Sunday, July 8, 2007

Eco-Crisis in Punjab and Governmental-toxicity

By Umendra Dutt
On February 25, 2006 while replying to a question by Giddarbaha MLA, Manpreet Badal, in Punjab Assembly, the Punjab Health Minister Dr. Ramesh Chander Dogra conceded that the high power committee formed to probe cancer, headed by the Chief Minister, has not held even a single meeting so far. One can find the history of Neuro-toxicity, Teratogenicity, Carcinogenicity, Mutagenicity and several other toxicities due to pesticides, but this is a unique case of governmental-toxicity. It was an established fact that pesticides can cause stillbirth in humans and animals, but now it appears that pesticide could have impact on Government functioning also, and cause stillbirth of a government committee and that too of High-powered committee. Though it is also to be probed, whose toxins paralyzed this committee - pesticides or pestisidewalas?
It was after CSE's Director Sunita Naryan has raised the issue of pesticides in blood of Punjabis on June 7, 2005, that the Punjab Government constituted two committees –one high power committee headed by the Chief Minister himself and another expert group headed by Dr.K.K.Talwar, Director PGIMER, Chandigarh. However, the expert group had met once but the High-powered committee failed to meet in last eight months. The meetings were fixed for at least five times and each time it was postponed for one or another reason. Therefore, the very committee, which has to deliver an action plan and mitigation strategy for cancer crisis, delivered nothing, thus, terminating a conception in stillbirth.
It is right of people to know that who is responsible and answerable for not holding even a single meeting of this High-powered committee in last eight months. Who had prevented the Punjab Government to make an elaborate plan?
Some earlier questions need to be answered now. It was clear that Head of Patiala Forensic Laboratory had tried his best to subdue the entire issue by terming that they had not found any pesticide residue in any of blood samples taken from different districts. That too without any proper scientific instruments. Had Punjab Government taken notice of his press statements? How the press statement of Patiala Forensic Laboratory scientist and Chairman of Agro-Chemical Promotion Group released on same date from Chandigarh? Who had instructed Dr.Sharma to release the press statement?
However, Punjab Government had paid some relief amount to several cancer patients, but the key question remained unanswered. Monetary help is not a permanent solution to the cancer problem. What Punjab Government has planned to deal with this serious situation? What is the strategy to tackle environmental health crisis in Punjab and particularly in Malwa region? Providing financial assistance is mere one aspect to tackle the problem and that too political in nature. However, how are we going to stop ecological degeneration in the region to save people from spreading cancer and unabated environmental health crisis?
Has any plan been evolved to reduce pesticide load in Malwa region? What steps were taken to educate the farmers about No-Use or Safe use of pesticides? There are no signs that Punjab Government had planned anything to rejuvenate the ecological equilibrium of the region.Another important issue that should draw public attention is handling of environmental health crisis in parts not in totality. The crisis is multi-dimensional thus needs holistic approach and plan keeping every aspect in mind. While government had accepted cancer as one of the problems but at the same time, it is not taking cognizance of other health impacts of environmental crisis and degradation of ecology. There are hundreds of evidences that pesticides can severely damage not only the reproductive health but could also cause number of ailments. Focusing the debate on mere cancer would help pesticide industry, as it takes long to prove direct link between pesticides and cancer.
There are hundreds of ifs and buts. However, reproductive health impacts are quite visible and are of more devastating in nature. Among the cancers, women suffer mostly from increased cases of cancers related to reproductive organs. Therefore, while talking about cancer we should not forget taking notice of reproductive health problems.
In his reply, Health Minister also had given assurance to take up another survey of cancer sufferers. Here lies an important question. While government has clamed 172 cancer deaths in Muktsar district in last two years but Manpreet Badal contested the claim as he has list of 201 cancer deaths from Giddarbaha constituency alone and the number in entire Muktsar would be much higher. It is story of other three districts also where health department did cancer survey. The government always treated this issue in very shady manner. Firstly, they had conducted a survey at jet speed that is in just one or two days. Then they asked vigilance department to conduct survey of cancer deaths and patients. When police declined to that then health department again started the survey. This time they had tried their best, yet failed to reach every house or some how not able to take note of every cancer death. After all, how government has failed to enlist every cancer death and why? Some one should answer this question. Why the Government is hesitating to involve civil society groups and other concerned stakeholders in entire exercise. Who is influencing the government?
Thanks to Manpreet Badal, he has done a great job by raising this issue in the Assembly. Now when Government has accepted to conduct a detailed study again, some important aspects should be taken care of.
- Beside cancer, reproductive health crisis must be taken account of. Survey should cover wide range of reproductive health abnormalities alongwith other pesticide related health problems, such as graying of hairs etc.
- The new study should be conducted in collaboration with any of reputed institute like Industrial Toxicological Research Center, Lucknow; National Institute on Occupational Health, Ahmedabad; Center for Occupational & Environmental Health, New Delhi and AIIMS.
- Even National Environmental Engineering Research Institute could be involved for assessment of environmental damage caused in Malwa. Of course, PGIMER and PAU also made part of new study.
- The new study should be done in Participatory Action Research (PAR) mode by involving larger civil society groups. Followed by Participatory Appraisal and Monitoring (PAM).
- Government should form an Environmental Health Crisis Mitigation & Action Task Force by involving representatives from civil society groups and other stakeholders along with experts from various disciplines of Health, Environment, Agriculture, Economics and Sociology. This task force must provide adequate infrastructure and support.
- The Environmental Health Research Institute must be established in Malwa region by drawing best available minds in the country.
The participatory action research is a new phenomenon in sustainable developmental and environmental planning. It will enhance the sense of responsibility, ownership and communitization of issues and problems among the stakeholders. This is a step forward to democratization of our developmental process. After all true democracy lies in empowering our communities and people. The solution of any crisis, particularly of problem we are facing in Punjab, can be worked-out more efficiently by community participation. As far as Punjab is concerned the decentralized participatory planning has no space as of now. Nor the Government seems to be interested in that. But, it is the right of civil society to take-up the issue more and more vigorously as this is an issue of survival of Punjab.
Another important issue in this sequence is missing list of notifiable diseases in Punjab. The district epidemiologist / CMO office does not seem to have the current list of Notifiable diseases where in he can receive mandatory information of certain diseases from periphery. The monthly/periodical report of morbidity or mortality generated by CMO offices to state HQ mainly includes number of patients of various diseases. As Punjab has no cancer registry, nor is there any provision to notify the occurrence of cancer to the district epidemiologist from private health facilities or OPD treatment. Therefore, there is no baseline data in this regard. Moreover, in most of Punjab the post of district epidemiologist is lying vacant. It is very pathetic that there is no adequate system to collect primary data in Punjab. As we are more concerned with environmental health crisis, the state list of notifiable diseases is very important to monitor and mitigate the crisis. Therefore, Punjab Government must fill posts of district epidemiologist and declare a list of notifaiable diseases.
Secondly, Punjab Government must take serious notice of Dr.C.D.Mayee Committee's letter. The Central Insecticide Board (CIB) has constituted an expert committee headed by Dr.C.D.Mayee (Chairman, Agriculture Scientist Recruitment Board – GoI) to review 37 pesticides, which are banned/ restricted in other countries but are being used in India.
CIB has asked Director Agriculture to provide his observations, considered views, opinions and experiences on ten pesticides that are under review, namely: Monocrotophos, Mancozeb, Quinalphos, Butachlor, Diclorvos, Acephate, Fenitrothion, Carbendazim, Atrazine and Pendimethalin. CIB sought views of Director Agriculture on the various aspects of toxicology, environmental fate and eco-toxicology of these pesticides. Nevertheless, unfortunately as per my information this important letter was some how missed and the office of the Director Agriculture Punjab never received the same. However, who will be the ultimate sufferer, the environment of Punjab and common Punjabi?
If government is serious to save people of Punjab from environmental health catastrophe then it should follow-up CIB letter. However, it seems the priorities are lying somewhere else.
Thirdly, Punjab Government should promote “Pesticide Free Farming"(Sans BT.Cotton) in state. It is noteworthy that Government of Andhra Pradesh in collaboration with Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) an NGO from Secunderabad, has taken a very bold and innovative step of converting nearly 400 villages across the states in to Pesticide Free villages. If AP government can adopt a programme of an NGO then what is the hesitation for Punjab Government? As Punjab is facing serious ecological impacts of green revolution, it is the right time to take a break from tandermill of pesticides and give a chance to life and sustainable prosperity.
This is election year in Punjab. Therefore, it is indeed very useful time for the civil society. The society must ask questions to every political party about their agenda and plans for environmental health crisis and sustainable life systems in Punjab. We must pose question - Why should we vote for them. After all this is a lifetime issue of Environmental Justice and more over fundamental Environmental Right of our people.

(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission. Jaitu, Faridkot district based environmental NGO. He can be contacted on 01635 503415 / 9872682161)

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