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Punjab: Transformation of a food bowl into a cancer epicentre

Gautam Dheer, Chandigarh, Feb 3, 2013, DHNS:

Behind border-state Punjab’s rare feat of perpetual bumper harvest each year lies a distasteful harsh reality. Punjab stares at an inevitable crisis that may probably have irreparable fallout if not addressed anytime soon. Agriculture in this food bowl state, which prides in its glory as the biggest contributor to the central grain poll, has become increasingly unsustainable, and the year-on-year bumper harvest model practised irrationally by debt-ridden farmers has only meant more indiscriminate use of pesticides, something which is now being linked to the alarmingly high incidents of cancer in Punjab, way above the national average.

According to records, at least 18 people die of cancer each day in Punjab. The scary part is that there are credible voices that suggest that the high prevalence of cancer has something to do with the polluting waters due to indiscriminate use of pesticides. Punjab’s ground water table has alarmingly dipped due to overexploitation and in several blocks the use of ground water has either been completely banned or restricted by the Central Ground Water Board.  

That Punjab pioneered the Green Revolution is just one part of the story. Here’s why. The average annual growth of the GDPS from agriculture and allied sectors in the last seven years for Punjab has remained at a mere 1.76 per cent, against the national average of 3.7 per cent. In fact, it plunged to below 1 per cent in last fiscal. The traditional wheat-paddy cycle being practised in Punjab has had its toll. Punjab may lose its dominance as the largest producer with several other food-consuming  states, like Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in wheat, fast turning major producers of the crop. The state of MP, as per claims, hopes to supersede Punjab in wheat production in next two years. The Northeastern states have grown 70 lakh ton surplus paddy this year.


Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who admits that the traditional cropping pattern followed by Punjab, especially water guzzling paddy, not only has inherent fallouts on environment and health but also is increasingly unsustainable, has sought a Rs 5,000 crore package for crop diversification. On the recommendation of various agencies, including the Union ministry of agriculture and the Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices, Punjab is working out a plan to sizably bring down its area under paddy produce, especially to conserve ground water. But that’s just the beginning of course correction. Research suggests that even some of the alternative crops, including sugarcane, sunflower, maize etc, consume no less water. If ‘downgraded’ paddy requires an estimated 60 lakh litres of water per hectare, reports suggest sunflower needs about 65 lakh litres. 

Republic of cancer


Punjab has paid the price for high crop produce that has arguably sustained country’s food security needs. More produce has meant  more and indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemicals. As per famed Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, the indiscriminate use of pesticides in crop production in Punjab is one of the reasons for high incidents of cancer in Punjab, and state health minister Madan Mohan Mittal does not refute it either.

Punjab’s first ever door-to-door survey completed last month bares it all. Of the near total population screened in the campaign, 23,874 were found to be cancer patients while nearly four times more carried symptoms of the disease.  
Punjab has 90 cancer patients for every lakh of its population -- a sizable 10 count more than the national average.  The CM’s home district Muktsar tops the list of such patients. Giant community reverse osmosis plants have come up in almost all districts of the state to help matters with safe drinking water. A study of two districts in Punjab revealed the presence of pesticides such as heptachlor and chloropyrifos and other heavy metals in samples of drinking water and concluded that these had led to a higher incidence of cancer.

Experts say a combined comprehensive study to bare all facts is something which has not been carried out till date. The extent of the problem can be gauged from the fact that Punjab has a special Rs 30 crore provision in its annual budget for cancer patients and till recently, Rs 68 crore had been provided to 6,300 cancer patients for treatment. 

The myth of increased yield linked to increased use of pesticides and chemicals, especially in rice production, has been blown by none other than the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. The Institute states that ‘pesticide use on rice in Asia is a waste of time and effort’.

Punjab has reached its saturation point with an estimated 198 per cent cropping intensity, which brings to fore a potentially bigger threat. The expected fallout of groundwater depleting at alarming rates in this food bowl state was both inherent and inevitable.

Groundwater is continuously declining in 85 per cent areas of the state. Nitrate presence in water has gone up by ten times in the past four decades. Of 138 hydrogeological blocks, over 100 are listed as dark or grey zones due to over-exploitation. Groundwater levels are going down by about 60 cm every year. The Central Ground Water Board has banned new bores in 18 blocks that had crossed the ‘critical’ mark.

The situation needs urgent intervention, because Punjab even manages to produce a record bumper harvest, like this year, despite a 40 per cent deficit rainfall. The usual suspects were water-guzzling pumps. As per official estimates, nearly 35,000 pumps have been going underground each year over the last four years. Punjab has to find a quick solution for this unsustainable agricultural practice.

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