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Bir Devinder writes to PM

The Tribune

BATHINDA, January 24 , 2010 Bir Devinder Singh, former Deputy Speaker and Jago Punjab leader, has urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare the breakout of cancer in the Malwa region of Punjab as a “catastrophic situation” and tackle the disease by scientific means.

In a letter to the PM today, Bir Devinder urged him that the Union Ministry of Health should step in to control the disease as the SAD led-government in Punjab had failed to do so.

“It is painful but pertinent to mention that every day a train, which is now known as the Cancer Train, leaves Bathinda railway station for Bikaner (Rajasthan) carrying cancer patients to its full capacity for treatment. In the absence of a trained faculty and the requisite infrastructure for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in Punjab hospitals, poor patients are left with no choice but to go to Bikaner. A study reveals that more than 50 per cent of the patients treated in the Bikaner hospital belong to the Bathinda area”, he said.

The Jago Punjab leader pointed out that the alarmingly high number of cases of cancer might be attributed to the excessive use of pesticides for crop spray (especially BT cotton) or the large amount of fly ash being emitted by the thermal plants in the Bathinda area.

He informed the PM that the BARC had recently found that the concentration of uranium in ground water was beyond the permissible limits in the Malwa region.

The Department of Atomic Energy had already directed the Punjab Government to provide the reverse osmosis system to the people of the Malwa region.

Yet another year has passed but the number of patients boarding the infamous ‘Cancer Train’ to Bikaner in Rajasthan here for treatment has increased as the Punjab government has so far failed to take remedial steps. Besides cancer, other diseases have also taken roots in the area because of contaminated groundwater.

The disease is not confined to Bathinda but has over the years spread its tentacles in the entire Malwa belt consisting of the districts of Muktsar, Faridkot, Moga, Barnala, Mansa and Ferozepur where the patients were fed up with the hollow promises made by the Central and the state government. The area has emerged as the epicentre of the disease and has come to be known as the cancer belt of Punjab .

The number of applications from patients for financial aid for treatment was piling up in the office of the Chief Minister while the Union Health Ministry has failed to come up with some firm assurance on opening a super-specialty hospital for treatment of the disease.

The private sector hospital coming up here might remain out of reach for the financially weak patients.

A series of studies conducted by the Chandigarh-based PGI, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and various other reputed institutions have indicated that the drinking water being supplied, particularly in the Malwa belt, was a cancer cocktail as it was a combination of pesticides, heavy metals and fluoride that were causing more harm than good. Besides cancer, this was causing serious deformities among the children.

Residents of the Malwa belt believe that many people in the area became prone to cancer only after the green revolution was launched followed by the introduction of Bt cotton for which the farmers indulged in excessive use of pesticides and insecticides, badly contaminating the groundwater.

While the disease was on the rise, the officialdom of Punjab has somewhat remained insensitive to the issue, that was troubling most households in the rural areas. They were unable to furnish the exact number of cancer patients to a high-level team of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that recently visited the districts of the Malwa belt to get first-hand information about the causes for the spread of the disease. The team was specially dispatched by the Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad on the request of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and his wife and MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal who met him at New Delhi with an SOS on the issue as 1089 persons have lost their lives because of the disease in the past three years in the Bathinda parliamentary constituency.

Researchers have found very high level of uranium concentration in the hair samples of children, and also traces of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, strontium and barium.

According to the data provided to Azad by Sukhbir Singh Badal, out of the 3,409 tests and 894 mammograms conducted in Bathinda and adjoining Mansa district, 46 cases turned out to be positive, while 131 were rated as suspects. The region has no diagnostic and treatment centre and patients have to travel to Chandigarh and Bikaner for the purpose.

According to official figures, as many as 2218 cancer patients, including 1355 women, were detected in the Bathinda district within eight years till 2009 of which 1347 had died.

Similarly, 1058 patients suffering from cancer were detected in the Mansa district out of which, 695 succumbed to the disease during the same period.

Another NGO, Kheti Virasat Mission, has raised doubts about the data of cancer patients built by the Punjab Health Department and has demanded a scientific approach on the matter to prepare an authentic list as the NGO suspects that the number of patients was more than what was claimed by the authorities.

The Centrally funded ONCONET project for the districts of Bathinda, Muktsar and Sangrur has remained in the doldrums because of the laxity of the Punjab government. The project would have provided the district hospitals a direct link to the PGI for treatment of cancer patients. Azad had snubbed the Punjab government for delaying utilization of Central grants for setting up regional cancer centres in the Faridkot and Patiala medical colleges.

Another alarming factor that came to light during the year was the presence of uranium beyond the permissible limits in the groundwater of Malwa region. This was causing mental retardation, physical deformities and neurological problems among the children in various areas.

The worst affected was the Teja Rohela village near Fazilka in Ferozepur district where over 100 children were congenitally, mentally and physically found challenged by an NGO working in the area.

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