Green revolution’s cancer train

Pesticides and cancer: a murderous concoction, a massive environmental and health disaster, while people are dying in village after village of Punjab

By Sandeep Yadav Faridkot/Muktsar

Despite the relentless suffering, 41-year-old Karamjeet Kaur is not scared of death. Member of a proud, landed family in Kotbhai village in district Muktsar, this mother of three has been diagnosed with uterus cancer. The revelation has brought no change in her daily chores, except that she has to travel long distance for periodic check-ups at the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre, at Bikaner, in Rajasthan. Her hair has turned white due to illness and heavy medicines, and her face is weary in the fading daylight. Yet, she tells her story with immense dignity, so distinctive among the strong, hardworking women of Punjab. And it doesn’t matter if it is her cancer she is talking about.

Karamjeet is one of the five battling cancer in her village. The Jhoke Sarkari village, in Faridkot district, has  10 cancer patients. There have been 15 cancer-related deaths in the last five years here. Even children, as young as ten- year-old, are suffering from joint pains, arthritis and greying of hair. Their suffering is starkly visible.

It’s the same story in several villages of Punjab—Jhariwala, Koharwala, Puckka, Bhimawali, Khara. Recently, a 12-year-old boy died of cancer in Khara village and a 25-year-old woman has been detected with breast cancer. Similar cases of cancer deaths (apart from farmers’ suicides) have become the norm in the whole of Malwa region of Punjab, comprising the districts of Muktsar, Faridkot, Moga, Sangroor and Bathinda. Although the government has claimed 172 cancer deaths in Muktsar district in the last two years, Manpreet Badal, the Shiromani Akali Dal MLA from Giddarbaha, contested the claim. He has a list of 300 cancer deaths from Giddarbaha constituency alone. “In the 50 villages falling in my constituency I have attended close to 300 funerals of people dying due to cancer in the last three months,” says Manpreet.

“Punjab is in the grip of a terrible environmental and health crisis emanating from the intensive farming practices involving large doses of chemicals and pesticides in use for the past four decades,” says Devinder Sharma, agriculture policy analyst. The green revolution has not really been so green. The environment has been intensely contaminated by the rampant use and abuse of chemicals and pesticides. The underground water is clinically unfit for drinking or for irrigation.

A comprehensive study conducted in the area by the prestigious Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, brings out unequivocal evidence that the use of indiscriminate, indiscreet, excessive and unsafe pesticides is directly responsible for the rapid and significant rise in the number of pesticide-related cases of cancers and cancer deaths. Studies by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) have established that Punjab is facing a serious second-generation environmental crisis.

Malwa region, in the southwest of Punjab, is a cotton belt that is now growing the controversial, genetically modified Bt cotton only. Gurmail Singh, a cotton farmer of Jaitu village, says that about 14 years ago the cotton in the region was attacked by the American ball worm— a deadly pest. “I used about ten pesticide sprays over three acres of land and still could not kill the pest,” he recalls. There are many farmers who used more than 20 sprays of pesticides to kill the pest, but were still unsuccessful.

Unaware of the harmful effects of the mindless use of pesticides pushed by the nexus of unscrupulous agencies and private companies, the people of the region are paying a terrible price for their folly. Often wrongly advised by influential agricultural lobbies and profit sharks, the greed of high yield overruled prevailing health concerns. Indeed, Punjab has 2.5 per cent of the total agricultural land in the country, but is using the highest amount—more than 18 per cent of pesticides in the country. All this has contributed to widespread social devastation in individual and community life.

Predictably, Dr Harinder Singh, Agriculture Development Officer, Muktsar, categorically blames the farmers for not adhering to the precautions related to the use of pesticides. He says that a pesticide called Monocrotophose is banned from being used on vegetables and fruits, but the farmers don’t follow the warning. “The precautions are not binding as an official order since there are no such laws. Hence no legal action can be taken,” says Singh.

Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO in Faridkot, argues that the entire tragedy is a result of a conspiracy hatched between the scientists of the influential Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) and pesticide companies, which convinced the innocent farmers with a false promise: more pesticides, more yield. “The PAU continues to push pesticides, knowing too well that these were not required in the first place. In the case of cotton, scientists have compounded the problem by turning the ‘insect profile’ hostile, who, instead of being eliminated are breeding heavily. There were six or seven kinds of pests that worried the farmers in the 1960s; today, the number of cotton pests has multiplied to over 60,” says Dutt.

Almost 40 years after the green revolution, the International Rice Research Institute, at Manila, in the Philippines, now publicly accepts its mistake in promoting pesticides. It is on record that “pesticides were a waste of time and efforts” in Asia for the cultivation of rice. Farmers in Bangladesh, Vietnam and the  Philippines have successfully opted for pesticide-free cultivation. But the irony of Punjab is that the agriculture establishments are not open to this bitter realism about pesticides. They are still gloating in the green-revolution mindset, insulated from alternative paradigms for sustainable agriculture, environment and development.

After Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, raised the issue of pesticide content in the blood of the people of Punjab last year, the Punjab government constituted two committees — one high-profile committee, headed by Chief Minister Amrinder Singh, and another expert group headed by Dr K.K. Talwar, Director,  PGIMER, Chandigarh. The expert group met at least once but the high-powered committee failed to meet even once in the last ten months. Meetings were fixed not less then five times but were postponed for one reason or another.

While the Punjab government is busy clearing multi-crore SEZs, it has not been able to provide its people a proper cancer treatment facility in the Bathinda region. Poor cancer patients are forced to go to distant Bikaner, in Rajasthan, for their treatment. According to the National Cancer Registry Programme, out of 424 cancer patients from Bathinda district, 328 were being treated at Bikaner. So much so, the train plying between Muktsar and Bikaner has been rechristened as the ‘cancer train’ by the locals.

While NGO’s such as Kheti Virasat Mission, are doing their best to educate the farmers about health and environment issues, even to the extent of asking them to pledge that they will do only organic farming, the state government’s role is starkly insensitive and lackadaisical.  The Punjab government paid a meagre relief amount to some cancer patients. But can half-hearted doles of monetary help stop the epidemic?

How will the government stop the ecological degeneration and health crisis, and save the people from cancer and other

diseases directly related to top-heavy policies and the vested interests of pesticide lobbies? 

The wake-up call has been buzzing non-stop and for a long time. But no one’s listening, certainly not the powerful green-revolution lobby. While the people die, or survive, waiting for death, in abject pain.