Gurdaspur Sugar Mill Molasses release leads to Beas River Fish Kill

The Sugar Mill molasses leak incident in Gurdaspur district of Punjab has done huge damage to aquatic life in Beas river. Several hundred fish including giant catfish have already succumbed to low oxygen level following the crisis which is still unfolding. This stretch of the Beas River provides habitat endangered aquatic animals like Dolphin and Gharial.

Reports suggest pollution reaching deep in the river and release of more water from upstream dams is required for its dilution. Punjab state is in the middle of a water crisis which the incident seems compounding further.

The Sugar Mill:- The sugar mill known as Chadha Sugar& Industries Private Limited isat Kiri Afgana village in Batala Tehsil of Gurdaspur district, Punjab. A drain passes close to Sugar Mill, joins Beas river about 1 km downstream.

Govt to seal sugar mill for Beas fish deaths
The mill at Kiri Afghana from where molasses spilled into the Beas. (Tribune Photo)

The sugar mill is reportedly run by Jasdeep Kaur Chadha, daughter of former Delhi Gurdwara Sikh Management Committee (DSGMC) chief Harvinder Singh Sarna. She is wife of Hardeep Chadha, the brother of late liquor baron Ponty Bhadha. In 2012, both brothers had died in a shoot-out. Interestingly, during Mayawati regime Uttar Pradesh Government had allotted 3 sugar mills to Ponty Chadha which resulted in a huge Rs. 124.70 crore loss for the state.

What is Molasses:- Molasses black treacle is a viscous byproduct of process sugar mill. It has organic and nutritional value and isused in alcohol production. Often sugar companies also have distillery units to utilize it or they sell it to beverage makers. Manufacturers of cattle feed also use molasses in their products. The Chadha Sugar factory houses both sugar and distillery units.

About the Molasses Leak Incident:- In the morning of May 16, 2018 around 08:00 AM molasses from the sugar mill started leaking from storage tanks into the storm water drain. The sugar mill management failed to stop the leakage which continued for next 30 hours. As per report, by 02:00 pm on May 17 an estimated 10,000 kilo liters or 1 crore liters of molasses leaked into Beas River.

Mismanagement caused leakage:- Various media reports are citing different reasons behind the tragic leak. According to initial information, in alleged violation of norms, the mill was storing the molasses in tanks not meant for the purpose. The tanks had been constructed for effluent produced during sugar making process.

As per, Kuldeep Singh XEN, PPCB, after the bumper sugarcane yield, farmers’ protested in front of mill. The local administration asked the mill to take more sugarcane which was beyond its capacity.

A view of underground tank which is used to store molasses at the unit of Chadha Sugar Mill at village Kiri Afgana in Gurdaspur district.
A view of underground tank which is used to store molasses at the unit of Chadha Sugar Mill at village Kiri Afgana in Gurdaspur district.(HT Photo)

The Indian Express report reads; “It has two tanks of 1.35-lakh kilolitres to store effluent and these tanks were full when farmers staged dharna.The mill processed more crop, producing more molasses. The extra molasses was stored in the two tanks which were actually constructed for treated effluent. These tanks were not to store the Molasses. When molasses is not stored properly, it starts boiling over. That is what happened here, and around 10,000 kilolitre Molasses over spilled after boiling at 60 to 80 degree celsius,” said Kuldeep Singh.

“A molasses tank has to be equipped with facilities for re-circulation and for pumping the molasses from one storage tank to another. It should have an air injection system and adequate ventilation on the roof top”, writes The Indian Express report.

In another report the paper quoted a family member of sugar mill company saying as that the incident was a result of bacterial infection in the tank causing frothing and spillage of it.

As per Kamaldeep Singh Sangha,deputy commissionerAmritsar statement in Hindustan Times, there was a blast in the boiler of sugar mill when molasses was being prepared in it resulting into leakage of fluid into the river water. Contrary to this, denying any wrongdoing the Munish Pal, unit head of the mill said that the release was spontaneous and they could not control it. 

Fatal Impact on Aquatic life and still Unfolding Trail of Destruction

According to reports the incident had released about 10,000 kilo liters of molasses in the Beas River through adjoining rivulet, Kahnuwan drain. About 80-110 km stretch of river is affected. The release has reached upto bottom of river lowering the oxygen level. As a result, thousands of fish has been killed including Common Carp, Rohu, Catla, Mrigol, Cat Fish, Singari, Gosh, Bam, Chital, Bata and Sol.

The river water colour changed into brown following the leak. Corpse of dead cat fish as big as of 35 to 50 kilograms were also washed ashore after the incident. Notably, the stretch is also home to Gharials and Indus Dolphins. About 40 sq km area from Goindwal Sahib to Harike is the natural habitat of the critically endangered dolphins found only in India and Pakistan.

Beas River

The number of both endangered species is already on decline for various reasons including sand mining, pollution, haunting and habitat loss. Last week a joint survey by WWF India and forest department had reported presence of 5 to 11 dolphins in185-km stretch of the Beas that flows through Punjab.

Dolphin has been declared National Aquatic animal by Ministry of Environment & Forest in March 2010. Forest Department also mentions presence of 47 Gharials in the River. Both animals play significant ecological role in river eco-system. The incident has further affected the dwindling population. Though the officials feel that Dolphins and Gharial are all safe citing their better stronger immunity.

On the contrary citing loss at multiple level, the Fisheries Department believes that the leak has hit the water animals adversely due to mass fish kill on which they survive.

“Fisheries department assistant director Raj Kumar said that the area affected from the mill to Harike, is about 100 km. Dead fish can’t be counted in such a large area,” he said.Raj Kumar said fish seeds had also perished. “The fish seeds were the yield of the future but their death has hit future generations of fish in the river. The magnitude of the habitat loss is much more, he said”quotes Hindustan Times.

On May 18, teams of the WWF India along with forest teams of Harike district has conducted a survey to gauge the loss of aquatic life. They could not sight a single dolphin and felt that Gharials may have moved upstream the incident site. Till May 20, Indus Dolphin has not been sighted in Beas river after the molasses leak.

Dead fishes taken out from Beas river after molasses from a sugar factory leaked into the river on Thursday.
Dead fishes taken out from Beas river after molasses from a sugar factory leaked into the river on Thursday. (HT Photo)

As per latest report, the impact of the molasses leak has reached the Sarhind Feeder and Rajasthan feeder close to Harike headwork in Ferozepur district leaving several fish, snakes dead. Divers who were looking for a body in Rajasthan feeder stated that the feeder was stinking like never before and they were worried about their safety. 

Notably, Harike wetland is listed under Ramsar International wetland convention. It is located at the confluence of Satluj and Beas rivers around 110 kilo meters downstream from the Chadha Sugar mill. On May, 18 night, the contaminated water has reached Harike, changing its colour to brown. The contaminated water was flowing in both canals, including the Rajasthan feeder, starting from the headworks.

Actions and Efforts to Undo the Damage

The experts from Amritsar Administration have collected water samples and has sent them to Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in Ludhiana for further examination. 

The administrations of various affected districts including Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Gurdaspur have issued advisory warning to people against eating and appealed to shun bathing, eating fish and giving river water to cattle for drinking till the water is not cleaned.

Day on, WWF, forest officials inspect Beas
A villager holds a dead fish taken from the Beas on May 16. (Tribune Photo)

OP Soni, state environment minister had also visited the river and ordered an inquiry into the matter. He also issued an order to shut down the sugar mill operation immediately for causing ecological disturbance till further inquiries.

Kahan Singh Pannu, PPCB chairman has set up a three-member probe committee led by board chief engineer GS Majithia. The committee is asked to submit its report in 3 days.Besides sealing the sugar mill the PPCB hasseized of security deposit worth Rs 25 lakh of the mill.

Gurloveleen Singh Sidhu, Gurdaspur deputy commissioner has asked Rohit Chaudhary, sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), Batala to conduct an inquiry and submit a report in 10 days.

The state forest department has prepared a damage report against the mill under Sections 30, 32, 50, 51, 36-A of the Wildlife Protection Act. District forest officer Rajesh Mahajan said the damage report is an official document and is equivalent to the first information report (FIR) registered by the police.

“District forest officer Charanjit Singh said the impact of the spill was being “assessed” and filed a police complaint at Beas police station against unidentified persons for causing damage to wildlife. The SHO, Beas, however, said they were not taking any action on the complaint as the source of pollution is “out of our jurisdiction”” reads a report in The Indian Express.

Following Amritsar administration request 11,000 cusecs water from Pong Dam and 2,000 cusecs from Ranjit Sagar Dam has been released into the river to dilute the pollutants. But the move did not help much as the water reached the affected stretch only by May 19, afternoon but the pollution has already reached Harike by May 18, night turning the wetland water rusty red.

Chadha and other Sugar Mills are Repeated Offenders

  • In December 2013, during surprise raids, PPCB had found the Chadha Group-owned sugar mill flouting the pollution norms by creating water pollution.As per the report, AB Sugar Mills, Dausa, was found bypassing the effluent treatment plant, whereas Chaddha Sugar & Industries Private Limited, Kiri Afghana (Gurdaspur), was not operating its effluent treatment plant.
  • The report also mentioned that AB Sugar Mills and Chadha Sugar Mills for second time were found violating the pollution norms. According to PPCB all 33 units discharge effluents into nearby nullahs or water sources but the Chadha sugar mill was the closest to a river.
  • In a similar incident in April, 2015, thousands of fish were found dead in Beas river following discharge of effluents from the same mill.
  • People have also questioned the site of Sugar Mill. It is located hardly 1 km away from Beas river and abused Kahnuwan rivulet, an adjoining to the mill and effluents discharge in the rivulet quickly reaches Beas.
  • Though the state environment minister has asked the PPCB to check all 16 sugar mills and 17 distilleries in Punjab, however even after 5 years, the PPCB still says that all 33 units discharge effluents into nearby nullahs or water sources.

Conflicts of Interests:- It is worth to mention that the State Environment Minister O.P. Sharma is also minister for Industries apart from having charge of Education and Freedom Fighter ministries. This makes one suspicious that he would ensure free and fair probe into the issue and ensure strong actions to avoid recurrence of such cases.

It is strange that Chadha Sugar Mill is located so close to a stream and keep discharging effluents in the Beas. Report shows that for  past many years other mills are also violating water pollution norms and still functioning. 

The sugar lobby is very powerful in the state. The mill owner has strong links and contacts with leaders in Government. Some leaders in ruling party have also shown sympathy to mill owner. Moreover Paramjit Sarna the brother of mill owner is religious advisor to Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. He has already had meetings with O.P. Sharma on behalf of mill owner terming the man made incident as accidental.

CSM Drain

Before the media he also stated that molasses was precious for the owner and the mill has suffered heavy financial losses due to leak. He even stated that the mill was helping the Government by accommodating and processing extra sugarcane following bumper production.

Given the continual degradation of rivers in the state, it is clear the industrial ‘developments’ are happening at the cost of environment. It is also obvious the economical interests are trivializing rivers conservation.

Pollution Causing Water Scarcity Amid Stressed Situation

Punjab state is facing severe water crisis. Its ground water is falling rapidly and turning increasinglycontaminated. The state is fighting with Haryana over sharing of Beas river water. Since March 2018, facing low reservoirs level Bhakra and Beas Management Board (BBMB) had restricted water release in Beas river affecting the aquatic life. In last week of April 2018, government has issued a notification to delay the paddy sowing by 10 days stating that it would save a lot of water.

Beas reserve going dry, aquatic life in danger
The water level in the Beas reserve has gone down drastically. The Harike wetland faces threat too. Tribune photo

On May 9, following emergency meeting (BBMB) asked Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to use water judiciously, saying the water inflow into the Bhakra and Pong reservoirs is low this year.Official pointed out that there was 20 to 30 per cent lesser water inflow this year because of decrease in snow melting caused by low temperatures prevailing over upper Himalayas.

On May 18, the Bhakra and Beas Management Board (BBMB), following another meeting of Technical Committee, imposed a 15 per cent cut on the water being supplied to Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan from the Bhakra and Pong dams. Besides, the states have also been asked to be prepared for further curtailment of water supply, if the situation does not improve.

Against the demand for 22,500 cusecs, BBMB has allowed the outflow of about 19,500 cusecs from the Bhakra reservoir to the three states. The water level in the Bhakra dam was recorded at 1,506 feet, 30-feet below the level that was recorded on the same day last year.Similarly, the water level in the Pong dam was recorded at 1,289 feet, lower by about 6 feet against what it was on same day in 2017.The level of water in the Ranjit Sagar Dam has also touched the minimum level of 499 meters.

As per another report, water scarcity and delay in canal cleaning work has also affected cotton sowing the state. Farmers have been organizing a number of dharnas in Muktsar and Abohar over this issue in the past fortnight.

Under such water stress situation, about 13,000 cusecs water was released from Ranjit Sagar and Pong dams into Beas river to dilute the impact of pollution. The move reportedly was not of much help as the molasses contaminated water has already reached Harike and Rajasthan feeder destroying the aquatic animal along the course.  

Bitter Consequences of Sweet Sugar

Punjab had 87 thousand hectare of land was under sugar cane crop in 2016-17and achieved production 591 thousand metric ton. The state is expecting bumper sugarcane yield even this year. The surface and underground water resources in the state are over exploited. Paddy and sugarcane are water most water consuming crops.

India has achieved surplus sugar production this year. As per latest report against consumption of 25 million ton, the is production is likely to be 35.8 million tons.

Molasses spills from Gurdaspur sugar mill into Beas, villagers protest
Dead fish found in Beas River Thursday. (Express photo)

As per a Bloomberg report, bigger harvest in the world’s second-largest producer may further pressure prices that are trading at the lowest since September 2015. Global sugar prices that have tumbled more than 30 percent in the past year could fall further.

Rising output and falling prices have prompted the Indian government to allow white sugar exports under the duty-free import plan, while separately asking sugar mills to ship 2 million tons overseas under a minimum indicative quotas program that allocates mandatory export quotas to sugar mills.

Meanwhile, mill owners are seeking government help to pay farmers on time citing loss of 7.5 rupees from sale of 1 kilogram. Interestingly, the Indian mills owed 180.44 billion rupees to cane farmers as of April 12, according to a government sources.

Significant Fall in Molasses Prices, Reason Behind Leak?

In a related development, rates for molasses has also crashed by 85 per cent owing to bumper sugarcane production across India, including Punjab. There are 16 sugar mills in Punjab, 7 of them private and 9 cooperative. Together, they have crushed around 828 lakh quintals of cane till April 30. Around 42 to 43 lakh quintals molasses has been produced this year. The average production of molasses is around 5 kg per quintal of sugar cane.

Will he get his dues? Politically connected industrialists owe Rs 223 crore to the government and sugarcane growers.
Will he get his dues? Politically connected industrialists owe Rs 223 crore to the government and sugarcane growers. (HT File )

Punjab State Federation of Cooperative Sugar Mill (SUGARFED) has already cancelled the first tender and has now invited more tenders expecting a higher price for molasses, which needs to be cleared from the mills before the next crushing season, which starts in November.In the first tender, the rate for molasses was quoted Rs 85 per quintal, against the last year’s Rs 550 per quintal. Sources in the SUGARFED said that due to poor market of molasses this year, they were expecting a rate of Rs 150 per quintal.

In conclusion:- The leakage of molasses in Beas causing catastrophic damage to river eco system, is prima facie a result of mismanagement in handling of molasses by Chadha Sugar Mill molasses storage.  It did not have proper storage and was storing molasses in effluent tanks which were reportedly already full. 

Reports show that particular sugar mill and other sugar mills in the state have become repeated offender by discharging effluents in water sources in violation of environmental norms. This raises questions over role, duties and efficiency of PPCB and environment & forest department.

Ravi Beas Satluj Dams Map

Then, the district administration is also to be blamed for making the sugar mill take and crush sugarcane beyond its crushing capacity resulting in production of extra molasses presumably leading to leakage.

In broader terms over production of sugar cane crop, subsequently of molasses amid falling prices has also contributed to this accident. Irrespective of severe water crisis, the cultivation of sugar cane is on gradual increase which may lead to many such leaks in future. 

The incident has forced release of untimely and avoidable 13000 cusec water from reservoirs for which rivers are deprived of flows and farmers are fighting over.  While the release has not been of much help, it certainly will compound the looming water scarcity situation in coming days.

The incident is a wake call for concerned department to learn their lessons and take stringent actions against the culprits. It is time for state government also to discourage the sugar cane cultivation by incentivizing local and less water consuming crops. It should also promote crop diversity, horticulture and agro forestry as viable alternative to sugarcane and paddy cultivation. Otherwise such preventable accidental and deliberate leakages would continue to happen destroying the aquatic animals and river eco-systems in a water stressed state thus further compounding the water scarcity.

Compiled by SANDRP, ht.sandrp@gmail.com

List of print media reports on the incident and related issues based on which this write has been composed.


Headlines and links

Sources and Date
1 Molasses leak from sugar factory kills thousands of fish in Beas The Times of India,

17 May 2018

2 Punjab: Large number of fish found dead in Beas river due to release of sugar mill fluid Hindustan Times

17 May 2018

3 Molasses spills from Gurdaspur sugar mill into Beas, villagers protest The Indian Express 18 May 2018
4 All sugar mills, distilleries under govt scanner after Beas fish fatalities: Minister OP Soni Hindustan Times

18 May 2018

5 Spillage of molasses in Beas: Just an accident, say sugar mill owners The Indian Express 19 May 2018
6 Dead fish in Beas river: Dolphins not sighted after killer spill, gharials safe Hindustan Times

19 May 2018

7 Govt to seal sugar mill for Beas fish deaths The Tribune

19 May 2018

8 Spillage of molasses in Beas: Ghariyal safe, Dolphin not sighted yet The Indian Express 19 May 2018
9 Gurdaspur sugar mill sealed, fined Rs 25 lakh over deaths of fish Hindustan Times

19 May 2018

10 PPCB raids find sugar mills defy pollution norms Hindustan Times

28 Dec. 2013

11 Dolphins yet not visible in Beas after molasses leak incident The Indian Express 19 May 2018
12 Day on, WWF, forest officials inspect Beas The Tribune

19 May 2018

13 Fishes, snakes found dead in Rajasthan Feeder in Ferozepur Bahusahi

20 May 2018

Other Relevant News Reports
14 Cane growers’ dues: Govt to seal all private sugar mills in Punjab Hindustan Times

29 Sept 2016

15 Beas reserve going dry, aquatic life in danger The Tribune

31 March 2018

16 India Sugar Production Set to Reach Record on Higher Yields Bloomberg

25 April 2018

17 To save water, sowing of paddy delayed The Tribune

25 April 2018

18 Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan asked to use water judiciously Hindustan Times

9 May 2018


17 May 2018

19 BBMB imposes 15 pc cut on water supply to Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan Business Standard

18 May 2018

20 Punjab: Agri secretary visits canal sites as water scarcity hits cotton sowing The Indian Express 18 May 2018
21 The area under the major crops and their production quantity Pujab Data

As on 20 May 2018

Post Script:-

1 Ajay Veer Jhakhar twitter account shows video in which the molasses laden polluted water is being supplied for irrigation and even for drinking.

2. Another video in the string shows the polluted water is being filled in tanks, which may affect the crops.

3. “Contaminated water with dead fish and snakes has entered into Rajasthan through Indira Gandhi canal from Punjab, prompting the authorities to stop drinking water supply from the canal as a precautionary measure.
The water in the canal is black and red with foul smell and dead fish and snakes have been spotted in the water therefore its supply to water storage tanks has been stopped, Vinod Jain, superintendent engineer of the Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED), Sriganganagar, told PTI.” https://www.ndtv.com/cities/dead-fish-snakes-in-indira-gandhi-canal-rajasthan-stops-drinking-water-supply-1855313 (NDTV, 21 May 2018)
4. On May 22, the leak has caused water problem in Malwa region already suffering from unsuitable ground water thus affecing hundreds of villages: “Clean drinking water supply is scarce in Malwa in Punjab as a fallout of spillage of molasses into Beas River. Districts such as Muktsar, Bathinda, Mansa, Fazilka are getting drinking water supply from the water tanks of the water works department as the department has been told not to take the canal water of canals for drinking purposes. Sources said the stored water would last six-seven days.”  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/punjab-in-malwa-drinking-water-supply-hit-5186023/ (The Indian Express, 22 May 2018) 

5. Some more action by State Govt against Sugar mill company: The Punjab government is considering making Chadha Sugars And Industries Private Limited pay the bill for release of 2,000 cusec water to neutralise the molasses spillage into the river and canal network. 

Also, the government is mulling to increase the security deposit of sugar mill from Rs 25 lakh to Rs 1 crore. The security of Rs 25 lakh, earlier deposited by the unit has already been forfeited as penalty for pollution and killing aquatic life.

Sources said that out of Rs 1 crore to be deposited as security, Rs 50 lakh may have to be deposited for restoration of dissolved oxygen (DO) in water and Rs 50 lakh for the loss of aquatic life in case of any such incident in the future. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/molasses-spillage-punjab-considers-making-sugar-mill-foot-bill-for-water-released-to-neutralise-leak-5186020/ (The Indian Express, 22 May 2018)

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