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Toxic waste alarms villagers

punjab Updated: Jul 19, 2012 01:46 IST

Till 15 days ago, the residents of this village near Amritsar would take their cattle for grazing either to the banks of the canal or along the seasonal drain on the outskirts of the village as there was enough greenery for the cows and buffaloes to have their fill.

However, now they prefer to keep the cattle tethered at home as the greenery at the two sites seems to have mysteriously disappeared. In fact it has not disappeared but has got covered under heaps of black-coloured industrial waste, which could be fly ash or residue of pet coke, both of which are toxic.

However, lab tests will only determine the exact nature of the waste that was dumped along the canal and in the drain. The dumping started 15 days ago and continued for four to five days. The locals claimed to have seen trucks and two JCB machines at the two places.

Waryam Singh, a farmer of the village, said he had seen the trucks off-loading the black-coloured material and then mud was dug out from the drain and loaded onto the trucks. He claims to have informed some of the panchayat members who, he said, did not care to inquire about the activity.

"Some of us did inquire and were told that this is government work and they would clean the drain soon. We thought the black-coloured material would be used for strengthening the banks of the canal and the drain," said Wariyam while talking to a group of visiting mediapersons from Amritsar here on Wednesday.

The media was taken to the site by Mission Aagaaz, an NGO dedicated to environmental concerns. The efforts by the members of the NGO to contact the sarpanch did not yield results as he was not in the village but they told some of the residents that it was not just some ordinary black-coloured material but was toxic waste from an industrial unit.

The disclosure was enough to send alarm bells ringing and this became quite apparent when a couple of youngsters who were wading through the dumped waste material near the canal were asked by other villagers to move out. In fact heaps of the waste material were also seen upstream the drain and the canal.

Harjinder Singh, another resident who has planted paddy close to the canal, is a worried man after getting to know about the toxic nature of the compound. "It can flow into my fields with the rainwater and damage my crop and the soil," he sought to enquire from the Mission Aagaaz members.
When activists of the NGO explained the health hazards involved, another farmer wanted to know whether it would be proper to graze cattle anywhere near the area where the waste had been dumped.

He was told that it would be better if they kept the cattle off such areas as the waste material could seep into the soil if it rained. This made another farmer worried who has a fodder field near the drain where the heaps of the waste are quite prominent.

Deepak Babbar, executive director of the NGO, who led his team, said heavy showers could wash the industrial waste material down the drain or the canal and it could reach areas downstream. He also pointed out that seepage often occurred in such canals and drains and the toxic waste could find its way to the agricultural fields and even to drinking water sources.

Members of the NGO took samples of the waste for testing to find out the exact nature of the dumped material. While the NGO and the media were at the site, no one from the drainage department turned up. In fact, the villagers confirmed that so far no official of the department had come there.

Other members of the NGO, including Awan Prashar, Brig GS Sandhu and Praveen Kaur, were of the opinion that whoever got the waste dumped had done so as he or she felt that the monsoon rains would wash it away and it would not be noticed. However, as there was very little rain in the past few days, the waste remained where it was offloaded.

After writing to CPS Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu, who looks after the health and family welfare department, Mission Aagaaz has also shot off letters to industries minister Anil Joshi and the Punjab Pollution Control Board, demanding an inquiry to fix the responsibility. They have pointed out that the waste is very harmful and can lead to cancer besides being a threat to the ecology and affecting animal health.

"Such toxic compounds are packed with potentially toxic elements, including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, barium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, radium, selenium, uranium and zinc," NGO general secretary Gurbejh Singh said while pointing out that on Tuesday they had concluded that it was fly ash, but now they would prefer to go in for lab tests to know the exact contents of the waste.

Drainage department SE Sohan Singh Grewal, meanwhile, told HT: "It came to our notice on Tuesday and we have instructed our officials to ensure that there is no such dumping of industrial waste along drains and canals. We have approached the police for identifying those responsible for the dumping of the waste at Jagdev Kalan and when responsibility has been fixed, an FIR would be registered against the guilty."