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Punjab in Environmental Health catastrophe, But who cares?

 

By Umendra Dutt

Meet Dharampreet, he is only six years old, a student of second class in village Wan of district Ferozepur. He is as innocent child like other children of his age, but one thing is special he has – lot of grey hairs. This is pre-mature aging in very childhood it self. But, he is not alone in this agony; about dozen children of his age to twelve are suffering from pre-mature aging problem.

Then have a look of village Jhok Sarkari in Faridkot district. Here even children as young as of ten years are suffering from joint pain, arthritis and graying of hairs. It is the same story in number of other villages of Faridkot district, whether it is Jhariwala, Koharwala, Puckka, Bhimawali and Khara or some other, the situation is almost same. Every village has large number of cancer deaths from some 10 to as high as 35 in last six to ten years. Then premature aging even in childhood, joint pain, issue less couples and several other reproductive health problems. It would be same story in whole of Malwa region.

Earlier it was assumed that cancer is spread in the villages of Bathinda district, with in two years Muktsar district and particularly Giddarbaha area seems to be more prone to Cancer then Faridkot and Mansa districts also figures in the cancer list. Later on it is turn of Sangrur, Moga, Ferozepur and more lately even Patiala and Amritsar districts were also included in this list of sorrow. Moreover, the childhood of Punjab is much threatened by deadly cancer. In Khara village a 12 year old boy dies of cancer. An unmarried girl as young as of 25 years detected breast cancer in Adesh Cancer Hospital, Muktsar. Unfortunately, the Childhood cancer shows rising trends in Punjab. These incidents are indicators that people of Punjab are going to suffer lot more in future.

If we have a look on environmental health scenario after cancer now the arthritis and skeletal fluorosis are fast becoming major health problems of the Malwa region. Just go to any village you will find peoples infested by several diseases related with environmental degradation. It is a very clear writing on the wall that, the Punjab is in the middle of a multidimensional ecological-disaster, which is further pushing the people of Punjab in an unprecedented and far unimaginable environmental health crisis. This scenario needs urgent attention. But who cares for it?

The very committee formed to make an action plan for cancer mitigation has yet to meet even after 16 months of its formation. If people who are at helm of affairs could not find time to have a meeting in 16 month time then they have no right to be there. It is irony that no politician has remembers this committee. If state like Punjab could not evolve a strategy an action plan for environmental health crisis mitigation, and then who should be made responsible for this?

Not only the ruling party forgotten the crisis but the opposition is also busy with other issues. It seems no political party wants to talk about environmental health and ecological crisis. The aimless debate on rackets, corruption and other politically surcharged issues has taken its toll, the ecology, environmental health and issues of sustainability were pushed out of entire political spectrum of the state. Because politicians feel that the environment does not have capacity to influence the electoral, nor does it has created any strong civil society movement. That is why the poor environment does not figure in agenda of any political party. There is total political apathy for the environment.

Another example of this political and governmental apathy is more worrisome. Now every body knows that cancer has already become bane for Punjab. But, the situation has its worst aspect in non availability of adequate cancer treatment facilities in Malwa region. The state number One has not even able to provide its people a proper cancer treatment facility by constructing a cancer hospital in Bathinda area. Alas, Punjab government is much busy in clearing Special Economic Zones, The Mega Malls and all other things which have a commercial market by forgetting its people who suffer from cancer. These poor cancer patients are forced to go to Bikanar in Rajasthan for their treatment. According to ICMR’s national cancer registry programme out of total 424 cancer patients from Bathinda district 328 were treated at Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Centre, Bikaner. Why a state like Punjab, much known for its prosperity not able to build a cancer hospital in Bathinda. These are figures from one district of Malwa, has gone through figures from other district too; the situation would be much more pathetic.

Environmental epidemiologists says that pesticides are folic acid antagonist resulting birth of brainless children, but it seems pesticides also made some elderly people brainless or at least made them unable to think over the crisis generated by the pesticides. This is the power of pesticideswalas and their resources.

Moreover any process to take up environmental health crisis has to start from debate on pesticides and other agro-chemicals and their adverse health impacts. Interestingly, the debate on pesticides and their contribution in bring environmental health crisis is already underplayed by not only pesticide companies and agriculture establishment but also by health department. They had already dubbed the PPCB -PGIMER report on high cancer incidence in Talwandi Sabo area. More over even after the near two years of publication report, no action has been taken on recommendations made in the report. This shows that there is someone who is afraid of any action taken in this regard. But people must know who is he? And by whom he is supported? How he is so powerful that one can scuttle the so called high powered committee.

But in spite of the well known fact that pesticides had already pushed and constantly pushing the Punjab into environmental health devastation, any attempt to buildup debate on the pesticides is fiercely opposed and subdued by the protagonists of pesticides and its economy. There are certain quarters which always say that Punjab can not do without pesticides. Unfortunately, the government and policy makers always listen to these elements only. When ever there is a voice to phase out pesticides and agro-chemicals from Punjab, it was always opposed by a strong lobby of pesticide manufacturers along with their brothers in arms from agriculture establishments.

There are more than enough academic studies that show that for agricultural productivity and food security, pesticides are not indispensable and what’s more, these studies that have shown that the alternative methods of pest control give great benefits to farmers. Please remember, it is the farmers who will provide that food security to the country, not the agro-chemical industry. If they are happy and interested in their agriculture and if they do not despair after falling into the trap of the input industry including the agro-chemicals industry in ever-spiraling-upwards cost of cultivation, their productivity is likely to be highest. Furthermore, such productivity is ensured only if farmers and agricultural workers are healthy and not when they are dying of pesticides-related impacts, including many acute poisoning deaths that happen to this day.

“Punjab is in the grip of a terrible environmental crisis emanating from the intensive farming practices in vogue for the past four decades” says Devinder Sharma, eminent agriculture policy analyst. He further elaborates the issue “Studies by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural research (CGIAR) have established that Punjab is faced with second generation environmental crisis. The cultivable land is sick, the environment has been heavily contaminated by the use and abuse of chemical pesticides and the underground water table is plummeting at a disastrous pace”. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers has rendered the soils infertile. Organic matter in Punjab' soil is almost close to zero percent. Much of the fertiliser leaches into the groundwater making it not only unfit for drinking but also for irrigation. Excessive withdrawal of nutrients from the soil has also brought in deficiencies of micro-nutrients over the past few decades. And yet, despite the severe environmental impact from the green revolution practices, agricultural scientists did not advocate a mid-term correction by bringing in sustainable farming practices.

Chemical pesticides were pushed in indiscriminately. Forty years after the advent of green revolution, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Manila, Philippines now clearly accepts its mistakes in promoting pesticides and has gone on record saying that 'pesticides were a waste of time and effort' in Asia for rice. Punjab Agricultural University however continues to push in pesticides knowing well that these were not required in the first place. In case of cotton, agricultural scientists have compounded the problem by turning the insect profile hostile. There were only six or seven pests that worried the cotton farmers in the 1960s. Today the number of cotton pests has multiplied to over 60.

Studies done by ICRISAT and IRRI clearly demonstrate the sustainability, viability and successful economics of Non-Pesticide Management practices. Farmers in Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam have successfully opted for pesticide free rice cultivation. The Cuba has also shown the way. Former Director General of IRRI, Dr. Robert Cantrell had this to say: "It shows that the mistakes of Green Revolution where too much emphasis was sometimes put on the use of chemicals for pest control have clearly been recognized and corrected".

But irony of Punjab is that the agriculture establishments are not open to this truth of pesticides and even they are not tolerant to any question and debate related to pesticides and environmental health crisis. They are still in green-revolution mindset and insulated from alternative paradigm for sustainable agriculture, environment and development. The agriculture establishments feel honour of their role played in green revolution, it could be their proud. They already got pat for that, they earned whole lot of admiration for the work they had done, but now it is time to have an honest introspection and constructive criticism should be encouraged.

This entire situation poses a very serious question that if government fails to take-up her duty, if health department does not bring any environmental health action plan and yet the environmental health crisis is fast deepening further, then how civil society should respond to this laxity constantly shown by the government and health department.

Secondly, if political parties are not responding to the environmental health crisis then how can we expect that they will do some thing on this issue? How a civilized and enlightened society in a democratic set-up should react to this situation? What should be the role of civil society in these circumstances? We have to find answers to these questions.

Here lays the basic issue of developmental paradigm the Punjab is following from last four decades. It is right time to initiate a public debate on entire developmental strategies, systems and the road-map adopted in Punjab. Which ultimately bring more of destruction, deaths, suicides, debts and a sort of socio-economic and cultural anarchy in Punjab? But who has the time for these issues and whose priority is this? We talk about various crises in Punjab, whether it is related to health, water, farmers’ suicides, rural indebtedness, ecological destruction, natural resources and contamination and pollution the genesis of these lays in the developmental model enforced upon Punjab.

In democracy people get the government-good, bad or worst what so ever it is, is the government they deserves. So if government does not take care of environmental health crisis or any political party does not voices the apathy of this crisis the society should introspect that who is responsible for this situation. Any regime may go or come the situation will remain same unless the environmental health builds as an issue which could mobilize the votes. The civil society has to have its environmental charter so that political parties should respond to that. The civil society has to buildup the pressure so that environment should figure in agenda of political parties’ first, then consistent follow-up, social vigil and time to time evaluation of performance must keep alive the issue.

The civil society has to play much larger role in this context. So those who want to bring Punjab out this devastating situation must accept their duties first.

Every individual or group who feel concerned about the situation should evolve her/his or a collective action plan. The awakened and creative section of society has to buildup a participatory cross section debate in Punjab over the entire ecological crisis and environmental health crisis in particular. It is high time to re-emphasis the demand of "ECOLOGICAL and HEALTH EMERGENCY" be declared immediately for the entire cotton belt in the state. The plans and funds allocated for the region should be diverted for remediation, rehabilitation and relief work of the affected on an urgent basis. The state government should re-priorities, re-structure and re-categorize its plans and projects with emphasis on crisis management.

In democracy we have duties and rights. Let us talk about our environmental duties now. We are mere trustees of the natural resources we got from our forefathers bestowed by Mother Nature. We have to pass on these resources to our future generations in healthy state. The real welfare of Punjab only lays in sustainable prosperity not just the bubble of happiness. So it is high time to respond the crisis and draw a civil society charter of environmental duties and rights. Civil society has to nail government so that the episode of non-meeting of high powered committee on environmental health crisis should not repeat at all. There should be no Dharampreets any more – the childhood cursed by the development done by his own elders and forefathers.

Any action to save Punjab from ecological catastrophe and environmental health crisis is a great service to fellow countrymen. It would be a service to our Motherland, Humanity and God and more over it is as sacred as any worship. We all pray for the wellbeing of all, but have to live the very life which pleads this.

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

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