Pesticides taking huge health toll in Punjab’s Malwa region

By Ranjana Narayan, IANS

New Delhi : Punjab’s Malwa region, once referred to as ‘Makheon meetha Malwa’ (sweeter than honey) for its rich agricultural produce and cotton farming, is today battling environment-related health problems including a noticeable rise in cancer cases, kidney ailments and infertility as a result of large-scale use of pesticides and fertiliser.

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The green revolution of the 1970s that brought a windfall to the farmers in terms of prosperity is now revealing its sorry side-effects — large-scale environmental degradation with the strong chemical pesticides having led to contamination of water bodies, food and air, says Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), a non-governmental organisation working in the area.

“Punjab is in great danger. It is only when you go to the villages that you realise how much the environmental pollution has affected the people there. In the Malwa region, you will get to see girls and boys as young as nine years with greying hair, signifying that ageing is setting in early. There are five to 10 cancer cases in each village, plus numerous other health problems,” KVM head Umendra Dutt told IANS.

According to Dutt, the total dissolved salts (TDS) in the water bodies is much higher than permissible levels, forcing women and schoolchildren to spend valuable time in fetching potable water from approved sources.

“The water is not fit to be given even to animals. The high toxicity in the environment has affected the cattle too. Their milk yields have gone down, and like the humans there they have developed bone problems. They do not walk properly and the cows are not conceiving properly.”

The Malwa region consists of nine districts with Ludhiana, Barnala and Sangrur in the non-cotton growing belt and the rest, Bathinda, Mansa, Moga, Ferozepur, Faridkot and Muktsar, comprising the cotton belt.

Dutt and his team went on a door-to-door survey in Ferozepur, Faridkot, Muktsar and Bathinda districts a few months ago and met the people there, right from grandparents to children.

“What we saw is very disturbing and terrifying. The dance of death by cancer is everywhere. Every village has faced cruelty of deaths — young, old, married, single, men, women, rich, poor, farmers, labourers — there is no distinction. The death count includes those as young as 4-5 years.”

Each village, including the smaller ones, have more than 5-10 cancer cases, and cancer deaths are taking place every year. The disease takes an economic toll on the families as they are forced to sell their land to get the victims treated, said Dutt, who is from Ferozepur.

Dutt and his team came across several cases of childhood arthritis, reproductive health diseases and an alarmingly high number of childless couples. When this happens, says Dutt, it is the woman who is blamed for not being able to bear children.

“Most people don’t even know what went wrong in the last few years,” he says. His team also saw many kidney patients, mentally challenged children, diabetic patients and young men with fertility problems.

A study was done on the rising cancer cases in Talwandi Sabo block in Bathinda by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) more than two years ago. It found that cancer cases were indeed high and attributed it to “more use of pesticides, tobacco and alcohol”.

An angry Dutt says that the “study has diluted the aspect of high use of pesticides in the area. Tobacco is against the Sikh religion and how can people in a largely Sikh area be accused of tobacco use, including women? So how does tobacco feature in the area as a cause at all?”

He maintains that “the agriculture departments, pesticide companies and dealers are brothers-in-arms in disaster to push the area into the lap of environmental death and are against the shifting to organic farming”.

Dutt feels that the region “needs a pesticide holiday and should be declared an environmental hot spot”.

He feels the government should withdraw all pesticides and adopt natural farming — agriculture without chemicals. “Whatever the geography of the area permits, we should grow that only.”

He proposes that the government carry out a house-to-house epidemiological survey on the causes and distribution of pesticide-induced diseases.

“The government should do a blood sampling of 100,000 people to check for pesticide levels and also do a check on the breast milk of mothers. This will reveal the level to which the toxins are affecting the people,” he said, adding that successive state governments lacked the “political will power” to tackle the situation.