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No pause in Punjab’s toxic harvest

Even as recent media reports caution that most fruits and vegetables are largely unfit for human consumption due to their high chemical content,pesticides continue to be used recklessly in the fields of Punjab....

Written by Amrita Chaudhary | Faridkot |
July 30, 2010 12:06:18 am

Even as recent media reports caution that most fruits and vegetables are largely unfit for human consumption due to their high chemical content,pesticides continue to be used recklessly in the fields of Punjab.

The ‘Granary of India’ constitutes 2.5 per cent of the total agricultural land in India,but consumes more than 18 per cent of the total pesticides used in India.

Within the state the worst affected is the southwestern belt known as the Malwa region comprising the districts of Bathinda,Mansa,Moga,Faridkot,Sangrur,Barnala and Ferozepur. The black soil in the region is suited for cotton cultivation.

However,the crop was susceptible to attacks from American bollworm. To check these attacks,farmers would sometimes spray the crop with pesticides — as many as 35 times a year. This took a toll on the whole ecosystem in the region and experts widely concur that the polluted soil and ground water have significantly contributed to the high incidence of cancer in the region.

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Situation improved marginally in 2005 with the introduction of Bt cotton when the annual number of sprays on Bt cotton came down from 35 to five.

However,the pests ran faster than the pesticide. And Bt cotton became vulnerable to a new pest called mealy bug and the number of sprays has now risen to 30 times per year.

Not only Bt Cotton,state’s horticulture produce,especially its vegetables,is equally notorious for high chemical content.

A farmer from Jalandhar,preferring not to be named,said,“Brinjal is most susceptible to pest attacks. The chemical that we spray to ‘save’ brinjal,keeps the vegetable toxic even after 60 days of the spray. This is one reason you will never find brinjal being cooked in a farmer’s house in Punjab.

“But farmers are helpless and have to save their crop. The government agencies and institutes such as Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) have failed miserably in spreading awareness,suggesting alternatives or offering any sort of help.”

Umender Dutt,executive Director,Kheti Virasat,an NGO that promotes organic farming,says: “In Punjab,we have farmers living right in the fields where they spray pesticides. There are instances when poor families store the household ration in used bottles of pesticides.”

Dutt also points out that endosulfan,which is banned in the US, sells the most in Punjab and is sprayed in all crops. “Therein lies the main issue as till date the standards fixed for usage of pesticides in Punjab are the same as used in the US. This is unwarranted as the farm sizes in both countries are different. In the US we have 1,000-acre huge farms while in Punjab we have even half-an-acre farm.”

Various studies at different points of time have underlined the extent of toxicity in Punjab’s fields.

An influential report on impact of pesticides in the state,released in 2005 by Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences,Education and Research (PGIMER),painted a grim picture. The report underlined that the state’s agriculture as well as the health of its people were being severely affected due to the widespread use of chemicals.

Studies apart,the biggest exemplar of use of chemicals causing damage in the state exists in the form of train number 33-the Abohar-Jodhpur passenger train. In Bathinda it is known by an ominous sobriquet — The Cancer Express. Every day,this train leaves the Bathinda railway station carrying nearly 60 cancer patients to Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Institute situated in Bikaner.

A survey conducted some three years ago by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed that contaminated water had led to a rise in diseases like asthma,cancer,joint aches,premature greying of hair and even mental disorders in areas where the pesticide load was high. The survey also revealed that Bathinda and Muktsar were worst affected and villages like Sheikpura,Jajjal,Giana,Malkana and Mahinangal in Bathinda reported 91 cancer deaths in a decade and also found high level of pesticides in the blood samples of farmers.

Umender Dutt says,“The CSE study found some 15 types of pesticides in 20 blood samples that we had collected from farmers in Bathinda. In each blood sample,we had found a morbid mixture of around 13 pesticides.”

Dr G P I Singh,principal,Adesh Institute of Medical Sciences and Research,Bathinda,says,“There is a strong co-relation between prevalence of cancer in Malwa and widespread use of pesticides. All previous studies done by the PGI or the CSE clearly indicate this. However,we need more extensive studies on this. Before that,the state government should set up a community-based cancer registration in the area and a cancer surveillance cell as well.

“While I have no figures to quote,the average percentage of cancer in Malwa is surely higher than the national average. This should be more than enough for the state government to take immediate action.”

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