Stay Connected
Cancer Express


Passenger Express 339 enters Bathinda railway station around 9 pm, as if blindfolded by the dark winter night. The sight of it brings a glint to the lifeless eyes of Balwinder Singh (42) waiting on platform number two. He is too weak and turns to his brother who will be his crutches.

There are many like him battling cancer, frail and fragile, waiting to board. But all the commotion and noise is on the other platforms. Here, silence hangs in the air heavily.

By 5 am, after travelling for 326 km, they will reach their destination across the state border: Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre in Bikaner, Rajasthan. They come all over from Punjab’s Malwa region, which comprises nine of the state’s 20 districts and 60 per cent of the population. It’s an arduous but unavoidable journey — Acharya Tulsi is the closest government cancer hospital that is affordable. “I’ve spent Rs 1 lakh in a private hospital in Bathinda. Couldn’t afford it anymore and went to Bikaner,” says Balwinder Singh who has cancer in the oesophagus. Bathinda is at the heart of Malwa. The poor of the most prosperous state go to another state to save themselves.

As many as 70 patients per day on an average travel on this train from Bathinda that it has come to be known as the ‘cancer express’, and the region as ‘cancer belt’. An epidemiological study done by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, concluded the incidence of cancer is higher in this area than elsewhere in the state. Cancer death rate was 51 per lakh per year in Talwandi Sabo of Bathinda as compared to 30 in Chamkaur Sahib, outside Malwa.

Those onboard Express 339 are taken hostage by different types of cancers. But doctors advise all of them to switch to clean packaged drinking water. The Green Revolution that started in the mid 1960s has turned Punjab into the breadbasket of India — contributing more than 95 per cent of the food grains that feed deficit areas in other states — but it has also turned the water table into a poisonous aquifer.

Malwa consumes 75 per cent of the pesticides used in Punjab, according to a 2007 State of Environment Report. “It is the excessive usage of fertilisers, pesticides and extensive irrigation that has caused the problems, not the Green Revolution methods,” says Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio University, USA. Lal studied in Punjab Agricultural University in the early Sixties.

Punjab’s land is so addicted to fertilisers — consumption in the state is at 177 kg per hectare as compared to 90 kg at the national level — and pesticides that even cattle fodder can’t be grown without their application. “Children are more susceptible to the nitrate pollution caused by the fertilisers,” says Reyes Tirado of University of Exter, UK, who published a study on the area in November 2009 for Green Peace.

In Jhajjal village, Sarabjeet Kaur’s baby was born in the sixth month. He is nine now, but still experiences weakness neck down. A few houses away, Paramjeet Kaur has three children with the same ailment. There are 20 such children in the village of 3,500. “Reproductive health has taken a beating, number of sterile couples is increasing. Since the female foetuses are more susceptible, it will add to the dwindling sex ratio,” says G.P.I. Singh, community health expert, Aadesh Medical College, Bathinda.

But there is no proof these pesticides triggered cancer. “Chronic diseases like cancer can’t be linked to one factor. But what we know is about chronic toxins present in these pesticides and fertilisers. There are some strong epidemiological correlations,” says Singh.

Hospital records in Bathinda show 61 people have died between 2004 and 2008 by inhaling pesticides while spraying, an RTI enquiry. These pesticides have entered the food chain. Studies detected pesticides — carcinogens like heptachlor and ethion — in the farmers’ blood here. And also in fodder, vegetables, bovine and human milk. Nothing had come of the expert committee constituted by the state government in 2007. “After the first meeting nothing has happened,” says Sateesh Jain of Oswal Cancer Hospital, Ludhiana, a committee member.

The number of patients boarding the ‘cancer express’ is rising, so is the usage of pesticides and fertilisers. But there is something that is on the decline: productivity. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee admitted in the latest Budget speech: “The declining response of agricultural productivity to increased fertiliser usage is a matter of concern.”

Balwinder Singh, 42, Bhagawanpura, Bathinda

Balwinder Singh used to grow cotton and wheat in his two-acre land and kept his family happy. He was shocked to learn that his son Jaspreet Singh (14 now) is mentally retarded. Several studies have concluded that pesticides affected mental growth of the kids. Bigger shock awaited Balwinder in March, 2009. His severe pain in the stomach was diagnosed as cancer of the oesophagus. Now he’s given out his farm on lease.

After trying out the expensive treatment at a private hospital, having lost Rs 1 lakh, he took the ‘cancer express’ to Bikaner. “Somebody in my village told me that the treatment is cheaper there.” He’s stopped drinking water from the tube well and started spending Rs 20 on bottled water on medical advice. “When they tested drinking water, only three out of 250 houses in our village had drinkable water.”

Nirmal Singh, 54, Jagraon, Ludhiana

Nirmal Singh had been a government schoolteacher for thirty years. He had also been farming,along with his brother Malkit Singh (42), for at least twenty years. He had to extend his summer vacation in 2006, as he was diagnosed with the cancer of the gall bladder. He has been visiting Bikaner ever since. “The doctor had said that fertilisers have gone down to the water,” he says.

Like most who’ve come to catch the ‘cancer express’, he had also heard about it from fellow cancer patients in and around his village. He had spent Rs 3 lakh for treatment in a private hospital in Ludhiana in vain before going to Bikaner. “I have submitted the bills to the government, and I have been waiting forever now.”

For three years, he’s been on chemotherapy. “Every trip costs me around Rs 20,000. And my brother has to put farming on hold and take me to Bikaner.”


Water Contamination
Kids in Punjab villages losing sight to polluted drinking water

Shankar Singh, 22, lost his eyesight
a decade ago. His younger brother,
Visakha Singh, who had no vision problem when he was born, too, lost
his sight as he grew up. [Read More...]

Pollution in Budda Nullah - 7 of family
fall prey to hepatitis

Gurminderjit Kaur of Gaunspur village
on the bank of Budda Nullah is only
28 years old and has lost all adult members of her family to hepatitis due
to the consumption of contaminated water [Read More...]

Parts of Malwa and Rajasthan drinking poison?

In the wake of discovery of high level
of uranium and other heavy metals in hair samples of 80% of 149
neurologically -disabled children, samples of five children from
worst-affected village of Teja Rohela, [Read More...]

Punjab Cancer
Cancer belt of Punjab

The number of cancer patients has
grown manifold in the recent years in the Malwa area. Local people feel excessive use of pesticides has contaminated the ground water.[Read More...]

Cancer picture dismal, not complete

The Day & Night channel’s well- documented report Cancer da Keher managed to capture the big picture. Swaran Singh Danewalia met the affected families in the Malwa region [Read More...]

HC notice to state on cancer in Malwa

Refusing to close its eyes to the ailing cancer cure facilities in Punjab’s Malwa belt, the Punjab and Haryana High
Court has taken suo motu cognizance [Read More...]

Cancer Train
‘Cancer train’ remains as popular as ever

Yet another year has passed but the
number of patients boarding from here
the infamous “cancer train” to Bikaner in
Rajasthan for the treatment of the
disease has increased,[Read More...]

Cancer Express

Passenger Express 339 enters Bathinda railway station around 9 pm, as if blindfolded by the dark winter night. The sight of it brings a glint to the lifeless
eyes of Balwinder Singh (42) waiting [Read More...]

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
[Read More...]

Uranium poisoning in Punjab
India's generation of children crippled by uranium waste

Their heads are too large or too small,
their limbs too short or too bent. For
some, their brains never grew, speech
never came and their lives are likely to
be cut short [Read More...]

Dr. Carin Smit's open letter to Journal of Medical Physics India

In 2008 I visited north India on request
to offer my services as a volunteer in a
project where there are more than 400
severely disabled children. The majority
suffered from [Read More...]

Punjab disability & Uranium Link – BBC

Tests on children with cerebral palsy or
mental disabilities in the Indian state of
Punjab have revealed high levels of
uranium. [Read More...]

Environmental Toxicity
Punjab: Sindh valley civilization again ready to die

The whole community is put on slow
death. The only difference between the
both situations is this that in those
times it was a natural disaster but this
time it is of man made [Read More...]

Punjab: An Environmental toxicity hotspot heading towards death

Punjab’s Ecosystem is full of Poisons.
It is increasingly becoming obvious that
Punjab is turning into a hotspot of
Environmental Toxicity. [Read More...]

Water Crisis and Water Chaos in Punjab

Women are bound to fetch water on
their head from as far as 3 kms, and a vast majority of people have no option other than to drink sub-human water [Read More...]

Reverse Osmosis (RO) filtration plants
RO plants bring hope in cancer belt

Despite slow pace of installation,
residents feel it will help them combat
the scourge Installation of Reverse
Osmosis (ROs) filtration plants is
progressing at a slow pace to provide
potable water [Read More...]

RO water too costly for Punjab’s poor
in Malwa

In the Malwa belt of Punjab that is
riddled with water problems, the Punjab
government’s project to install water
purifiers working on RO theory does not
seem to have yielded desired results,
at least for the poor.[Read More...]

Uranium in Water, 200 reverse osmosis plants of little use

Detection of high level of uranium in
water in the Malwa belt of Punjab have
virtually halted the installation of reverse
osmosis (RO) plants[Read More...]