A massive afforestation drive launched by the Forest department has taken the steel city, once known for high pollution levels, out of the most polluted cities of Punjab bracket.

In 2013, Pollution Control Board data had claimed that Batala, along with Mandi Gobindgarh, Ludhiana and Jalandhar, were among the four most polluted towns. Thereafter, the Forest Department had chalked out an elaborate plan to plant 23,000 trees on the main roads of the city. Three years later, this afforestation drive has shown results with the fine particulate matter (PM) levels showing a downward spiral. Now, Batala and Jalandhar have exited the category and in their places, Khanna and Amritsar have entered the group of polluted towns.

Particulate matter, also known as particulates, are microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the atmosphere. The more the PM, the more the pollution level. Hence, it is mandatory to bring down the PM level to desirable levels to ensure that pollution levels decrease substantially. Particulates are the deadliest form of air pollution due to their ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and blood streams unfiltered, causing permanent damage to the body, said Wilbert Samson, Gurdaspur Divisional Forest Officer (DFO).

Samson revealed that after the 2013 data was released, he got in touch with then Deputy Commissioner Abhinav Trikha to prepare plans to bring down the PM levels. Finances to the tune of Rs 23 lakh were arranged and the money was spent on buying saplings and tree guards after forest officials identified areas to plant them. The project was named Green Batala.

As particulate matter level was high, diseases like asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, premature deliveries and birth defects were on the rise. However, there has now been a sharp decrease in the incidences of these diseases, said a Batala-based physician Dr SS Nijjar.

Forest officials said following the drive, not only have the PM levels gone down, but soil erosion, which was rampant a few years ago, has also been considerably minimised.