Women in Punjab’s Bhotna village say no to 'cancerous farming', adopt organic methods to save state's soil

Editor's Note: The latest National Crime Records Bureau statistics show an 83% increase in crimes against women, with as many as 39 cases reported every hour across the country. There are several thousand more instances that go unreported. And yet, such felonious acts represent only a limited view of the manner in which women in this country must face brutality. In this series of reported pieces, Firstpost examines those societal forces that, while beyond the ambit of law, have the same deleterious effect on women as criminal acts.

Read the series here.


Barnala: Amarjit Kaur gets out of bed on her tiptoes early morning while it is still dark and the rest of her family is in deep slumber. She quickly fetches a sprinkler kept outside her house to water her small patch of vegetables, before adding manure to another tilled portion of the land. A resident of Bhotna village in Punjab's Barnala district, the 45-year-old has been following this routine for the past 11 years.

Adopting organic farming, the woman says, was the only way to bring down the high incidence of cancer in the district, which has been linked to the unregulated use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Amarjit is a member of the 2,000-odd group of women in Bhotna, who have been fighting against what they call "cancerous farming practices".

Often called the cancer capital of India, Punjab's Malwa region has registered around 42,000 cases of this killer disease in the past decade. Malwa comprises the south-western districts of Bathinda, Muktsar, Ferozpur, Faridkot, Mansa, Moga, Barnala and Sangrur. Here, cancer has crept inside the homes of farmers, turning successful stories of green revolution into a harrowing reality. So distressing is the scenario here that the Jodhpur-Bathinda passenger train has been christened as the "cancer train" due to the large number of patients travelling to Rajasthan's Bikaner for treatment.

A group of women who adopted organic farming methods in Punjab's Bhotna. Image Courtesy: 101Reporters/Sukhcharan Preet

A group of women who adopted organic farming methods in Punjab's Bhotna. Image Courtesy: 101Reporters/Sukhcharan Preet

Turning backyards green

Alarmed at the deteriorating quality of soil and water in the country's bread bowl and its effect on people's health, the gutsy Bhotna women have been waging an aggressive war against disastrous farming practices. Malwa, they said, consumes nearly 75 percent of the pesticides used in Punjab. Its lush green fields often bury poignant tales of toxicity, disease and suffering.

The women here found that renting a piece of land was heavy on their pockets. So instead, they decided to make use of open spaces outside their houses to grow vegetables. The aim, they said, was to recharge groundwater and save the environment.

"I was one of the first in Bhotna village to adopt organic farming methods. It was in 2007 when I tilled a small piece of land outside my house to grow vegetables. Today, I practice the method in large fields. I grow wheat on one acre without the use of pesticides. Some of us also sell our produce at local markets and food festivals," Amarjit said.

Organic farming is now practiced at more than 25 neighbouring villages, where both men and women have been successfully running their kitchens with produce from these small and lively gardens. They claim to have saved nearly Rs 1.5 crore per annum by giving up pesticides, chemical fertilisers and other conventional methods of growing crops.

Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO that promotes sustainable farming in Punjab, had first introduced women in Bhotna to organic farming methods. Members of the NGO also taught them ways to conserve the seeds to be sown in the next season.

Kamaljit Kaur, district coordinator of Kheti Virasat Mission, said: "With increasing awareness about healthy eating, people have been refusing vegetables grown with the help of pesticides. The families of Bhotna used to spend around Rs 1,500 to buy vegetables each month. That money is now being saved, with several women growing their own supplies."

"Hundreds of Barnala residents, who we spoke to earlier, said there has been a significant improvement in their health after consuming organic vegetables. They do not fall ill so often," Kamaljit said, adding that the NGO had initially targeted only seven women in Bhotna village to teach organic farming methods.

Grain bowl serving health hazard

Punjab has a geographical area of 50.36 lakh hectares. It is one of the most intensively cultivated and irrigated regions of the country — nearly 84 percent (42.68 lakh hectares) of its geographical area is under agricultural use. However, official figures state that around 39 percent of this cultivable area is undergoing one or another form of soil degradation after excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Erosion, a rising water table and alkalinity are just some of the consequences.

A research paper published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Engineering Research and Application states how high contamination of groundwater in Malwa is making it unfit for drinking or other domestic purposes. The areas researched were Bathinda, Muktsar, Ferozpur, Faridkot, Mansa, Moga, Barnala and Sangrur.

"Cancer prevalence (per million every year) in the Malwa region is found to be 1,089. Four of the 11 districts in Malwa are most affected by various kinds of the killer disease. Its highest incidence has been observed in Muktsar, followed by Mansa, Faridkot and Bathinda. Studies indicate that drinking water, particularly in the Malwa belt, can be a source of heavy metals, including fluoride and pesticides," the paper said.

The Punjab Agricultural University, along with the state government, has been running awareness campaigns about overuse of fertilisers and cancer occurrence in the region. Another study conducted by the state department of soil and water conservation states: "With the rotation cultivation of wheat and paddy crops, in a bid to produce more food grains, the natural resources of soil and water have degraded. If this continues, further depletion is likely to disrupt production levels, which were achieved after the green revolution. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides has destroyed the physical structure of soil leading to its decreased water-holding capacity, friable and loose structure."

The research further shows how soil microfauna and microflora, which help to store nutrients, allow for good drainage and have essential soil-building agents vital for agriculture, have been largely affected. Fertility and the production capacity of soil have also dwindled over the years, triggering an increase in its salinity and a subsequent biotic stress in plants caused by pathogens or weeds. All of these have also led to a drastic reduction in yield. With demand for organic foods dominating the markets, farmers in Punjab would have to drastically change their production methods.

Gian Singh, a prominent agro-economist of Punjab, said: "The groundwater pollution in Punjab is alarming. There is an increasing need to develop technology that can alter this situation."

Planting a green future

The women of Bhotna today grow ladies finger, brinjal, carrot, radish and mustard, among other crops, both outside their homes and in the fields. Satwinder Kaur, another resident of Bhotna, works at her field during the wheat season and grows vegetables in a small patch outside her house.

"Reports about the growing number of people suffering from cancer here made me realise that it was time we stop using chemicals. We do not want people around us to die," she said.

The author is a Punjab-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com

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Updated Date: Aug 22, 2018 23:06:36 IST

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