The urban slum for migrant workers in Ludhiana exposes the government’s neglect of planning and pollution control.
Giaspura in Punjab’s industrial hub, Ludhiana, is a nondescript locality, thickly populated with migrant labourers and their families. The first impression you get when you enter the area is of streets littered with garbage, of overflowing drains, and shack-like buildings, each about 100 square feet and packed tight with five or even 10 workers and their families. The sky is criss-crossed by power cables, which hang loosely over the lanes and bylanes.
Giaspura is a classic Indian story of unplanned growth. Hundreds of industrial units—making textile and hosiery, auto components, machine tools, sewing machines, cycles, generators, diesel engines, tyre tubes, and consumer goods—and dairy units dot the area. They have mushroomed helter-skelter, with scarcely any attention being given to civic infrastructure or town planning.
On April 30, Giaspura was in the headlines. Eleven persons, including three children, died of gas poisoning. It had rained heavily the day before, and the choked drains overflowed. The sewage and gases released created a stench that by the next day became unbearable. The putrid air entered two buildings—one a clinic and the other a sweet shop—both with homes on the floor above. The air inside soon turned fetid.
The day had started off as usual. Gaurav Goyal, who runs a confectionery, Goyal Cold Drinks, and Rajesh Kumar, who owns an eatery across the street, started work at 5 am and 6 am respectively. Around 6:30 am, Kumar recalled, a woman who had come to buy milk raised an alarm when she saw Goyal collapse. As Kumar ran across, Goyal’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and a visiting friend came running downstairs. Soon, all of them began to lose consciousness and collapsed one by one. Two other neighbours who came to help also fainted. Kumar too passed out after a while. While Goyal and Kumar survived, others were not so lucky.
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While the victims were being rushed to hospital, Nand Kishore Sahu, a fruit-seller, heard cries coming from Arti Clinic, close to Goyal Cold Drinks. Sahu said he saw dozens of people, who had gathered in front of the clinic on hearing the cries, drop to the ground. Some writhed in pain. As he went near, he too fainted, gaining consciousness only in the ambulance. The clinic belonged to Dr Kavish Kumar, who died along with his wife, daughter, and two sons. The family lived above the clinic.
Even though Giaspura is back to normal, the shops where people died were closed at the time this correspondent visited the area. Reportedly, the families have returned to their homes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to perform the final rites for the deceased.
The viscera studies of the deceased and the reports from the police, the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), and the National Green Tribunal are yet to come. But Gaurav Goyal has the post-mortem reports of the family members and the friend he lost, which say the deaths were caused by the inhalation of hydrogen sulphide, a poisonous gas characterised by a strong odour of rotten eggs. Many witnesses, including Goyal, claimed that the government and media have undercounted the deaths.
“The area does not have separate drainage systems for industrial waste and municipal waste,” said Sushil Verma, a dealer in real estate, whose office, Kundan Lal Property, stands near Goyal Cold Drinks. Verma, like several others from the locality, said that the deaths were caused by toxic gases from chemicals dumped in the drain, which seeped into homes and shops through the sewage pipes.
Verma said there was no treatment plant for industrial discharge within a 10-kilometre radius of the area. “The State government must explain why, despite collecting heavy taxes from the industrial units, it has not set up industrial waste treatment plants,” he said, adding: “A bigger mishap might happen again soon. The government cannot wash its hands of by promising a compensation of Rs.2 lakh per death.”
Ludhiana city has one of the biggest municipal corporations in Punjab. But, according to residents, the dilapidated drainage system has never been a priority for city authorities. The gas poisoning coincided with protests by class IV employees of the municipal corporation over delays in the disbursement of salaries. Of the 7,000 protesting employees, at least 2,000 had not received salaries in the last six months.
The scale of misplaced priorities and faulty urban planning can be gauged from the fact that Mini-Rose Garden, a popular park in Giaspura, was built on what was a pond until 2008, and gets flooded with sewage each time there is heavy rainfall. A few days after the gas poisoning, the park was flooded with sewage again.
Mandeep Singh Sidhu, Commissioner of Police, Ludhiana, blamed the local factories for dumping chemicals into the drains. A five-member special investigation team has been constituted to probe the incident.
The police have roped in the PPCB, saying that action would be taken against its officials if they do not cooperate with the investigations.
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Industrial and Commercial Undertakings has said that local industrialists must not be harassed until their involvement is established. The body has demanded a design audit of the city’s sewerage system to establish the cause of the gas leakage.
There are several illegal electroplating units near the site of the incident. A May 5 report in The Tribune said: “These unauthorised units are run from small rooms and dingy shops. Degreasing and cleaning solutions (while electroplating) release toxic air pollutants and volatile organic compounds.”
All these industrial units usually get away with violations of pollution and environment laws. Responding to queries from Frontline, Surabhi Malik, Deputy Commissioner, Ludhiana, refuted the news reports that a clean chit had been given to the industrial units. “We are yet to get the magisterial report,” she said, adding that a committee comprising members of the PPCB and the National Green Tribunal is probing the causes of the incident.
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Though Punjab aspires to develop Ludhiana as an important industrial hub of north India, the city has the second highest number of cases of violation of the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986, among 34 Indian metropolises surveyed in 2021, as per a report by the National Crime Records Bureau.
This neglect is best exemplified by Buddha Nullah, a sluggish stream that runs through Ludhiana city. Once a gushing river, Buddha Darya is referred to as a nullah now because the regular dumping of industrial and municipal waste has turned it into a stinking drain. It now threatens to pollute the Sutlej river which it meets. Even after spending over Rs.400 crore on rejuvenating the stream, the Aam Aadmi Party State government has not managed to clean it up.
- Giaspura, where 11 people died of gas poisoning, is a tragic story of unplanned growth, civic neglect, and disregard for the lives of migrant workers.
- The area is home to hundreds of industrial units that have been established without proper attention to civic infrastructure or town planning.
- Giaspura’s mostly migrant worker population resides in dilapidated structures that are prone to flooding. As migrant workers typically vote in their home States, the government seems to have abandoned its responsibility to address their conditions.
Dr Kavish Kumar, who died on April 30, came to Ludhiana from Bihar about 28 years ago. He is one of hundreds of migrants who have settled in Ludhiana over the last few decades. At Mazdoor Pustakalaya, a library run by volunteers of Kaarkhana Mazdoor Union, this reporter met a group of students from migrant families. They spoke fluent Punjabi. “We were born here. Punjabi is our identity,” the university students said with a grin.
But they are still seen as outsiders. As Upendra Singh, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh, said: “The officials don’t heed our grievances because we are looked down upon as outsiders. The ward councillor comes to our rescue only when things become unbearable.”
A study of migrant labourers in Ludhiana city by Shruti Mehra from the department of Economics and Sociology, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, and Gian Singh from the department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala, says that every fourth person here is a migrant from neighbouring States.
Although addressed by amicable words like bhaiyya (brother), they are not treated equally, the study argued. It asked employers to abide by labour laws, which include provisions for stipulated wages, allowances, safety and health measures, provident fund, ESIC (Employees’ State Insurance Corporation) coverage, employee welfare fund, uniform allowance, HRA, and DA. Only this can make migrants feel financially and physically secure, the study said.
In reality, the migrant workers get measly wages and live in dingy rooms in dilapidated buildings called vehras. The vehra owners charge between Rs.1,000 and Rs.1,500 as monthly rent for one room. Most vehras in Giaspura are in low-lying areas, which get flooded with sewage every time it rains heavily.
“If you don’t grease their palms regularly, the sanitation workers don’t unblock the drains,” claimed a vehra owner.
“This used to be a residential area. Over the years, it became industrialised, but civic infrastructure did not keep pace. The original residents moved out and were replaced by migrant labourers,” he said, adding, “The authorities never pay attention to the people living here, in these conditions.”
Danger of epidemics
Dr Heera Lal, a resident of Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, now runs a clinic in Giaspura. He said that Giaspura is the dirtiest locality of Ludhiana city. “The sanitation scenario has improved slightly in recent years, but when it rains, sewage enters homes, and the streets stay flooded for days with wastewater from overflowing drains.” He also complained about the unsafe drinking water in the area. “The tap water always stinks,” Lal said, “There is no government healthcare service in the area. I charge Rs.20-30 as fee from my patients.”
According to another doctor, who used to run Mazdoor Clinic in Ludhiana until a few years ago, many migrant labourers go back to their home States when they get serious health issues, which often arise due to the poor living conditions. “The number of dispensaries run by ESIC in Ludhiana district is almost negligible when seen against the population of 15-20 lakh migrant workers,” he said.
“Though Punjab aspires to develop Ludhiana as an important industrial hub of north India, the city has the second highest number of cases of violation of the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986, among 34 Indian metropolises surveyed in 2021, as per a report by the National Crime Records Bureau.”
The doctor also pointed to the danger of epidemics when one lives in such conditions. “No one can stay healthy while living here,” he said.
Since migrant workers usually vote only in their home States, the government appears to have abdicated its responsibility. Even basic services like spraying insecticides againt mosquitoes, distributing chlorine tablets to purify water, or putting up first-aid posters are not done.
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Colonel Jasjit Singh Gill (retd), a Ludhiana-based green activist and former member of the State Task Force for Buddha Dariya Rejuvenation, blamed the broken civic infrastructure for putting lives at risk. “The mushrooming growth of vehras with very few toilets has aggravated sanitation problems. A house on a plot of 200 square yards, meant to house 10 persons, is now accommodating 100 to 150. The manifold increase in municipal waste along with the ever-growing load of effluents from the illegal industrial units in the area is bound to choke the sewage system,” he said.
Lakhwinder, head of Karkhana Mazdoor Union Punjab, and Jagdish, a member of Textile-Hosiery Kaamgaar Union, Ludhiana, see the Giaspura incident as an industrial accident, pointing out that most industrial units here do not follow environmental or other safety norms in order to save money. According to them, it is industry owners and not the government that should set up effluent treatment plants.
Though the government has taken some action against erring factory units, the exercise is seen as largely symbolic. Worse, it encourages new methods of waste disposal that are even more hazardous. There are widespread allegations that many units in the area are now injecting effluents into the earth, thus contaminating the groundwater. Malbros International Private Limited, an alcohol-making unit, was using this method in the Mansurwal village of Zira tehsil in adjoining Ferozepur district. The matter came to light when tube-wells started pumping out black groundwater. The residents of Mansurwal held a six-month long agitation that finally compelled Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann to announce the unit’s closure in January 2023.
When it comes to worker safety on factory premises, most units do not adhere to norms, said Lakhwinder. “They never hire experts and engineers. Whenever an accident happens, it is generally downplayed by the police and administration,” he alleged. “Labourers have died working inside factories at night, with the gates locked from outside.” Just two days before the Giaspura incident, Gill and other activists had demanded a sewage outlet audit of all industrial units. As Gill pointed out, “In the absence of such mechanisms, the violators get away easily due to a corrupt pollution control system and the political clout it enjoys.”