The green revolution has been lauded for what it did for our country. We went from a country begging for food to being an exporter. However, along with it came several drawbacks too, the foremost being the increased cancer prevalence in states like Punjab which contributed majorly to the revolution. Natural pesticides and fertilizers used earlier gave way to the more ‘effective’ but deadly artificial ones. Little did anyone know the perils it would expose them and the generations to come.
According to the latest statistics released by the Punjab Government, Punjab has over 90 cancer patients per one lakh population. This is much higher than the national average of 80 per lakh. The Malwa region, also known as the ‘cancer belt’, has the highest average of 136 cancer patients per one lakh of population. Data over the last five years has shown that 18 people die of cancer every day, on an average.
The connection is hard to ignore – Punjab with just 2.5 per cent of the agriculture land of the country consumes around 18 per cent of pesticides used in India, a very high number by any standard. There are high subsidies provided by the Government on pesticides in the state and this has led to their indiscriminate use.
Aamir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayate took up the subject for discussion when Kavitha Kurugganti of the Alliance for Sustainable Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) said that the blame didn’t lie with farmers alone but the policy-makers. She said that 67 pesticides that were banned in other countries were still being used in India. Only 1 per cent of the pesticides sprayed reaches its intended target and the rest 99 per cent remains in the environment.
Though the use of pesticides for fruits and vegetables seem to have decreased due to awareness, it continues to be used on other crops especially cotton, which is a cash-crop contributing to the economy of the state and is highly susceptible to pests. Of the top 15 pesticides used on the crop, the US’s Environmental Protection Agency considers seven as ‘possible’, ‘likely’, ‘probable,’ or ‘known’ human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin). Add to that the contaminated water with high heavy-metal toxicity and you have a lethal cocktail.
Women in the state are affected by uterine and breast cancer, while cancer of the oesophagus, lymphoma and leukemia are the other types prevalent amongst men. Pesticides also cause the destruction of folic acid especially during pregnancy leading to neural tube defects, stunted growth and mental disorders in infants. Reduced sperm counts, spontaneous abortions, premature deliveries are heralding a ‘reproductive-crisis’ in some belts in the state.
What’s adding to the tragedy is the fact there are only two state-run hospitals in Chandigarh (PGI) and Faridkot. And the treatments provided here too are not affordable by some of the poor farmers. So, it isn’t surprising to see cancer patients catching the ‘cancer train’ from Bathinda to get treatment at the hospital in Bikaner, Rajasthan.
The state seems to be taking some steps to improve the situation. It has now made cancer a notifiable disease, holds several awareness camps and has provided free travel on trains for cancer patients. Just last week, the centre has given approval for setting up a 300-bed cancer hospital in Sangrur, in collaboration with Tata Memorial Centre.
So, what are the alternatives to the deadly pesticides and fertilizers? Apart from using animal and green manure, preventive techniques like crop rotation, using pest-resistant varieties and planting pest-free rootstock can be used. If the constant monitoring of the crop indicates that pest control is necessary, then less risky pest control measures can be applied.
Also read: War on Cancer