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Punjab's killing fields

Sreelatha Menon & Sanjeeb Mukherjee  |  New Delhi 

Five years after the first report linking the high incidence of cancer in Punjab to excess use of pesticide came out, the cancer train is still running full.

Platform number 4 of becomes animated around 9.30 every night, when the arrives on its way to Rajasthan. Hereabouts, though, it has earned another, grimmer name — the cancer train. The name holds good this Monday in early April too. Most passengers on the platform are headed to Bikaner’s Prince for chemotherapy or consultation.

Jaswinder Singh, a workshop owner in Bathinda, is one of those boarding the train when it pulls into the station half an hour late. He and his three brothers are headed to Bikaner to bring their sister, Jasweer Kaur, back. The 32-year-old mother of two was detected with cervical cancer a week ago, following which she took the train to Bikaner.

It is not that Punjab does not have cancer treatment facilities. There are government-run cancer treatment centres in many districts here and two private hospitals are coming up in Bathinda. But for Jaswinder and his brothers, the Bikaner hospital inspires trust. “Two of our neighbours died after getting treated in Ludhiana. But two others got cured completely in Bikaner,” says Singh. “So we are sure Jasweer will recover too.”

His story is that of many in the state. It is estimated that there are four to five cancer cases in each village in this prosperous region of Punjab, mostly with a population of 3,000 to 4,000. The exact number of patients is not known. A clearer picture will emerge once the population-based cancer registry set up in Punjab last month by the finishes its task of mapping cancer.

Punjab was the cradle of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from high yielding crop varieties, the revolution was caused by heavy usage of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Many believe that the cancer cases are a result of the excessive use of pesticides — Punjab consumes more pesticides than any other state in the country. The first such suggestion was made in 2005 when the Centre for Science and Environment reported the presence of pesticides in human blood samples. The state health department countered CSE’s report with a parallel study, done in four days, on 450 samples and declared there was no trace of pesticides in them. Then came a study by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in 2007 which found water samples tainted with uranium in Faridkot, and another by the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research, Chandigarh, in a few villages in Bathinda, which found 125 cancer cases per 100,000 people. The study also linked the prevalence to the use of pesticides and the presence of nitrates in water but the state government, under Parkash Singh Badal, dismissed the findings.

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So is the villain uranium, nitrates, or pesticides? Epidemiologist in Patiala Government Medical College says it is a cocktail of causes. The first toxin weakens the tissue and the next one makes the impact more powerful. “The government has suppressed data and has distorted a scientific study,” says Upendra Dutt, founder of the Kheti Virasat Mission, a campaign against pesticide contamination of food and water. “Every village in the state now has water filters. The government itself is providing RO (reverse osmosis) devices and filters, confirming the water here is not fit to drink. Despite all this, the state refuses to acknowledge the cause of contamination and its connection to cancer.’’

When we catch up with Chief Minister Badal on his way to his native village after lunch, he plays down the correlation. “Even America has cancer. They don’t use pesticides,’’ is his defence. He rules out promoting organic pesticides or banning chemical pesticides. “The holdings are small and people can’t take risks or they lose their earnings to pests,’’ he says. “We are setting up hospitals. We are also setting up a fund worthRs 20 crore to help patients,” he adds, referring to a proposed cancer specialty in the Bathinda hospital.

At the Guru Gobind Singh Medical College in Faridkot near Bathinda, the year-old government cancer department draws patients from all the neighbouring districts, including the chief minister’s native village, Badal. There are 60-odd patients every day and about 20 of them new ones, says the lone doctor, Manjeet Singh Jeota. Officially, Jeota’s out-patient’s department gets over at 2 pm but even at 5 pm he is in the wards, talking to each patient. “Cancer should be made a notified disease, so that every district surgeon notifies authorities when a fresh cancer case comes in, ’’ he says. 

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Those detected with cancer have to contend with the pain as well as the financial burden the disease brings with it. Jagdeep Singh, a line man with the Punjab Electricity Board, has been bringing his grandmother, Jasveer Kaur, from Badal to Faridkot for chemotherapy every week. The chemotherapy, of which she needs 30 sessions, is free. But she also needs injections, each of which costs Rs 7,200. There are seven more cancer cases in Badal, says Jagdeep.

But they find it hard to give up the use of pesticides. In the Dhoodkot village of Faridkot, Parvinder, who has studied till the 12th standard, has now found a job with a pesticide company, says his mother, Harjeet Kaur, a widow who lost her husband to cancer. The family still buys pesticides and sprays for the remaining crops. “We can’t take risks unless some of us get jobs,’’ she says quietly, tears welling up. It appears to be a choice between the risk of having a poor crop and of getting cancer. Except that for people like Harjeet, it is not a dilemma. “We can’t stop using chemicals and sprays. What will we eat if we lose the crops to pests?” she asks.

The state, with just 1.5 per cent of the geographical area of the country and 2.5 per cent of the agriculture land, consumes more than 18 per cent of pesticides used in India. In fertilisers too, the state’s consumption is far above the national average. Figures provided by the Fertiliser Association of India show that currently close to 400 kg of synthetic fertiliser is used on every hectare of cultivated land in Punjab, while the national average is below 150 kg. Corresponding to the higher use of synthetic fertilisers, the per-hectare fertiliser subsidy in Punjab is almost thrice the national average. The high subsidies have promoted non-judicious use, which has adversely affected the soil.

Parveen Jindal, a pesticide and fertiliser dealer in Faridkot, says 400 to 500 litres of pesticide are sold in Abohar and Malot daily, while in Faridkot 50to 60 litres are sold. He adds that the cost of pesticides has increased in the last few years as has their potency, thus reducing the dose required. A couple of years ago, pesticides cost Rs 120 to Rs 130 per spray per acre, which has now gone up to around Rs 500 per spray per acre. “But, because of advanced technologies, a field which earlier had to be sprayed two or three times a month, now needs to be sprayed only once a month.”

Is there a way out? “The prevalence of disease is the first real jolt for the people to consider a different way of growing healthy crops. Some are opting for organic methods but that is a rarity,” says Kheti Virasat Mission’s Dutt who shows bags full of pesticide-free brinjals and rice left by farmers who have adopted organic farming at the insistence of NGOs in Jaitu in Faridkot district.

Some families have taken to growing organic vegetables for their own use while they continue to spray chemicals on paddy and wheat for the market. Bhagwan Kaur of Jaitu, who has been fighting cervical cancer for the last eight years, shows us the brinjals grown by her sons in their chemical-free garden. But of course, that’s just for their use.

First Published: Sat, April 23 2011. 00:30 IST
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