing the the ethanol manufacturing plant set up by Malbros International Private Limited of polluting the ground water. Malbros is controlled by the family of liquor baron and former SAD MLA Deep Malhotra.
For 5 months now, hundreds of villagers have been protesting under the banner of Zira Sanjha Morcha, demanding that the factory be shut down.
The locals and unions are also criticising the state government and accusing it of inaction towards the factory. The Quint takes a look at events that have transpired over the past five months and how the entire matter has now escalated.
Allegations by Protestors
Over 35 nearby villages and several unions, including the Public Action Committee (PAC) gathered outside the factory in July and forced it to shut operations. Protesters also asked government bodies to test the water and soil for contaminating affluents that are allegedly being released by the Malbros plant.
In response to complaints, Punjab’s monitoring committee of National Green Tribunal (NGT) headed by retired High Court judge Justice Jasbir Singh, visited affected villages to investigate the matter and collect samples from areas around the factory.
The report submitted by the monitoring committee claimed that the factory's operations do not have an adverse impact on the ground water. However, the protests only intensified after that.
The protesters staged a sit-in questioned the legitimacy of the report submitted by monitoring committee on 21 September and claimed that tests weren’t carried out in a proper manner.
“The officials from Punjab Pollution Control Board and monitoring committee came 24 days after we asked for samples to be collected. Organic compounds dilute over time and improper testing of insufficient samples further misrepresent the results in the report. We refuse to accept it,” says PAC member Devinder Sekhon.
The committee members further argue that not a single FIR has been registered by Punjab Police and no investigation is being carried out; government is only saying that a committee will be formed to look into the matter once people vacate the site.
Simmering Trouble for Factory
Owned by ex-SAD MLA Deep Malhotra of Oasis Group of Companies, this is not the first public protest against the factory.
In 2021, livestock of 70 families died allegedly owing to high content of Nitrate and Nitrite in the ashes emitted by the manufacturing plant. The management is said to have compensated the affected families via cheque payments to close the matter.
The ex-MLA’s residence in Faridkot was raided in October 2022 by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in connection with the Delhi Excise Policy scam.
In 2017 as well, the excise and taxation department sold Malhotra’s properties in Delhi to recover Rs. 30 crore worth of excise fee that the liquor baron and his associates allegedly failed to deposit as a requisite to run private liquor outlets.
According to the PAC, the factory is known to manufacture highly toxic chemicals such as Silver Potassium Cyanide, Monoethano and Fesoterodine, in additional to producing Ethanol and that they had raised this matter with the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB).
A source in the PPCB, on condition of anonymity, said that since the monitoring committee report gave a clean chit to the factory, no remedial action has been taken yet by the board. The source said that that unless explicit orders are received from the state government, no action is being taken.
Why Did the Protest Intensify?
As the factory moved court to seek respite, a division of the Punjab and Haryana High Court ordered the State Government to pay Rs. 20 crore to Malbros as compensation since the factory was forced to remain shut for over 3 months owing to protests.
In two separate case hearings, the state government was ordered by a special bench to pay the factory Rs 5 crore and Rs 15 crore, respectively, on 19 October and 1 December, on account of government’s failure to lift the protests and the operational losses caused to the manufacturing unit in the process.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court also slammed the protest and called it unconstitutional, stating that a committee will be formed to look into the matter once the site is vacated and civil dialogue is resumed among the concerned parties.
However, in spite of CM Bhagwant Mann agreeing to the demands of protesters in a meeting on 16 December, several actions taken by the State against the protestors such as seizing land of local villagers, arrests and police lathi charge, made matters worse.
The clash between protestors and police on 20 December led to the arrest of over 45 people, including women. Several police personnel as well as protesters were also injured. Numerous farm leaders under the umbrella of Samyukt Kisan Morcha, have now gathered at the site to intensify protests. They are accusing the AAP-led state government of using brutality to resolving matters.
“On one hand CM of Punjab assures that our concerns and demands will be met, on the other hand police arrests five of our youngsters without a valid reason,” PAC member Amandeep Bains said.
He also claimed that the 45 individuals arrested on Tuesday, have been charged under various sections including those dealing with theft of electricity.
“The whole machinery is rigged, but nobody is leaving the protest site until the government agrees to our demands and shuts the factory. Who will believe that a trustworthy committee will be made after we end the protest, if such force is used against us? We are not against industrialisation and development, but flouting rules that are killing our people is a criminal offense,” he said.
The Quint reached out to AAP leaders and Ferozepur police officials on this matter. We will update the copy as and when we receive a response.