Cancer ravages rural Punjab due to chemicals in pesticides; govt assistance fails to improve situation

Punjab’s Malwa region, of which Sangrur is a district, has hundreds fighting cancer.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Sangrur: It is difficult to imagine Jasmine Khan’s pain and agony at losing her 14-month-old son in 2016. Living in a two-room concrete house in a labyrinth of bylanes in Handiaya village of Barnala district in Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency, she wells up every time Bilal intrudes on her thoughts, no matter that it has been two years since he succumbed to blood cancer. She often tries to hide her tears, but her trembling voice gives her away and makes it clear that the family is far from recovering from this loss.

“He used to cry and get fever quite often; so we took him to a local doctor who referred us to a local hospital. There, after some tests, we were told that Bilal has cancer; we then went to Kolkata for his treatment, but doctors there told us to admit him at PGIMER in Chandigarh,” recalls Jasmine. She says the family managed to admit him somehow, despite their limited financial resources, but he died within a month.

Family of Bilal, the 14-month-old baby who lost his life due to cancer. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Family of Bilal, the 14-month-old baby who lost his life due to cancer. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Bilal’s is not an isolated case; Punjab’s Malwa region, of which Sangrur is a district, has hundreds fighting cancer. The disease has spread its tentacles predominantly in the Malwa region of Punjab reportedly due to consistent use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture; these toxic materials have got mixed with the region’s water table and use of that water for agricultural activities as well as drinking has spread the chemicals in residents’ bodies, causing severe ailments among many.

A study reiterates that cancer's unusually high incidence, especially in the cotton-growing districts of southwestern Punjab, has been linked to the use of pesticides by cotton farmers, among other factors. “The consequences people in Malwa region are facing ought to serve as a warning to the rest. Indiscriminate pesticide usage combined with an absence of regulations limiting its use could have far-reaching adverse effects. Measures should be taken to make villages pesticides-free. An awareness campaign is needed to educate farmers of the deleterious effects of excessive pesticide usage. Environment-saving organisations should formulate the most effective practice for use and application of pesticides,” it adds.

Cancerous politics

The state government has started the Mukhya Mantri Punjab Cancer Raahat Kosh Scheme to provide financial assistance to those suffering from the critical disease. An amount of up to Rs 1.5 lakh is made available for the treatment of every cancer patient. The state has also installed Reverse Osmosis Systems in various villages to protect residents from chemical-laden groundwater.

Nonetheless, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has decided to make it a political issue ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. AAP MP from Sangrur, Bhagwant Mann, says successive state governments have failed to address the issue. “I personally get hundreds of recommendations to help cancer patients in the Malwa belt. And as an MP, I do help. But the problem doesn’t lie in treatment alone; the disease needs to be removed from the root, which SAD and Congress governments in the state have failed to,” he alleges.

He adds that the Punjab Pollution Control Board doesn’t take action against the industrial units that pump effluents into the ground, thus contaminating the water table, only due to the politicisation of the agency. “The need of the hour is a well-equipped dedicated cancer treatment facility in Sangrur. We want to make that possible,” says Mann.

Bride and prejudice

The many schemes notwithstanding, the number of affected doesn’t seem to be going down. Besides the thousands, including many youths, afflicted by cancer in the Malwa belt, over the past few years, Bathinda and adjoining districts have seen many deaths because of it too. Director of the Advanced Cancer Diagnostic, Treatment and Research Institute, Bathinda, MK Mahajan agrees that the number of cancer patients has shot up over the past few years.

However, despite the state government opening this dedicated cancer institute in the town, patients still prefer to go all the way to Bikaner as facilities are better there. For years now, Bathinda railway station has been seeing a crowd of passengers every day at 9.20 pm, in particular, to get onboard train number 54703 that goes to Bikaner. More than 60 patients take this train every day to go to Rajasthan for cancer treatment, so much so that locals have dubbed it “the cancer train”.

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But the problem is reaching such alarming proportions now that Bathinda’s cancer institute, even though it lacks necessary facilities, has also been seeing a rise in the number of cancer patients coming there in the last three years — from 6,233 in 2016 to 10,109 in 2017 and then 10,648 in 2018, as per official records.

And what can only be called a cruel twist of fate, cancer in Bathinda is not only taking away youths’ health, but it is also robbing them of other ‘prime of life’ moments — many young men in Bathinda district are no longer considered 'marriage material' due to the reports of cancer published in media quite often, that have given a bad name to the region. Amarjit Singh (36), a resident of Bhucho Khurd village in Bathinda, is single despite several efforts by his parents to find him a suitable match.

A farmer with 10 acres of land, he would have been considered a catch had the situation been any different. “Money is not an issue, but reports of our region being infested with cancer have discouraged many families from promising their daughters to youths here. The young women have been finding matches in other parts of the state, while we are left alone,” he says.

Lives cut short

Vicky Singh (34), a resident of Dhaula village in Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency, has been fighting cancer for the last 18 months. Singh used to work in a local factory, but ever since cancer came calling, he has been idle. His wife Jasmeet Kaur says family members have been helping them to make ends meet. “Acute shortage of funds gives us nightmares. While the government helped us under a special scheme, the money did not last long,” adds Kaur. With two sons and a daughter, it is becoming difficult for them to meet daily expenses. The Homi Bhabha Cancer Hospital in Sangrur, which was commissioned in 2015, has registered about 5,000 patients so far.

Family of Raghvir Singh and Sarvjit Kaur. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Family of Raghvir Singh and Sarvjit Kaur. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Meanwhile, Raghvir Singh’s family is dealing with a double tragedy — while their 21-year-old daughter Sarvjit Kaur succumbed to blood cancer in 2010, Raghvir himself was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2011 and died soon after. His wife Mandeep Kaur and son Sandeep are trying to come to terms with it all. Mandeep says the only acre of land they possessed had to be sold for Raghvir’s treatment. Now, Sandeep has a small confectionery shop in Shekhpura village, which doubles up as their home.

Dr Jasbir Aulakh, senior medical officer at the Civil Hospital in Barnala, says early detection of cancer is now possible with new techniques, adding that a wrong lifestyle is one of the major reasons behind high incidence of the disease. “Those who smoke get lung cancer, while women who do not breastfeed their children can get breast cancer,” he adds. “But it is a fact that high use of chemicals in agricultural activities, too, has led to the rise in cancer cases. That should be tackled on a priority.”

With inputs from Sukhcharan Preet

(The author is an Amritsar-based freelance writer and State Editor, 101Reporters)


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