SAHIWAL: The row between a private fertiliser company and farmers from the surrounding villages of Chak 4/10-L, Harappa, has intensified over the last 10 days over lack of arrangements for waste disposal that is allegedly damaging crops.
On one end is the farmers’ anxiety that is rising over non-redressal of their grievances from both the Environment Protection Department (EPD) and the district government, while on the other the senior management of the company has got a criminal case registered against dozens of farmers over violence with a few of their staffers.
Farmers have been claiming for several years that continuous leakage of poisonous gases, including sulphur dioxide, from the sulphuric acid manufacturing plant that was established on prime agricultural land without following protocols of Section 2(i) and other provisions of the Punjab Environmental Protection Act 2012 was causing adverse environmental effects and sickness. Interestingly, EPD site inspection reports of 2019 and 2020 confirmed these claims.
Farmers told Dawn that Suraj Fertiliser failed to develop a proper solid, liquid and aerial waste disposal system despite repeated promises with local farmers, the district administration and EPD assistant director office here.
They questioned why the EPD had failed to take any action against the factory emitting poisonous gas into the environment, destroying crops and polluting natural habitat over 1,000 acres. They stressed the need for a treatment plant to minimise leakage of gases from the factory, replacement of obsolete and rusted machinery, but no one paid any heed, they claimed.
Farmers booked for ‘clashing’ with firm staff
Farmer Mian Zafar Ghani told Dawn that if both the district management and the EPD failed to comply with the law and protect the interests of the agrarian community, people were bound to fight for their own constitutional rights.
Sheikh Muhammad Tahir and Sheikh Muhammad Akbar had established a sulphuric acid and single superphosphate manufacturing plant in 2009, called Suraj Fertilieer Industries, at Chak 4/10-l, Harappa, over 75,148 square metre of prime agricultural land. The acid plant runs for five to six months every summer and the superphosphate all year round.
The company’s website claims: “Our single super phosphate is produced under carefully controlled plant conditions by reacting rock phosphate with the finest quality sulphuric acid manufactured in-house in our most advanced facility.”
The plant is surrounded on all four sides by lush green crops of cotton, wheat, maize, rice and animal fodder.There are four villages within a couple of kilometres radius of the plant having over 40,000 residents. More than 80 per cent of the population is attached with agriculture.
Dr Shafiq, Riaz Barar and Mian Zafar are the biggest landlords owning 200, 250 and 140 acres, respectively, near and around the factory. From the first day, farmers have had complaints with poisonous gas leak damaging their crops as well as human health.
Dr Shafiq and Mian Zafar told Dawn that 10 years ago, a farmers’ delegation had met the then EPD director general (DG) and expressed their concern over the installation of the plant on agricultural land, and the DG assured them of addressing their concerns in the environmental assessment of the factory. But the plant started operations and proved to be a hazard for local farmers.
Several villagers told this correspondent that severe coughing, itching in the throat, runny ears and nose and breathing problems among the local population were common during the summer due to the gas emission that was not properly treated. Since its ashes were heavy, they settled on and damaged crops and trees.
The correspondent saw many trees and cotton crops that had turned yellow from the acid dropping on them from the air.
The farmers protested each year, but no one from the EPD listened to their complaints. This year too they started protesting from July 23 when the company management made the sulphuric acid plant functional on July 18.
Deputy Commissioner (DC) Zeeshan Javed immediately took notice of the issue and held three meetings with farmers, taking on board EPD Assistant Director Umera and the agriculture deputy director.
The DC told Dawn the farmers’ complaint was genuine and convincing.
His statement was corroborated by the local EPD’s two reports sent to its DG office on Aug 8, 2019, and July 27, 2020, respectively. Both reports contained detailed data about physical site inspection that as far as solid waste was concerned, “mismanagement of sulphuric acid and other waste may create adverse environmental effects mentioned in law while for liquid waste there is no proper neutralisation/treatment/disposal system which create adverse environmental hazards”.The reports also highlighted that the machinery attached with the two plants had rusted and turned yellowish.
On July 29, a group of farmers allegedly stormed into the factory after nothing concrete came out of their negotiations with the district government, factory management and the EPD. The farmers also allegedly manhandled staff.
Witnesses claimed there was a clash between factory employees and farmers for 40 minutes, but the management did not come out to negotiate with the farmers. Harappa police registered a case against 10 farmers under sections 506, 427, 148 and 149 of the PPC and arrested four of them on the complaint of factory General Manager Touseef Gillani. He had alleged the farmers attacked company staff and forcefully entered into the premises.Farmers believed the case was registered on the pressure of the regional police office.
DC Javed told Dawn that he had told police high-ups that the farmers’ demands were genuine and he had formed two committees to evaluate crop damage on the land that fell within a kilometre’s radius from the plant as well as gather environmental assessment data.
Regional Police Officer Humayun Bashir Tarad told Dawn over the phone that law would take its course against anyone taking law into their hands. He denied any coercive approach in registering the case against farmers.
While DC Javed said he had no authority to seal plants as the authority lied with the EPD DG, Dawn learnt that former DC Muhammad Zaman Wattoo had closed down the plant for around five months “in public interest” on a local environment department report.
EPD DG Ashar Abbas told Dawn he was investigating the matter as he had assumed his office just a week ago.
EPD Planning and Coordination Director Amir Farooq told Dawn they had called Suraj Fertiliser management for a departmental hearing this week.
On the other hand, Mian Zafar had filed an application with the DC demanding immediate sealing of the factory. He said his cotton and rice crops had been severely damaged due to gas leakage.
The farmers have demanded the sulphuric acid plant be shifted away from agricultural land to a deserted place, compensation for crop damage, replacement of rusted machinery and installation of a treatment plant at the factory to minimise the gas effects.
Factory General Manager Gilani and Technical Manager Afzal Minhas did not respond to calls despite repeated attempts.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2020