The contamination of the river Beas with molasses released by a sugar mill situated on its banks in Gurdaspur has become a major environmental threat to the cities of Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Pathankot and other towns and villages in the region. The effluents from the mill leaked into the river last week and the water still remains polluted. Molasses is a by-product in the manufacturing of sugar. It is suspected that the chemical overflowed from a tank and got mixed with the water in the river. There are charges that the storage facilities were poor and the mill took in more sugarcane than it could handle. Pollution control norms were, in any case, violated. There was no proper supervision of the processes by the officials of the factory. The state pollution control officials were lax or negligent.
Water from the Beas is used for drinking and agriculture in many districts of Punjab. The molasses leakage has polluted the river and the water cannot be used for these purposes till the river is cleaned up and freed of pollution. A 30-35 km stretch of the river has been flushed with water from an upstream dam, but it will take days and weeks to fully decontaminate the water. People have been warned against drinking the water, serving it to cattle, bathing in the river or eating the fish. Fish, water birds and other life forms in the river have died in very large numbers. It was thought that the molasses leak had killed the blind Indus dolphins, a rare species on the verge of extinction, which live in the river. There were only 5-11 dolphins in a 185-km stretch of the river in India and they had disappeared after the leak. But one of them has been sighted after some days and there may be hope for others. The river had 47 gharials, another rare species. Some of them have also been sighted now. Just over 200 of them exist in India and the world. But there are concerns about the health of these endangered species. It will take a long time for all the aquatic life, including fish, to be restored in the river.
Such environmental disasters happen regularly but those who cause them are rarely brought to book. Officials who are complicit in the crime also escape punishment. Most of those who own the establishments that cause pollution, like the Gurdaspur mill owners, are politically connected and influential. Unless they are punished and made to pay compensation for the losses, the fight against pollution cannot succeed. Some damage is irreversible. Can a dead dolphin be replaced?