Pakistan launches drive against crops grown with wastewater

Pakistan’s Punjab government launches crackdown against vegetables grown with untreated wastewater and destroys those standing on thousands of acres
<p>Noor Ul Amin Mengal, the director general of the Punjab Food Authority, in t-shirt and jeans, supervising inspections [image courtesy: Punjab Food Authority]</p>

Noor Ul Amin Mengal, the director general of the Punjab Food Authority, in t-shirt and jeans, supervising inspections [image courtesy: Punjab Food Authority]

For Amjad Ali, a resident of Gajju Matta area falling between Lahore and Kasur districts, it was an extremely rare sight. He could see a contingent of stern-faced government officials strolling in the fields and directing the personnel operating tractors to plough the vegetables that were ready to be plucked. Within moments these vegetables were destroyed in front of the eyes of the hapless farmers who had pinned hopes on the sale proceeds they were expecting from this year’s yield.

Surprisingly, there was little resistance from the locals who would otherwise draw weapons on the very sight of somebody trampling the fields, even if inadvertently. But here they were standing speechless on one side with the wasted ready crop lying in front of them. The loss they had suffered was not due to natural reasons but intervention of these “ruthless” men enjoying support of the local police as well.

These farmers had been growing vegetables in this area for five years but this had never happened to them. So why this time was the question that they wanted to be answered.

Amjad, who works as a salesman at a shop in Kasur, mustered courage and inquired about what was going on from a middle-aged official taking notes. The answer he got was quite unexpected for him. “I was told the crops were destroyed for being grown with untreated waste water. This was never considered a crime in the village,” he comments.

Farmers presenting their crops for inspections [image courtesy: Punjab Food Authority]
But contrary to what Amjad thinks, the government of the most populous and agriculturally fertile province of Punjab has declared the practice of using sewerage water and industrial effluent a punishable crime. In pursuance of this policy, the Punjab Food Authority (PFA) that works under the provincial government has launched a crackdown in all the 36 districts and destroyed crops grown this way on thousands of acres. The farmers were issued warnings and given deadlines and action was taken only when these were not paid heed to.

The farmers in the affected areas have questioned the legality of the action taken by PFA saying it is beyond the domain of the body supposed to ensure food quality standards only. Besides, they claim no requisite legislation has been done to give such powers to the authority.

This objection is refuted by the PFA which says it is working as per its mandate. “We will act wherever the process of producing food is objectionable/harmful to consumers’ health. There is no need to legislate for this purpose as it is already there in food laws,” PFA Director General Noor ul Amin Mengal told The PHA, he added, had also started action against those opting for artificial ripening of fruits with the help of harmful chemicals like calcium carbide under the same principle.

The PFA DG confirmed that there is a lot of resistance from powerful quarters and he faced threats as well but he is continuing with this operation with the full support of the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif. There have been repeated attempts to get him transferred from the province but Sharif has backed him fully.

The rationale given by PFA for the operation is that sewerage water is often contaminated with industrial waste. This increases the presence of heavy metals and other harmful substances in vegetables beyond safe levels. When consumed such vegetables cause severe damage to consumers’ health, and makes them vulnerable to serious diseases.

The wastewater used to grow the crops is visibly polluted [image by: Shahzada Irfan Ahmed]
A detailed study, “Heavy metal status of soil and vegetables grown on peri-urban area of Lahore district” substantiates this claim. This study carried out by the Institute of Soil Chemistry and Environmental Sciences (ISCES) at the Ayub Agricultural Research Institute (AARI) in Faisalabad in 2010 came to the conclusion that “the accumulation of heavy metals in soil samples were lower than the permissible limits but in vegetables, the content of Zn, Cu, Fe, Mn, Pb, Ni and Cd [Zinc, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Lead, Nickel, and Cadmium] were higher than the critical limits.” The study also indicated that “heavy metals may be absorbed directly from wastewater whereas their accumulation in soil is relatively slow. The accumulation of heavy metals was more in leaf than fruit.”

Khalid Khokhar, President of the Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI) – an organisation working for farmers’ rights – explained that many farmers use wastewater because they do not have to pay for the water nor is there a need to apply fertilizer. The substances present in the water serve the purpose of fertiliser but at the same time make the vegetables toxic. The government should provide them surface water at affordable rates or facilitate them in getting tube-wells installed, before taking any punitive action against them, he suggests.

Read: In Sindh water is only for rich and powerful

There is, though, another angle to this debate. Asif Ali Sial, a renowned lawyer who heads the Access to Climate Justice Committee of the Lahore High Court (LHC) said, cultivation with untreated wastewater is a purely peri-urban concept because villagers grow their own vegetables and mostly consume the produce themselves.

On the other hand those settled on the outskirts of the cities grow vegetables with contaminated water and supply these to nearby cities. In a way, he says, they are blocking the way of farmers from rural areas who would have otherwise supplied their crops to these markets.

Melons grown from the wastewater [image by: Shahzada Irfan Ahmed]
The PFA DG affirmed this, and said most of the farmlands used for cultivation with wastewater are owned by big landholders who intentionally settle people there to keep potential land-grabbers at bay. The settlers use this land, likely to be developed for residential purposes in the near future, for cultivation to make some money.

The latest development is that the PFA has mapped the whole province and identified lands cultivated with wastewater in 23 of its 36 districts. Such areas have been declared a ‘Red Zone’ and from now onward the farmers will only be allowed to cultivate non-edible crops like bamboos, flowers, and indoor plants with wastewater.

So far PFA is destroying crops but soon it will start arresting growers if they do not mend ways, announced the DG. “The sentence can be as long as 14 years imprisonment for playing with the lives of consumers.”