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Umendra Dutt

6 March 2006

You seek medicine they give press statements, you need relief they provide you assurance, you want action they organise meetings and you demand crisis mitigation they form a committee. Does the committee hold any meetings? No. These are the developments the public has seen government officials take to tackle the current cancer and environmental health crisis in Punjab's Malwa region.

On 25 February, the Punjab Health Minister Dr Ramesh Chander Dogra conceded that the high power committee formed to probe the cancer link to pesticides usage, headed by the Chief Minister, has not held even a single meeting so far. Dogra was replying to a question by Giddarbaha MLA, Manpreet Badal in the state legislative assembly.

The state government had constituted two committees one high power committee headed by the Chief Minister himself and another expert group headed by K K Talwar, Director Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) , after CSE's Director Sunita Narayan raised the issue of pesticides in blood of Punjabi farmers on 7 June 2005 in a press conference at Chandigarh. The expert group had met once but the high-powered committee failed to meet in last eight months. The meetings were fixed for at least five times and each time it was postponed for one or other reason. Therefore, the very committee whose mandate was to deliver an action plan and mitigation strategy for the cancer crisis has delivered nothing.

In his reply, Dogra also had given a figure of 172 cancer deaths for Muktsar district in the last two years. MLA Manpreet Badal contested the claim as he has a list of 201 cancer deaths from Giddarbaha constituency alone. The number for the entire district would be much higher, says Badal. The government's survey of the pesticide linked cancer deaths and patients has been suspect. First, it conducted its survey in just one or two days. Then they asked state vigilance department to conduct the survey. When the police declined, the health department decided to continue it anyway. However, they failed to reach every affected house and somehow were not able to take note of every cancer death.

Three things have become clear. One, there was no meeting held in eight months of high-powered committee. Two, all the state government had provided was some financial aid to cancer patients and three, there is no concrete action plan to take up mitigation measures. Therefore, the crisis remains unaddressed.

Monetary help is not a permanent solution. There is an environmental health crisis in Punjab and particularly in the Malwa region along with ecological degeneration in the region, all from the use of pesticides.

It was in 2002, when Jarnail Singh, a retired government teacher from village Jajjal of Bathinda realised that cancer deaths were shooting up in his village. He also noticed the same trend in other villages of the area. He was the first person to raise this issue with then newly elected local MLA Jeet Mohinder Singh. Jeet Mohinder Singh took this issue to Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh who then ordered a detailed study. This was also the same period when a report related to high incidents of environmental health problems was brought out by a team of environment volunteers led by the author of this article.

There are hundreds of evidences that unsafe use of pesticides can severely damage not only the reproductive health but could also cause a number of other ailments, not just cancer. The focus though, has singularly shifted to cancer. The department of health took notice only of cancer as it was directed by the CM himself, and the other health issues were put on the backseat. Then came the Punjab Pollution Control Board -PGIMER cancer study. The terms of reference for this study was again to ascertain the reason behind high cancer cases in the area and their probable link with pesticides.

Focusing the debate on mere cancer helps the pesticide industry, as it takes a long time to prove direct link between pesticides and cancer. There are hundreds of ifs and buts. However, reproductive health impacts are quite visible and are of more devastating in nature. Among the cancers, women suffer mostly from increased cases of cancers related to reproductive organs. While talking about cancer we should not forget to take notice of reproductive health problems.

In April 2005, the Central Insecticide Board (CIB) constituted an expert committee headed by Dr C D Mayee -- Chairman, Agriculture Scientist Recruitment Board, Government of India -- to review 37 pesticides, which are banned/restricted in other countries but are being used in India. In September 2005, the Mayee committee sent a letter to the Punjab government's Director of Agriculture asking for his observations, considered views, opinions and experiences on ten pesticides that are under review: Monocrotophos, Mancozeb, Quinalphos, Butachlor, Diclorvos, Acephate, Fenitrothion, Carbendazim, Atrazine and Pendimethalin. Mayee also sought views on the various aspects of toxicology, environmental fate and eco-toxicology of these pesticides. Nevertheless, I learnt that this letter has been somehow missed and the office of the Director of Agriculture says they have never received the same. The Punjab government must take serious notice of the Mayee Committee's letter.

The need to reduce pesticide load in Malwa region is urgent. Steps should be taken to educate the farmers about no-use or safe use of pesticides. A new study must be conducted in collaboration with reputed institutes like Industrial Toxicological Research Center, Lucknow, National Institute on Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, Center for Occupational & Environmental Health, New Delhi and AIIMS. The study must be done participatively involving larger civil society groups, and must be followed by participatory appraisal and monitoring.

While Punjab is facing serious ecological impacts of the green revolution, it is noteworthy that the Government of Andhra Pradesh in collaboration with Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) an NGO from Secunderabad, has taken a bold and innovative step of converting nearly 400 villages across the state into pesticide-free villages. This could be a lesson for the Punjab government.

Umendra Dutt
6 Mar 2006

Umendra Dutt is the Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission. KVM is at Street-5, Hardayal Nagar, Jaitu-151202 District Faridkot, Punjab. Tel:+91-01635 -503415.

Citizen Direct is India Together's channel for publishing reports from citizens who have detailed information about specific civil society concerns and matters, by virtue of their participation, association, or independent observation. These reports are therefore as witnessed and understood by the authors themselves; India Together accepts no liability or responsibility for them.   More

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  • Posted by Dr PR Arun on March 6, 2006 12:04 PM

    Dear Umendra,
    Thanks for highlighting this serious issue of 'not so green revolution's aftermath, that continue till date. I feel that there is much less media attention given o this whole issue of slow poisoning of farmers and the present plight of Punjab farmers. There is an urgent need to documet the fact and figures inorder to strengthen the campaign against biocides across the nation.

    Dr P R Arun, ICHRL, Mumbai

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