Sarsa: Rivulet associated with pivotal moment in Guru Gobind Singh’s life is dying

The Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh industrial complex, one of India’s largest manufacturing hubs, is located near the Sarsa and has made its water completely unfit for human consumption

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 29 December 2022

Guru Gobind Singh crossing the Sarsa. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsGuru Gobind Singh crossing the Sarsa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As Sikhs across India and the rest of the world observe the 356th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, a rivulet in north India associated with a key moment in his life is gasping for breath.

The Sarsa was where the Guru’s family got separated in the winter of 1704, never to be together again. The rivulet is thus important in Sikh consciousness. But one of India’s largest manufacturing hubs located near it has made the water completely unfit for human consumption.

Pharmaceutical waste being discharged either directly or indirectly into the Sarsa from the Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh (BBN) industrial complex has affected the river’s biota and made the lives of people living along its banks difficult.

The pharma waste could also be causing the area to become prone to antimicrobial resistance, which is a ticking time bomb.

Those in the know of the situation told Down To Earth that unless steps were taken by authorities, there would not be any change in the state of affairs.

One stormy night

On December 21, 1704, a pitched battle had taken place on the banks of the Sarsa between the Khalsa and Mughal armies.

Hill Rajput chieftains, whose territory straddled Anandpur Sahib, had warned Emperor Aurangzeb of the rising power of Guru Gobind Singh in the region.

In response, the emperor had directed Mughal forces from Lahore and Sirhind to attack the city. A combined force of Mughals and hillmen besieged Anandpur Sahib.

The city held fast for some time. But finally, the defenders left under the cover of darkness after Sirhind’s Mughal governor Wazir Khan solemnly promised not to harm them.

He went back on his promise and a large force attacked as the Guru, his family and soldiers reached the Sarsa, 15 kilometres from Anandpur.

Sikh chronicles vividly describe how complete chaos reigned as Mughal and Sikh soldiers fought in the waters of the Sarsa that had swelled that night due to rainfall.

In the confusion, the Guru’s mother and his two younger sons were separated from the main party consisting of the Guru, his two elder sons and others who eventually made a last stand at the fortress of Chamkaur.

The Guru’s mother and younger sons were betrayed and captured. The two boys were bricked alive on Wazir Khan’s orders while the Guru’s mother died of shock.

‘Black and foul odour’

The Sarsa originates in the Shivalik hills in Himachal Pradesh. It flows through Solan district that borders Punjab, enters Rupnagar district in Punjab and eventually flows into the Sutlej.

The BBN complex is spread over 380 square kilometres in Solan district near the Sarsa.

In 2017, DTE had reported that BBN hosted around 500 small, medium and large pharma units and accounted for 35 per cent of Asia’s total medicine production.

“But rapid industrialisation and a lax attitude towards safe disposal and management of pharma waste have raised concerns about the effects of pollution on the environment and health,” the DTE report had said.

“The water of the Sirsa (or Sarsa) river, which flows downstream through Baddi, is black and emanates a foul odour,” the report had added.

Things have not changed much in the five years since.

A research paper published February 15 this year in the academic journal Neutrosophic Sets and Systems had highlighted how heavy metals were continuing to enter the rivulet’s water.

The researchers had “collected water samples from the Sarsa river by covering a stretch of 20 km from four sampling spots, before and after the amalgamation of Common Effluent Treatment Plant treated pharmaceutical effluents into river water samples”.

The authors wanted to assess the impact of concentration of heavy metals (cadmium, manganese, cobalt, lead, copper, zinc and iron) and identify the most contaminated sampling spot responsible for heavy metal contamination in river water samples.

They concluded that “the concentration of each heavy metal, which was within the permissible limits before amalgamation, dwindled gradually, after amalgamating pharmaceutical effluents into the river water samples”.

Neutrosophic Entropy Based Heavy Metal Contamination Indices for Impact Assessment of Sarsa River Water Quality Within County of District Baddi, India was authored by Simerjit Kaur, CP Gandhi and Nidhi Singal from Rayat Bahra University, Mohali, Punjab.

“The Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 clearly lays down guidelines about the penalties to be imposed on those who are polluting water resources. Those who pollute water are liable for a prison sentence of up to six years under the Act. There is also the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 which has to be followed,” Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, the Nirmaliya order saint credited with cleaning the Kali Bein rivulet, considered sacred in Sikhism, told DTE.

He added that it was discouraging to see that neither the Water nor the Air Act were being implemented in the case of the Sarsa.

“People are not polluting the Sarsa. It is the industries and the municipal corporation who are responsible by not discharging their duties,” Seechewal said.

“It does not matter which government comes to power. Industries will continue to set up such polluting units by getting permission from the authorities in return for kickbacks. And the regulators too will not change in doing their job more honestly,” he added.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People told DTE that both the State as well as religious leaders had failed as far as river clean-up in India was concerned.

“Religion has a role to play. Religious leaders can create awareness among people to stop polluting rivers. But this is not happening in the case of either the Ganga or any other river in India. This includes the Shipra in Ujjain or the Godavari in Nashik that are considered holy due to their association with the Kumbh Mela. That does not mean the state does not have a role. But the statutory role in this regard has also been a failure,” he said.

Read more:

How Baddi pharma waste can make your medicines ineffective

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