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Malwa’s ‘cancer belt’ desperate for government attention

Jajjal (Talwandi Sabo), November 13
Finally the Punjab Chief Minister is home after his much-touted Vikas Yatra. And dust along the roads of Malwa’s cotton belt seem to have settled somewhat.s

What’s still unsettled, however, is the heart of 80-year-old Sharan Kaur, who lost both her son and grandson to cancer. Yesterday when the CM’s convoy was passing by her village, she was among the hundreds who waited for him to voice their woes. Late as he was running, the Chief Minister did not halt at Jajjal, which has lost about 30 persons to cancer in the past 10 years.

For some strange reason, the insensitivity to cancer, which sweeps the region like a tsunami, remains integral to mainstream politics of the region. Although cancer-related deaths started occurring in this belt as early as 1992 and even before, neither the Akalis not the Congress did anything to document them in a scientific way, let alone take steps to prevent them.

By rough estimates, hundreds have died due to different types of cancers in the area. Adesh Hospital at Muktsar, the only well-equipped hospital in the belt, reportedly receives 14,000 such cases per year. Many more go to Charity Hospital at Bikaner in Rajasthan, where testing and treatment are cheaper.

Fed up with promises and inaction, social activists and farmers from the region are now planning to submit a petition to the Governor of Punjab demanding the setting up of a Government Cancer Hospital in Malwa. The crux of their demands is “Detoxification of Malwa” and a population-based cancer registry in the region.

Master Jarnail Singh of Kheti Virasat, who leads the movement in Jajjal and has witnessed cancer assume alarming proportions, says, “We want Malwa to be poison-free so that our people can live. There is still no official data to suggest the extent of cancer prevalence and incidence of cancer related deaths in the region. Adesh Hospital is a private hospital and very few people can afford its treatment. Due to heavy cost of detection and treatment, most cases go unreported. The rest are detected late, making death inevitable.” The tragedy became known for the first time when Mr Jeet Mohinder Sidhu, MLA, Talwandi Sabo, visited Jajjal after his victory as an independent in the 2002 Assembly elections. Supported by the Congress now, he promised help to villagers then. But villagers are still waiting for concrete action.

All they’ve got so far are the findings of Chandigarh-located PGI’s report, which suggested that deaths were occurring due to heavy pesticide use for cotton growth in the belt. Some senior scientists have, however, cast aspersions on the report, which they say was not made public by the Punjab Government nor was any scientific paper ever published.

Dr Rajesh Kochhar, former director, National Institute of Scientific, Technical and Development Studies, Bangalore, who organised and chaired a lecture on “Cancer in Punjab’s cotton belt” at the India International Centre, New Delhi on November 9 (when Vikas Yatra was in full swing), says, “There is grave mismatch between the public perception of cancer incidence in Malwa and official data. According to our sources cancer deaths are significantly under reported.” Irrespective of the causes of cancer, which the state government has asked the PGI to find out, the reality is that cancer deaths are rising. Gurjant Singh, a farmer, who lost two sisters-in-law to cancer says, “We are not interested in the causes of death. We are interested in treatment.. Neither the Akalis nor Congressmen could give us a hospital in so many years. But we will keep asking for it.” Master Jarnail Singh plans to get the “Detoxify Malwa” petition signed by as many villagers in the cotton belt as possible. Ahead of elections, he feels people’s demands might just be heard.

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