Village for Sale: Farmers in Crisis

Over 25,000 farmers in India have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006, many of whom owed less than Rs.8,000, writes Jaskaran Singh.

(Inset): Sikh farmers in a village in Punjab. A farming crisis has led to a spate of suicides in this agriculturally rich state.
(Above): A Punjab village. Its outwardly calm exterior belies a severe economic crisis that has hit the farming community. (Photos: Amritsar Times)

Amid all the hoopla over India’s much vaunted economic reforms, a silent crisis has been stalking India’s rural hinterland. Amid the bright lights, glitz and glamour of India’s rising clout in IT and BPO, this is a much darker legacy of India’s economic liberalization that has received far less attention from India’s typically navel-gazing metropolitan-bound English-language media.

How many Indians are aware that as many as 25,000 farmers in India have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006? Many of them owed less than Rs.8,000 ($173). A majority of those who committed suicide were relatively young, below the age of 45 years. In many cases the families of suicide victims did not have enough financial wherewithal to arrange the last rites of the victims.

Andhra Pradesh has among the highest number of cases, over 9,000 farmer suicides from 1997 to January 2006. More than 3,000 have taken their lives during the past 22 months.

In the Punjab, there were 2,116 suicides between 1998 and 2005 according to official statistics. Non-government organizations quote much higher figures.

The farmer suicides are not confined to these two states. Maharashtra witnessed over 250 farmer suicides in Vidarbha district from June 2005 to January 2006.

Amid such misery comes the news that sometimes a whole village is for sale, lock, stock and barrel! Not one farm or house, but the whole village as a single lot.

So what is it that is driving whole villages to put themselves on the auction block?

When India became independent in 1947, the nation did not have enough food for all. It has come a long way since then, becoming the world’s second largest exporter of rice and fifth largest exporter of wheat. Agricultural exports account for 15 percent of Indian exports. Something must be terribly wrong if a third of the Indian population still goes hungry to bed everyday; farmers are still dying, not from starvation but from hopelessness. The money lender is not the only villain, government agencies and institutions are acting just as callously. Today, it turns out that the farmer cannot pray for rain and then hope; he finds that he cannot compete with global forces and the apathy of his own government.

So a Punjab village took the extreme step of putting itself for sale. In January 2001 Harkishanpura, a village in Bathinda district of Punjab took an unheard-of step. The village panchayat announced that the village was up for sale. Since then five more villages in the state — known as the food bowl of the country — are awaiting auction. What started as an isolated and bizarre case is now becoming a tragic and wider reality.

Not just in the Punjab. In December 2005, Dorli in Wardha district of Maharashtra made itself available for sale. “Dorli village is for sale” signboards were everywhere, and the message was painted on trees and cattle. It looked like a symbolic gesture, surreal, from a Kafka or Camus story.

In the Chingapur village in Yeotmal region of Maharashtra, the villagers organized a “human market” for the sale of kidneys and invited Indian President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In 2000, 22 peasants in the Kundoor district sold their kidneys to pay their debts.

In a neighboring village, Shivani Rekhailapur, banners read: “This village is ready to be auctioned. Permit us to commit mass suicides.”

Why do villages put themselves up for sale? Take the example of Malsinghwala, a tiny village in the Mansa district of Punjab. It is a collection of low brick buildings, a dusty road and fields. The village owes around Rs 70 million, of which Rs 25 million is to private moneylenders and commission agents. Jasbir Singh, the village sarpanch, says, “We are neck deep in debt. We are left with no other option but to sell of our land.” Each of the 4,000 residents has an outstanding debt of Rs 13,000. Of its 1,800 acres, about 1,150 are good for growing crops. Half of this land cannot be cultivated for lack of irrigation facilities.

More than 43.4 million Indian peasant families are deeply indebted. Small and medium peasants are the worst affected, but they are not the only ones.

Overall, the number of rural landless families is increasing. Farmers cannot ensure a secure livelihood for their families even after selling their valuables, land and body organs.

Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst, points out that harmful combination of chemical outputs with water-guzzling crops is responsible for the present predicament of the farmers.

In 2005, the Commission on Farmers’ Welfare, set up by the Andhra Pradesh government, concluded that the state was in “an advanced stage of crisis,” the most extreme manifestation of which was the rise in suicides among farmers.

Chaired by Professor Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the commission concluded that the causes of the problems related directly to public policy and economic strategy at both local and national levels. Heavy burden of personal debt among farmers is the “most acute proximate cause of agrarian distress,” the commission said.

Why are farmers suffering from high indebtedness?
There institutional reasons are: (i) A steep rise in the cost of inputs; (ii) Volatility and often a fall in the price of produce (iii) Lack of proper agricultural advice and (iv) lack of access to formal lines of credit.

Farmers have been forced to pay more for their seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, water and power. At the same time, the price they’ve received for their crops at market has swung wildly and even fallen. Round this off with an inability to get bank loans and a sudden absence of proper advice from the state government on what crops to grow where, and farmers are on the fast track to ruin.

According to the Commission of Farmers’ Welfare, economic policy in India at central and state level “has systematically reduced the protection afforded to farmers and exposed them to market volatility and private profiteering without adequate regulation; has reduced critical forms of public expenditure and has destroyed important public institutions, and did not adequately generate other non-agricultural economic activities. “While this is a generalized rural crisis, the burden has fallen disproportionately on small and marginal farmers, tenant farmers and rural laborers, particularly those in drier tracts. The most extreme manifestation of the crisis is in the suicides of farmers.”

As the Punjab government gets ready for the second Green Revolution, planning to shift 33 percent of state’s total farm land to horticulture, corporate farming and organic farming in next couple of years, one wonders if Indian policymakers have learnt their lesson.

11782 farmers commit suicide: Report

Parliament of India…
New Delhi: Asking states to abrogate a law that provides for arrest of defaulting farmers, a Parliamentary Committee on Tuesday said the suicide of 11,782 farmers during last five years is attributable to distress sale of their produce and continuous crop failures. “The Committee is shocked to learn that in some states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there is a law to arrest farmers who default in repayment of loans. Moreover, they are not only kept in jail but the expenditure incurred on their food, transport and others things in jail is also said be to recovered from them”, the report tabled in Parliament said. The Standing Committee on Agriculture, headed by Ram Gopal Yadav, observed that the Agriculture Minister in a letter to the Chief Ministers of Bihar, Jharkhand, Kerala, Orissa, Punjab and UP in April 2006 had taken up the matter of review of state laws to remove the provision for arrest and detention of farmers.

“The last letter (to states) for amending the relevant state laws was issued on August 12, 2005, and it seems that the government has no will to act but is only performing the duty of a postman in a way, that based on the recommendations of the Committee, a letter is written to the states to do the needful”, it said. Stating that the farmers have not got their full dues, the Committee said they have to sell their produce at very low rates and are not able to repay their debts due to drought and continuous crop failures. “Under the circumstances, the only escape route for them is to commit suicide. Thus, in the last five years, as per the records of Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, about 11,782 farmers have ended their lives out of frustration and humiliation”, the report added. (PTI)

Farmers find their voice in 'Chamber of Punjab Farmers'…

Amrita Chaudhry

Ludhiana, March 8: FOR long, it has been the industry that has been the engine of policy making. From taxation to excise, the industry takes care of all sectors. Even the agriculture sector gets its policies designed by industrialists, who have little clue about the socio-economic fabric of agriculture. But all this will change, at least in Punjab, where farmers have a formal platform, “Chamber of Punjab Farmers”, as their spokesperson.

It has been six months now that this chamber came into being and after the initial teething troubles, it has started to make its presence felt on the state scene.


Avtar Singh Dhindsa, well-known progressive farmer and a floriculturist who is the first president of this chamber, explained, “We are the CII for the farmers. We needed this platform as even agriculture policies were being devised by the CII, while it should have been the other way around. Apart from this, our main objective is to restore the lost dignity of Punjabi farmers.”

Armed with some of the leading agriculture brains of the state, the chamber has embarked upon a Herculean task. “Our first task is to see that the farmers get the payment for their produce. There is no trade in the world where the producer is not paid. In our case, it is the commission agents who get the money. For this, we have already filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court and the court in turn has asked the state to reply on the issue,” said Dhindsa.

He added, “Another important issue is that we make agriculture sustainable. And for this while we have a whole battery of scientists, we need to do more. The chamber has planned a series of guest lectures where we will invite speakers like Dr Vandana Shiva, etc. At least let us hear what they have to say. If we like their model of sustainable agriculture, we will adopt it. The idea is that we have to broaden our vistas of knowledge.”

“Then there are many issues that the government is reluctant to speak on, such as farmer suicides, farmer indebtedness, increase in income of farmers and so on. It is these issues that we will design a policy for the state government. From now on, we farmers, too, will have a pressure group in the form of this chamber, which will help voice their concern directly and not through the industry,” he said.

The melting pot of the chamber is the 11-member executive body which includes some well-known names like dairy farmer Daljit Singh, potato growers Sukhbir Singh Bhatti and Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha, just to name a few.

When asked if this chamber was yet another club of elite farmers of the state, Dhindsa remarked, “We have progressive farmers on board, as after all they have struggled to reach where they are today. As a farmer myself, I know where it hurts and I am constantly in touch with the small farmers around me. We are a community and we are bound by our problems. Thus this chamber is no elitist group but a voice of the Punjab farmers.”

Task ahead for new government: Green agenda for sustainable Punjab

By Umendra Dutt

03 March, 2007

The SAD-BJP government has assumed office in Punjab. Obviously the new government will announce its plan with in few days. These elections were fought on the issue of development. It is a fashion to brand every economic and construction activity –the development. The development has become very catchy phrase these days. Every body talks about development, but despite being known as developed state Punjab is experiencing the burns of this so-called development. It is one of most debt ridden state; it has witnessed thousands of farmers’ suicides, its environment is one of most degraded, it has almost lost its precious wealth of natural resources, it is in midst of the most severe environmental health crisis in the world. Ironically this developed state was the first where indebted villages had put themselves on sale.

And yet the our planners and politicians are mesmerized to develop further more on the same lines without any corrections in line of action, without analyzing the errors in the developmental path, without any kind of review and evaluation that what went wrong where and how? There is still a chouse about what should be the development path for Punjab. And notwithstanding the adversities of the unsustainable development, nature abusive agriculture systems and perishable growth model there is no discussion on corrective measures.

The SAD-BJP government has taken the reins at a very crucial juncture; the new government can play a historic role by evolving a Green Agenda for Sustainable Punjab. The new government should demonstrate that it is highly concerned about the ecological and agricultural catastrophe leading to farmer’s suicides, depleting natural resources, degraded environment, and intense environmental health crisis posing a serious socio-economic and ecological challenge to the state. The new government should resolve to adopt the green agenda for a sustainable Punjab with an imperishable prosperity which will be free of debt, suicides, displacement and diseases caused due to environmental discrepancy.

The first step in this direction the new government can take is that it should bring out its ‘Vision for Sustainable Punjab’ with in minimum stipulated time. The vision paper should target the issue of ecological and agricultural sustainability of Punjab. This vision paper should be widely circulated in public for discussions to evolve a road map for sustainable agriculture, sustainable development and sustainable environment. After all only this kind of sustainability can assure sustainable prosperity to the Punjab. The new government should resolve to make this commitment an agenda for each and every citizen of Punjab . Actually there should be a political and social consensus on this Green Agenda so that this ought to be a participatory action.

Secondly, another new initiative the SAD-BJP government should take on priority bases is formation of ‘Punjab State Environment Commission’ as a statuary body with Chief Minister as its Chairman. The proposed Environment Commission will be first of its kind in India. The Environment Commission shall protect the environmental rights of people of Punjab to get clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, beautiful, historical, esthetic, cultural and spiritual values of the environment. It will also monitor the environmental duties to be obeyed by the people, as natural resources of Punjab are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. The present generation is mere trustee and as trustees of these resources it is their duty to conserve them for coming generations.

Then another important issue is to establish Cancer Hospital in Malwa region. The new government is bound to do this as this was promised by Akali Dal in its election manifesto. Beside this cancer hospital the new government should take the care of entire environmental health scenario in Punjab. As cancer is only one aspect of environmental health catastrophe, there are other dimensions also to this crisis. There is urgent need to establish Punjab Institute for Environmental Health Research and Studies in Malwa region. The proposed institute should be headed by an eminent environmental epidemiologist of the international repute and exposure. The institute shall have Regional Centers in various regions of the State. Then, another most important step the SAD-BJP government must take is to undertake a widespread and multicentric environmental epidemiological mapping through an extensive study and participatory research . This study is already recommended by PGIMER –PPCB study on cancer, interestingly the previous government had put all recommendations in dust bin only. The new government can take lead in this issue. This study must be entrusted to the proposed Institute for Environmental Health Research.

The Environmental health crisis with such intensity ,can only be mitigate by large scale community intervention and participation thus the new government should form a Environmental Health Mitigation Task Force under the aegis of Institute for Environmental Health with majority participation from NGOs and farmer groups. A senior Epidemiologist or Environmentalist should head this task force with powers minimum of the secretary rank to the Government. This task force would be constituted by taking members from medical fraternity, social activists, and teachers of life sciences, farmers and experts from various governmental departments.

The south western Malwa is facing most severe environmental health crisis. This entire area should be treated as the toxic hot spot. To focus its efforts government must declared and imposed immediately the state of ecological and environmental health emergency in the entire belt. For this specially drawn plans are needed with specific focus on the natural and organic farming, with adequately allocated funds for the targeted problem.
The agriculture of Punjab needs a fresh vision for its sustainability as well as sustainability of natural resources. To take up this issue with urgent priority the SAD-BJP government should formulate a policy and action plan with a fixed time frame to promote sustainable agricultural practices and various eco-friendly methods of farming. Special budget allocations should be made available for the purpose. There should be a bottom-up formulation of a coherent Sustainable Agriculture Policy for the state of Punjab . This should have a pro-organic stance.

The SAD-BJP government should evolve special support systems to promote sustainable agriculture practices of natural and organic farming. The government should take lead to implement the recommendations made by Task Force on Organic Farming headed by Dr. Kunwarji Bhai Jadav constituted by NDA government in centre, which brought out its report in November 2001. The implementation of these recommendations shall become an instrument to empower farmers and local economy.

The new government should provide incentives to farmers for community level production and supply of natural and organic inputs and produce as it is offered by some other states. The Government should also make sure that farmers get proper price for their natural and organic produce. Of course there is Punjab State Organic Farming Council is already working in this direction. But, its entire thrust is export orientated certainly it will not benefited the farmers of Punjab. More there is wider question that is pesticide free produce is only meant for foreign markets? Do the ordinary citizen of Punjab not have right to get pesticide free stuff? When the data from All India Coordinated Research Project on Pesticidal Residue clearly indicates presence of DDT, HCH and BHC in cereals, milk, butter, fruits, vegetables and even infant formula samples from Punjab and the edibles have residues of other pesticides li
ke Phosphamidon, Quinalphos, Chlorpyriphos, Endosulfan, Malathion, Parathion, Monocrotophos and lindane it is a alarm bell for a devastation in offing. More over the presence of pesticides in blood as detected by Centre for Science and Environment also raises serious questions. CSE report states the presence of cocktail of 6 to 13 pesticides in blood samples. CSE also find organo-chlorine and residues of the newer and so-called ‘non-persistent’ pesticides – organophosphates in blood. This situation demands that pesticide free food must be first offered to Punjabi people, but Organic Farming Council of Punjab has no vision and commitment in this regard. The new government should take initiative to revamp and reconstitute the organic farming council.

The SAD-BJP government can set an example for rest of country by establishing an autonomous Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Punjab headed by a person with vast experience in natural and organic farming practices. This institute should be autonomous in working, policy formulations and adoption of techniques. The institute shall be guided by a governing Council drawing experts and practicing farmers from all over the country. This council shall have representation from the civil society organizations and practicing organic and natural farmers with a bottom up approach.

The SAD-BJP government must show its deep committed to the welfare of farmers and should ensure farmers a proper take home salary. For this purpose the government has to constitute an ‘Income Commission for Farmers’. Eminent agriculture policy expert Dr Davinder Sharma has already put forward this concept on various forums.

As Punjab has suffered the most severe ecological crisis, thus it needs a paradigm shift to save from ecological suicide. Let be there first ever ecological audit to seek an analysis on ecological condition of Punjab. A high power working group has to be constituted by involving independent experts to take up this study. This group must be free from green revolution mindset. This is indeed very important to get a clear picture of ecological damages and hence to evolve a strategy for ecological revival and environmental sustainability of the Punjab.

Other critical issue of ecological sustainability is crisis of water resources. Depletion and contamination of water resources and providing safe potable water to the people is one of the most sought after task for the new government in Punjab. The water crisis in Punjab is escalating day by day. In 1984 there were 53 blocks as dark zones, in 1995 they were 84 and in 2005 the figure went up to 108 out of total 138 development blocks in Punjab. Ground water level falling much faster then assumed. In 1973 only 3% area of Punjab has water table below 10 meters, it goes up to 14.9% in 1989, 20% in 1992, and 28% in 1997, 53% in 2000, 76% in 2002 and in 2004 the situation goes beyond expectations when 90% area of Punjab is drawing water from the depth of more then 10 meters. More over 30% area of Punjab has depth of 20 meters or even more. In 1980 there are 3712 villages identified as drinking water problem villages, this figure went up to 6287 in 1990, and then in year 2000 the number goes as high as 8518 and as of now 11849 villages or habitations out of total 12423 in Punjab are facing drinking water problems.

It is high time to save every drop of water by a participatory community action. Punjab has sufficient amount of rain fall and harnessing the rain water shall revive its empty ground water aquifers. More over the traditional water wisdom could provide potable water to large number of villages in Malwa, where water scarcity has brought doom for the villagers.

The SAD-BJP government should make rain water harvesting mandatory in whole of Punjab accept the areas under water logging. To administer this community led initiative, ‘Save Water Mission’ should be formed with large scale membership of community groups. An advisory board drawing water experts and water warriors from all over India shall be constituted to steer the proposed Save Water Mission.

Environmental crises are to be dealt holistically, with inter disciplinary interventions and multisectorial approach with large scale community participation in planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. ‘Unidirectional and de-bureaucratized’ earnest effort is urgently needed to take up environmental conservation to bring Punjab out of present ecological catastrophe. This is the need of the hour to ensure safe and sustainable future of coming generations of Punjab.

Viewing this problem the SAD-BJP government should initiate a state level water conservation drive with all inclusive community participation. The state government must formulate a time bound action plan to rejuvenate the old and to build new water bodies across the Punjab by involving Panchayati Raj Institutions, civic bodies, farmers and farmers groups, village youth clubs, civil society groups, religious and social organizations, educational institutes and various governmental departments. Will the new government make river action plan after learning lessons from innovative initiative of rejuvenating Kali Bain rivulet by Sant Balbir Singh Sencheewal? Government should come forward with a concrete action plan to revive all rivulets and ensure pollution free flow of its rivers.

Lastly the most important aspect of water conservation is State Water Policy. The Punjab has a draft water policy from last two years and it has to be finalized. But, this draft is totally based on National Water Policy which very much corporate oriented. The new government of Punjab should dare to take a bold decision to redraft state water policy very mush in accordance with water heritage, ethos and values of Punjab. The government should immediately call open dialogue on water policy and must circulate the present draft for wider public participation in water governance.

These are few urgent task chalked could be part of Green Agenda for Sustainable Punjab. Would the new government show its commitment for Environmental justice to all living beings and sustainability of natural resources?

The Punjab is awaiting the government that dare to take up the challenge of paradigm shift.

Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission. Jaitu, Faridkot district based environmental NGO in Punjab . Phone: 9872682161, E-mail:

The Kheti Virasat Mission – KVM

The KVM is a nor for profit conscious civil society organization established in March 2005 and registered as a charitable trust with head office at Jaitu town of district Faridkot.

KVM is working in the field of natural farming, sustainable agriculture, conservation of natural resources, environmental health and eco-sustainable technologies.

Burden of credit for Punjab farmers

Arijit Barman…


Posted Tuesday , February 20, 2007 at 20:03

Updated Tuesday , February 20, 2007 at 20:41

Stats show an average farming family in Punjab has more to repay than families anywhere else in India.

LOAN MOAN: Stats show an average farming family in Punjab has more to repay than families anywhere else in India.

Punjab: Naseeb Kaur is a widow. Her husband committed suicide almost a decade ago, to escape the Rs 7 lakh debt burden.

Kaur managed to marry off three of her daughters, but in the bargain, she had to part with the one hectare acre land she owned for she had to give that as dowry.

Today, her daily existence is a continuous struggle and the debt the last thing on her mind.

“There is no help from the government and the elections do not hold any meaning for me,” says she.

The fruits of India’s growing economy are yet to reach her family and also many other families in Punjab. But why is this happening?

Says CRRID’s Dr S Singh, “This is happening because these people first take loans and then when they cannot repay them, they take more loans. It becomes a vicious cycle and then they cannot get out of it. The money that they receive is not enough.”

Apart from this, the loan money is often used for purposes other than farming and the Punjab Farmer’s Commission is worried to say the least.

Says member Punjab Farmer’s Commission, Dr Kalkat, “The farmers spend the money on weddings etc. which needs to be stopped at once.”

Punjab for many, may be the poster boy of the Green revolution, but government data shows that an average farming family in that state has more to repay than any other family anywhere else in India.

  • For farmers with land holdings less than 0.1 hectare, the average outstanding amount is around Rs 6,000. In Punjab, the average is around Rs 9,000.
  • For those who own between one and two hectares of land, this figure is Rs 14,000 for rest of India and Rs 28,000 for Punjab.
  • For farmers with more than 10 hectares of land, rest of India’s debt stands at Rs 77,000 while in Punjab, it’s more than Rs 2.5 lakh.

The aam admi’s Government is keen on providing economic relief to the farmers by giving them credit through rural banks, but for the farmer stuck in a vicious cycle, the path to a virtuous cycle is almost an impossibility and suicides are often the only way out.

So there might be a package to serve credit needs, especially of small and marginal farmers, but the burden of debt continues to be oppressive and in the hinterland of Punjab it’s just another day for Naseeb Kaur.

Punjab and Gujarat-Rich states, rich politicians, poor track records, negative images…

The NDTV show on the Punjab farmer’s suicides came as a rude shock! The heart-breaking scenes, the tears and misery of the women who lost their husbands were too much to bear viewing for long. Yet, the feature did a great national service for highlighting what is held back from the public view the many contradictions and distortions that have come to characterise Punjab agriculture.

What was often highlighted, made great public displays in the newspapers and TV channels is the Bharti Mittal’s Wal-Mart foray or Pepsi Company’s entry into the agri sector. The Green Revolution creates a false image and that false image had stuck in public memory, thanks to the over-zealous publicity-seeking agri scientists turned propagandists and apologists for the Central Government.

The old Punjab that went on to make the Green Revolution such a grand success is now gone. Forever, it seems. The new Punjab is altogether a different story, a difficult story. Did anyone tell you that Punjab tops the chart in per capita farmers’ debt? No. Did anyone tell you that Punjab’s social sector indicators, maternal mortality, infanticide and other social ills far outpaces other less “developed” states? No, not likely.

Yes, there are serious issues in the new Punjab’s agri sector. There is this new phenomenon of farmers suicides, uneconomic land holdings, farmers-turned migrants, in search of livelihood and honour by the poor farmers who have been totally left behind by the new generation of politicians, who are all now crorepatis and they have now come out with a vengeance, as in the latest Assembly elections to win power, by using all the highhanded methods! It is also dynastic rule in Punjab, taking acute from New Delhi; it is Badal vs Amarinder Singh, two of the richest families of Punjab, all in the name of development vs religious, ethnic identity!

Punjab and Gujarat are always considered top states in terms of critical development indicators. Punjab is the granary of India, along with Haryana and Western UP. Its agricultural performance was always considered world class until recently when the problems of soil salinity and water logging and declining productivity and all India per capita farm debts created many doubts about the future of Punjab agriculture.

Gujarat is always outwitting other states in terms of drawing record investments. Punjab was always the agricultural pioneer, thanks to the Bhakra-Nangal dam and the management of inter-state river waters. So too now Gujarat with its record hitting Narmada dam that serves so many states and also seeing such persistent protests over the rehabilitation of the displaced people. May be this is a new phenomenon in the post-Nehru era of managing the inter-state river waters on such large scale. Times change and we have to welcome changes and as far as agriculture’s future is concerned we can’t be dogmatic when it comes to sharing the inter-state waters or utilising the precious natural resources for the maximum benefit to the entire country. In this context the recent Cauvery River waters award too has to be seen in the national context, the few persisting issues have to be negotiated in a spirit of give and take and there can’t be any more politics of the narrow king in such matters that has direct bearing on the poverty and prosperity of the common man.
Gujarat and Punjab have so many lessons in development and also in terms of the quality of state politics.  Punjab CM, Capt.Amarinder Singh has given out his thoughts on the eve of the Assembly elections and the sort of candidates, fielded by various parties, also give an indication of the sort of politics the state is to have for some more years to come. Most of the candidates are found wanting when it comes to probity in public life. Some of the richest men and women candidates are in the field. The cursory look at their declaration of personal wealth shows that it is all rich men and women’s game, this democratic politics at the beginning of the new century. Some of the prominent politicians, some 10 among them, have declared a personal wealth of Rs.39 crore (CM) to 30 crores to way down to 1.44 crores.

Luckily most of them have no criminal records, though a few do. As for the Akali Dal, it is again a rich men and women’s club. The top candidate is rich by 89 crores and also faces murder charges! The next rich starts with Rs.54 crores to Prakash Singh Badal, the former CM and a powerful figure declaring Rs.13 crores as his wealth, though many dispute this figure. His son, another Badal is rich by 9.4 crore, a Bar-at-law, is said to be the richest among the lot in the party.

Criminal records low but corruption charges high among the candidates. There are more crorepatis in the Akali party, though Congress candidates don’t lag behind when it comes to crorepatis. Even the Dalit candidates are wealthy, the wealthiest declaring an asset of Rs.6 crores. Land mafia, dynastic candidates, crorepati politicians, landlords, barons, big-ticket NRIs, transport tycoons, liquor giants and traders are the common descriptions for the candidates. Among the 26 reserved seats for Dalits, there are 27 crorepatis. Women candidates make for interesting reading. The richest is worth 90 crores. Another top five crorepatis among the women candidates. Badal is alleged to possess wealth to the tune of Rs. 3,500 crores, alleged by the CM whose palace is valued only at Rs. 35 crores spread over 32 acres at the heart of Patiala. Yet, Badal, the senior has declared that the only vehicle he owns is a second hand tractor!

Says the CM:”70 per cent of Punjabis are under 40 years; they look to the future with much fear, as there is no worthwhile development, as seen under the Aakali rule. Development has become the most central issue in this election, thanks to the Congress rule putting development as the main issue before the people of Punjab”. The CM alleges that “the Akalis had never gone beyond Aurangazeb in their speeches”.

Chandigarh, the newly built capital must belong to Punjab and Haryana must build its own capital, says the CM, the Chandigarh issue is a hot emotional issue. Questions of Sikh identity are another contentious issue, who can deliver it? Congress or the Akalis?

The new agenda of development is the one route to regain the Punjabi identity, through more development and the promise of realising the aspirations of the younger generation. The religious symbols are again a current issue, the Heritage Memorial, free access to Nankana Sahib and other holy sites. The CM promised to tackle unemployment, bring in one lakh crores worth of new investment, to generate 20 lakh new jobs. “Unemployment will not be an issue for several coming generations”! This in itself is a Punjabi style grand gesture! Politics in Punjab has always been a grand gesture of sorts, in all extremes, the Punjab milancy itself is an outcome of such grand standing and vague emotions creating so much tensions and upheavals.
Punjab has many border districts and wars and the peace are the constant themes. Now, with war receding from public domian, there is talk of peace and opening of the routes towards more trade with Pakistan.
Narendra Modi, on the other hand, has claimed a record investment and he says his state scores over other states in all development parameters. The Godhra arson is very much in the background, though those horrible days remain in public memory to give the state a negative image. Lately, he was in the news when his name was dropped from the BJP executive committee. Modi nursed the Prime ministerial ambitions and the latest move has come as a shock to his many admirers. It was widely expected that Modi, along with Arun Jaitley would lead the 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign. He drew the loudest applause during the party’s Lucknow national executive last December.

Mr.Narendra Modi, the incumbent Chief Minister of Gujarat, by all acc
ounts, is the most powerful politician in the BJP party, though now his wings are sought to be clipped. Even after the approval of the RSS and the senior leaders, Vajpayee and Advani who suspect that Modi might outplay them when the time comes in Delhi, he still remains the most powerful man in Gujarat, his hold on the political and the administrative machinery is unchallenged. It is widely felt that he is the only one BJP, or suffron, leader who can win a record number of MPs from the state, very similar to what Kalyan Singh did in his best days in Lucknow. When Singh won 50 MP seats in two consecutive elections. This ropetrick, Modi only can do now, if at all. In that case, his role in the “selection” of the next Prime Minister would be crucial. Vajpayee and Advani still entertain prime ministerial ambitions. But among the next line of leaders, it is only Modi who has the mass base, despite the debacle of the party in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

So, how to judge Modi? An asset or a liability?

Certainly, Modi is a doer. His track record on the economic front is impressive. He asserts that Gujarat can achieve an 11 per cent rate of growth. The Centre is aiming a rate of 9.2 per cent. Says the CM: “Gujarat needs to generate unprecedented growth. In agriculture, manufacturing and services, human resources. We are ready for that“. Is this the CM who indulged in such communal flareup that the outside world condmened, India earned such a bad name?

The state has organised “Vibrant Gujarat” biennial summit thrice and attracted an astounding 140 b dollar in investment proposals. Creating infrastructure with global benchmarks, create a level playing field for global players. Even the investors speak of the professional approach, no politics, no bureaucratic delays etc. Rs.4, and 61,835 crores investment represents 1.3 million jobs! Over 80 per cent of the proposals, investments in the last two years have been implemented, says the CM.

Gujarat agriculture and coastline based industries, salt and chemical industries are all well-known and so too the entrepreneurial culture of the public.

So, we have to weigh the plus and minus points. Farmers’ suicides have come from Punjab and Gujarat too! The social evils like infanticide, women’s oppression in Punjab and Gujarat’s communal track record is simply abysmal. But given the total neglect and insensitivity of the politicians in other states, for the agri sector’s depressing scenario, Punjab and Gujarat, at least should give us hope for more innovative agri sector initiatives.

Punjab’s water scarce cotton belt had seen farmers’ suicides and farmers migration to Rajasthan and Gujarat. Yes, there is also the story that owing to good monsoon there is the higher yield of indigenous BT cotton seeds brought in from Gujarat. The CM’s role in terminating the inter-state agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej among Punjab, Haryana, HP and Rajasthan saved water for the Malwa cotton belt. The growing unemployment, consumption of smuggling liquor and opium is also a social problem.

Punjab and Haryana always played a critical role in arm-twisting the Centre to get the best deal for farmers, MSP etc and thus Punjab and also Gujarat have a critical role to play in the new century’s agricultural strategies and policies.

Sorrow tale of Jajjal: the village cursed by cancer

By Umendra Dutt

14 February, 2007

It is going to be five years that Jajjal village earned fame in media and administration. In 2002 when for the first time a retired government teacher Jarnail Singh bring out the issue of abnormally high incidences of cancer deaths in Jajjal and some adjoining villages. Till then village has witnessed about 20 cancer deaths and several new cancer cases. This small village has 500 odd households with population of 3500. There is no respite for the Jajjal residents. During last five years several experts and study teams from across the country visited the village, the surveys was done and stories were appeared in news papers or aired in news channels. But the sufferer villagers got nothing. If ask villagers about what they got in last five years, you will get an answer with anguish – nothing, accept some visiting cards of media persons, government officials and doctors. We only become infamous for cancer, it is becoming all most a stigma for most of us, says a villager Jaswinder Singh.

It was unfortunate that the Jajjal village and villagers were at the brink of collapse as the high debts, unfit water, dwindling social structures, different types of cancer, male and female reproductive problems, neurological problems, huge expenditures on the treatments, deaths and suicides are all common things. One after the other deaths has wrecked the villagers. Majority of the people do not want to talk about the cancer. Even cancer patients do not talk about the disease but simply say that they went to the ” Bikaner’ which is self explanatory and every body knows the meaning. There is no governmental or other wise good cancer treatment facility in the area like one in Bikaner. People fear that the treatment cost shall be very high once the cancer is declared and they don’t go for a cancer checkup, as they think that the family members shall become worried about the expanses.

Punjab government has made several declarations about cancer, but practically very little was done so far. Take the case of financial relief to the cancer patients. Despite all assurances and declarations only three families got financial relief of Rs 22,500 /- each. Where as village have at least 55 cancer deaths on record. The pathetic condition is so worst that in some families, cancer has ruined the entire family and money. Cancer has taken away our near and dear ones along with our money and savings we had done in decades. We had lost our relatives as well as our prosperity, says a young man. According to a snap survey by a team of Kheti Virasat Mission, 48 cancer cases were reported. 36 persons were died due to cancer where as 10 others are still battling for their life.

The cancer victims in Jajjal are facing multiple crises. Every cancer affected family owns debt of one to three lakh at least. But some are worst victims. Cancer does not make difference between rich and poor, land owner and land less laborer. The death is knocking the doors after door, ruining the families, social system and economy of the Jajjal.

The doom is very cruel as it is coming in many ways and is not sparing the elders or new born. Take the case of Kartar Kaur, this 90 plus years old mother lost her three sons one by one due to cancer in front of her eyes. The deadly cancer had snatched her son Choota Singh (45 years) in 2002, Balbir Singh (60 years) in 2003 and then Jalore Singh (45 years) in 2005. The family has taken debt of Rs Nine lakhs for treatment, and after losing three brothers, now family owns debt of Rs six lakhs. It is despite the fact that the family has sold its tractor and some other moveable things. Ironically till date this family got Rs 22,000 as aid and relief from the Government. Today Kartar Kaur is living with her grand sons and three widowed daughter in laws. This is the orphaned childhood due to the violence of environmental toxicity. Who is going to take responsibility for this?

The cruelty of cancer is really heart frightening. Now meet Manish an infant of only two years who is suffering from cancer by birth. His father Tarsem is a daily wager. The abnormally enlarged head of Manish is telling that, some thing is seriously wrong, the boy can not move on his own. His father has already taken loan of Rs 25,000. Tarsem and his wife both are laborers; they had to go for work in near by town of Rama Mandi. This dalit couple is spending hard earned money to save their only child. Manish is called to be future of his poor parents, at the age of two he does not know what has happened with him. He cannot even imagine what hardship his parents are facing. The poor child cannot move, not even toddle. He cannot play with toys. His father knows that Manish’s life is limited he want to give his child more better treatment but he can’t afford. Even he cannot borrow more because no body will give him loan beyond a limit, as he has no land to mortgage. After all money lender want to confirm that from where this labourer return the loan money. Manish cannot treat properly with this limitation. There are many more Tarsem and Manish in whole of Malwa.

Jagdev Singh age 14 was a healthy boy upto the age of 9, but gradually he become handicap and now he is on wheel chair, he can not speak nor does he do any thing on his own. His father Bholla Singh has done best of his efforts but Jagdev remain on wheel chair only. The cancer has snatched smile from the villagers. One daily wager whose 22 year old wife is suffering from cancer is not willing to tell her the truth, of fear that she might loose heart. If a family member suffers from the deadly dieses others tries to hide this heartless fact.

Cancer has ruined the prosperity of even those, who got their cancer cured with expensive treatment. Now 70 year old Mukhtiyar Singh, who got his cancer affected kidney operated, was forced to sell tractor and piece of land to meet expenditure of treatment. But he still owns debt of Rs two lakhs. Mukhtiyar Singh says we are just curtailing our needs, we cook vegetable once a day and take the meals thrice a day with that only. This is the condition of the so called state number one.

Cancer is only one aspect of Jajjal’s eclipsed fate. Today Jajjal is also facing very severe problem of reproductive health. KVM volunteers also came across numerous incidents those are quite upsetting. Then you can find large number of youth having grey hairs. Joint pain and spinal problems are making youths of village older then their age. Skin disease is another blot. These environmental health problems have become so usual that now villagers had accepted it as their fate. However the politicians and bureaucrats do not pay the requisite attention to the problem. Though Punjab government had done a study by PGIMER but after nothing was happened. No high official ever visited since the report is out. No government effort is visible not even a simple early detection of cancer

and its documentation. Neither the Punjab Pollution Control Board after spending more then Rs 15 lakh takes any follows up step nor does the health department taken any initiative for remedial measures. Jajjal is still awaiting a full-fledged environmental epidemiological study and house to house surveillance to tackle the crisis. In this government apathy and darkness there is ray of light also Jarnail Singh is running a Vatavaran Chetna Kendra established by Kheti Virasat Mission in the village. He has also taken step to make Jajjal pesticide free as he has started pesticide free natural farming and he is also motivating other farmers to join this community initiative.

But on the other hand the Agriculture Department and Punjab Agriculture University does not show any kind of interest in village accepts promoting Bt. cotton. Both have regional centers at Bathinda only 32 Kilometers away. Irony is that officials of department and PAU are prescribing Bt cot
ton as a remedy to this environmental health crisis. More painful is that the politicians from both camps are also singing the same chorus. They should know that Bt cotton is here from last four years and still the children like Manish are taking birth.

Then another dark side is mounting debt and rising number of farmers’ suicides. It is irony of Jajjal that it has also witnessed about 20 farmer’s suicides in last ten years and there are several others who had moved out of agriculture after selling their land. Now they are land less labourer. Jajjal is in deed a village in acute crisis.

Jajjal needs a new start for life. Let us hope the new government in Punjab takes care of this and evolve a strategy and action plan for cancer free, toxicity free, debt free and suicide free Jajjal. That should be light of hope for thousand of other villages facing the same doom. So, that there should no more Manish and Kartar Kaurs not only in Jajjal but whole of Malwa region. But there is a question – Who has time for this?

(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission. Jaitu, Faridkot district based environmental NGO in Punjab. Phone: 9872682161, E-mail:

The forgotten issues of environment crisis in Punjab elections


Friday, 09 February 2007

It is election time in Punjab. Parties are promising moon to the voters. Every body has started talking about development. Election manifestos are painting a rosy picture of a Developed Punjab. But, none of them is kind enough to tell what will be cost of this development?

This so-called development has already taken a heavy toll. Severe ecological and environmental health crises are quite visible in Punjab now. This environmental crisis has eclipsed the very sustainability, livelihood and the prosperity of the Punjab.  But, unfortunately no political party has taken serious note of this. None of the party manifesto has touched the environmental crisis in its real sense. Rather they are promising new gifts at the cost of ecological balance and long term sustainability of environment, agriculture and economy. 

The five year electoral system has made our politicians short sighted. They do not want to address the problems beyond this. Sustainability is not an issue for them at all. Making promises by ignoring ecological balance is a kind of bribe to get votes. Politicians are mere pampering the voters of today at the cost of lives of tomorrow. They may get power to govern, but Punjab will lose its natural resources ultimately, if these promises fulfilled unchecked. This trend needs to be questioned strongly. 

It is the high time to take up the issue of environmental health crisis, depleting water resources, prevalence of high pesticide residues and subsequently the ecological and agricultural sustainability of Punjab. Elections are providing an opportunity for this. Those who want to save Punjab from an offing environmental and agricultural chaos should ask political parties to spell out their agenda for the same. 

Punjab is fast exhausting its ground water aquifers. But politicians are promising more tube wells without owning any social and environmental responsibility. In 1970-71 there were only 1.92 lakh tube wells in Punjab, in 80-81 there were 6 lakh tube wells, and in 90-91 number went up to 8 lakh, 2000-01 again number rises upto 10 lakh and now there are about 14 lakh tube wells. In last four decades ground water exploitation has touched new heights in Punjab as area under irrigation through tube wells has gone up to as high as 78% and even more in 2000-01 from 37% in 1960-61. Cropping intensity has also increased from 126% to 185 % during this period. This means more and more dependency on ground water. 

From last two decades water security of Punjab is under severe threat. But none of government had taken any concrete step to save Punjab from water disaster. There was no holistic plan to tackle the emerging water crisis. Neither any government has taken any initiative to evolve a perspective, vision and plan for environmental and agriculture sustainability. Despite all odds area under rice cultivation has increased from just 6% to 60% in last forty years. This is not only unsustainable agricultural growth but it is against the very fragile ecological balance also. Thus the results are very disgusting.  In 1984 there were 53 blocks declared as dark zones, then in 1995 number of dark zones has increased upto 84 and in 2005 this figure further increased to 108 out of total 138 development blocks. Ground water level falling much faster then assumed. In 1973 only 3% area of Punjab has water table below 10 meters, it went up to 14.9% in 1989, 20% in 1992, and 28% in 1997, 53% in 2000, 76% in 2002 and in 2004 the situation goes beyond expectations when 90% area of Punjab is drawing water from the depth of more then 10 meters. 

More over 30% area of Punjab has depth of 20 meters or even more. This has also created the acute problem of drinking water in villages. In 1980 there are 3712 villages identified as drinking water problem villages, this figure went up to 6287 in 1990, and then in year 2000 the number goes as high as 8518 and as of now 11849 villages or habitations out of total 12423 in Punjab are facing drinking water problems. 

Now our worthy politicians are luring farmers by promising more tube wells. With new euphoria for constructing Malls, SEZs and mega construction projects, the ground water will further exploited without any check. Any government can sanction tube wells, it can provide free power for the same, or it can install any machinery for water purification. But question is from where the water will come? Any government can allow more and more exploration of ground water, which means more and more fast depletion of aquifers. But who will take responsibility to replenish and re-charge these aquifers?

How can we expect from any government to act on water crisis if there is no water policy as such and no action plan to mitigate water crisis. Punjab has no state water policy as of now. In 2004 a draft water policy was circulated with in governmental circles only and it is still not more than a draft. This draft policy is mere spoiled carbon copy of National Water Policy -2002. Interestingly, this water policy is already under fire for being instrument to paving way for privatization and corporatization    of water resources. More over this policy is meant to serve corporate interests rather then serving farmers and common people. Making water a sellable commodity has to have very serious repercussions. Several civil society groups are already demanding redrafting of National Water Policy 2002. Thus a state water policy draft copied from NWP can not be serve purpose at all.

Will the claimants of power in Punjab have any vision and perspective plan? Neither there had been a single minute of discussion in Punjab assembly on state water policy, nor does any political leader has raised the issue in or out side the house. It is important to know as to how many MLAs have got the copy of this draft water policy. Even those who are claming to be savior of Punjab water have not seen this document. This draft policy was all most kept secret and there was no public dialogue in any form on this has taken place. 

The water resources are not the property of our generation only. They belong to our future generations too. The water security of Punjab’s coming generations is already jeopardized. Punjab needs sustainability of water resources. Does any political party of Punjab dare to take up this issue? 

Another environmental issue need to be thoroughly discussed during and after elections, is the severe health crisis caused by environmental degradation and toxicity. Horrible environmental health crises have engulfed the vast area of the state, particularly the Malwa region, as cancer, reproductive health problems, early ageing and skeletal fluorosis has become very common. But most infamous disease is Cancer, which has taken lives of thousands of people. People had borrowed money for cancer treatment; they forced to sell their land, ornaments and tractors to save lives of their family members. But, the deadly cancer wins. Neither the lives were saved nor do they remain able to repay debt. It is a grim sorrow saga of whole of the Malwa and despite all tall claims and promises there is no respite for cancer sufferers and their family members.  

Now on the eve of elections both Akali Dal (Badal) and Congress (I) promised to open cancer hospital in Malwa region, but is it the real solution to the crisis? Cancer is mere one symptom of environmental degradation and presence of toxic substances in our environment and food chain. Opening up of a cancer hospital will serve though important but very limited purpose. It will treat the cancer patients, but certainly it will not undo the toxicity present in our eco-system. More over it will not check the high prevalence rate of cancer in all ages and sexes. We have to prevent cancer as prevention is always better than cure. Therefore we have to make environment free from toxicants, pesticides and other contaminators.

There are few more aspects of environmental health crisis
in Punjab. The reproductive health is in very serious trouble. Punjab has one of the highest numbers of Neural Tube Defect NTD babies, then growing infertility, deformities, congenital abnormalities, high birth rate of brainless children (80% among this are females), deteriorating semen quality, DNA and chromosomal damage, weakening of bones and joints due to water with high TDS causing serious spinal problems even in children and more worrisome is large scale female foetal loss.

Punjab has very high pesticide spry density. It consumes near 18% pesticides of whole of India on just 2.5% agricultural area of country. The entire food chain of Punjab contains residue of several pesticides. The data from All India Coordinated Research Project on Pesticidal Residue clearly indicates presence of DDT, HCH and BHC in cereals, milk, butter, fruits, vegetables and even infant formula. The edibles have residues of other pesticides like Phosphamidon, Quinalphos, Chlorpyriphos, Endosulfan, Malathion, Parathion, Monocrotophos and lindane. The presence of pesticides in blood as detected by Centre for Science and Environment also raises serious questions. CSE report states the presence of cocktail of 6 to 13 pesticides in blood samples. CSE also find organo-chlorine and residues of the newer and so-called ‘non-persistent’ pesticides – organophosphates in blood .This is a serious threat to the health of people of Punjab. This finding is disturbing because organophosphates are now getting added in body to the earlier contamination of organochlorines. These organophosphates have far higher toxicity than the older organochlorines. 

But our politicians have no time to discuss these issues. Even the two committees setup after CSE report came out were miserably failed to do any thing. The so-called high power committee headed by the Chief Minister did not held a single meeting. But, the opposition does not make this an issue. Then comes recommendations made by expert committee setup after PGIMER submitted its report on high prevalence of cancer cases in Talwandi Sabo block. These recommendations are not brought out in public. The apathy is not limited upto here. Punjab Pollution Control Board which had spent approximately Rs 15 lacs on this study has dumped the report. It is not published properly, only photocopies were distributed in a limited circle. Even the villagers of Talwandi Sabo block till date does not know what was written in that report. Because it was not translated in Punjabi, thus not circulated and neither its synopsis was distributed. But, again the opposition parties were also failed to take up this issue. Akali Dal – BJP or any other opposition party has not taken any clear stance on the crisis and neither any of them has questioned the role of Punjab government. No body knows how many politicians had gone through the PGIMER- PPCB report. It is also worth mentioning that Mr Manpreet Badal is committed to this issue in his personal capacity and he has also hosted a People’s dialogue on Environmental Health Crisis organised by Environmental Health Action Group of Kheti Virasat Mission at Badal village in August 2005. But as main opposition and a party Akali Dal seems to be lesser concerned because it’s other MLAs from Malwa region  does not shown any interest in the entire issue. Congress is seems to be satisfied with governmental action only and as the party it remains mum. Where as, BJP is no where in the scene at all. 

The pathetic situation of water resources and environmental health concerns ought to be raised in the elections. It is the issue of future generations of Punjab. The performance of politicians and political parties in Punjab should be evaluated on their concerns, commitment and actions for tackling the ecological crisis. Parties must bring out with their action plan to mitigate water and environmental health crisis. The voters should ask for the same.

After all, would be rulers should know the importance of understanding, vision and commitment for the issues of livelihood and ecological sustainability, water security and environmental health safety. Let us make the environment a voter’s agenda.  

Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission.  Jaitu, Faridkot district based environmental NGO in Punjab. Phone: 9872682161, E-mail:

Green revolution's cancer train


Pesticides and cancer: a murderous concoction, a massive environmental and health disaster, while people are dying in village after village of Punjab
By Sandeep Yadav Faridkot/Muktsar
Despite the relentless suffering, 41-year-old Karamjeet Kaur is not scared of death. Member of a proud, landed family in Kotbhai village in district Muktsar, this mother of three has been diagnosed with uterus cancer. The revelation has brought no change in her daily chores, except that she has to travel long distance for periodic check-ups at the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre, at Bikaner, in Rajasthan. Her hair has turned white due to illness and heavy medicines, and her face is weary in the fading daylight. Yet, she tells her story with immense dignity, so distinctive among the strong, hardworking women of Punjab. And it doesn’t matter if it is her cancer she is talking about.
Karamjeet is one of the five battling cancer in her village. The Jhoke Sarkari village, in Faridkot district, has 10 cancer patients. There have been 15 cancer-related deaths in the last five years here. Even children, as young as ten- year-old, are suffering from joint pains, arthritis and greying of hair. Their suffering is starkly visible.
It’s the same story in several villages of Punjab—Jhariwala, Koharwala, Puckka, Bhimawali, Khara. Recently, a 12-year-old boy died of cancer in Khara village and a 25-year-old woman has been detected with breast cancer. Similar cases of cancer deaths (apart from farmers’ suicides) have become the norm in the whole of Malwa region of Punjab, comprising the districts of Muktsar, Faridkot, Moga, Sangroor and Bathinda. Although the government has claimed 172 cancer deaths in Muktsar district in the last two years, Manpreet Badal, the Shiromani Akali Dal MLA from Giddarbaha, contested the claim. He has a list of 300 cancer deaths from Giddarbaha constituency alone. “In the 50 villages falling in my constituency I have attended close to 300 funerals of people dying due to cancer in the last three months,” says Manpreet.
“Punjab is in the grip of a terrible environmental and health crisis emanating from the intensive farming practices involving large doses of chemicals and pesticides in use for the past four decades,” says Devinder Sharma, agriculture policy analyst. The green revolution has not really been so green. The environment has been intensely contaminated by the rampant use and abuse of chemicals and pesticides. The underground water is clinically unfit for drinking or for irrigation.
A comprehensive study conducted in the area by the prestigious Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, brings out unequivocal evidence that the use of indiscriminate, indiscreet, excessive and unsafe pesticides is directly responsible for the rapid and significant rise in the number of pesticide-related cases of cancers and cancer deaths. Studies by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) have established that Punjab is facing a serious second-generation environmental crisis.
Malwa region, in the southwest of Punjab, is a cotton belt that is now growing the controversial, genetically modified Bt cotton only. Gurmail Singh, a cotton farmer of Jaitu village, says that about 14 years ago the cotton in the region was attacked by the American ball worm— a deadly pest. “I used about ten pesticide sprays over three acres of land and still could not kill the pest,” he recalls. There are many farmers who used more than 20 sprays of pesticides to kill the pest, but were still unsuccessful.
Unaware of the harmful effects of the mindless use of pesticides pushed by the nexus of unscrupulous agencies and private companies, the people of the region are paying a terrible price for their folly. Often wrongly advised by influential agricultural lobbies and profit sharks, the greed of high yield overruled prevailing health concerns. Indeed, Punjab has 2.5 per cent of the total agricultural land in the country, but is using the highest amount—more than 18 per cent of pesticides in the country. All this has contributed to widespread social devastation in individual and community life.
Predictably, Dr Harinder Singh, Agriculture Development Officer, Muktsar, categorically blames the farmers for not adhering to the precautions related to the use of pesticides. He says that a pesticide called Monocrotophose is banned from being used on vegetables and fruits, but the farmers don’t follow the warning. “The precautions are not binding as an official order since there are no such laws. Hence no legal action can be taken,” says Singh.
Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO in Faridkot, argues that the entire tragedy is a result of a conspiracy hatched between the scientists of the influential Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) and pesticide companies, which convinced the innocent farmers with a false promise: more pesticides, more yield. “The PAU continues to push pesticides, knowing too well that these were not required in the first place. In the case of cotton, scientists have compounded the problem by turning the ‘insect profile’ hostile, who, instead of being eliminated are breeding heavily. There were six or seven kinds of pests that worried the farmers in the 1960s; today, the number of cotton pests has multiplied to over 60,” says Dutt.
Almost 40 years after the green revolution, the International Rice Research Institute, at Manila, in the Philippines, now publicly accepts its mistake in promoting pesticides. It is on record that “pesticides were a waste of time and efforts” in Asia for the cultivation of rice. Farmers in Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Philippines have successfully opted for pesticide-free cultivation. But the irony of Punjab is that the agriculture establishments are not open to this bitter realism about pesticides. They are still gloating in the green-revolution mindset, insulated from alternative paradigms for sustainable agriculture, environment and development.
After Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, raised the issue of pesticide content in the blood of the people of Punjab last year, the Punjab government constituted two committees — one high-profile committee, headed by Chief Minister Amrinder Singh, and another expert group headed by Dr K.K. Talwar, Director, PGIMER, Chandigarh. The expert group met at least once but the high-powered committee failed to meet even once in the last ten months. Meetings were fixed not less then five times but were postponed for one reason or another.
While the Punjab government is busy clearing multi-crore SEZs, it has not been able to provide its people a proper cancer treatment facility in the Bathinda region. Poor cancer patients are forced to go to distant Bikaner, in Rajasthan, for their treatment. According to the National Cancer Registry Programme, out of 424 cancer patients from Bathinda district, 328 were being treated at Bikaner. So much so, the train plying between Muktsar and Bikaner has been rechristened as the ‘cancer train’ by the locals.
While NGO’s such as Kheti Virasat Mission, are doing their best to educate the farmers about health and environment issues, even to the extent of asking them to pledge that they will do only organic farming, the state government’s role is starkly insensitive and lackadaisical. The Punjab government paid a meagre relief amount to some cancer patients. But can half-hearted doles of monetary help stop the epidemic?
How will the government stop the ecological degeneration and health crisis, and save the people from cancer and other
diseases directly related to top-heavy policies and the vested interests of pesticide lobbies?
The wake-up call has been buzzing non-stop and for a long time. But no one’s listening, certainly not the powerful green-revolution lobby. While the people die, or survive, waiting for death, in abject pain