Sunday, July 8, 2007

The slow poisoning of Punjab

Damaged soil, ill-effects from pesticides, and
falling water tables are the legacy of practices that
were once thought great for the state.

Ramesh Menon

When India’s Green Revolution started, Punjab had a pioneering role. Here was India’s northern state with its hardy farmers toiling to transform their fields into gold. They worked hard, experimented with new seeds and invested in fertilizers and pesticides. Punjab prospered and developed into the rice and wheat bowl of India. But now, in districts like Bhatinda, there is a new story playing out in the fields. The water table has collapsed, water bodies are poisoned with chemicals, the land has been degraded with excessive use of pesticides, and yields are falling.
Initially, Bhatinda was not the best of places to farm. After independence, it was just a part of the extended desert strip of Rajasthan. But with government help, farmers worked very hard ploughing the rocky land, dumping new top soil and then infusing it with fertilizers. The otherwise barren land sprang into life and it was soon a green carpet. Many years ago, a large number of farmers in Bhatinda district decided to move out from growing rice and wheat and shift to cotton as it was a cash crop with rich dividends.
All was fine till the cotton crop was introduced. The first few years were good and brought in good returns. But when the American bollworm attack came, the crop got destroyed. Panic stricken, the farmers guided by pesticide dealers, started pumping in huge amounts of pesticide. Initally, the pests died, but later on, year after year, the pest started developing immunity to pesticide sprays and continued to attack the cotton crop and destroy it. The pests developed immunity fast as pesticide was often adulterated. The body mechanism of the pest fought against the excessive spraying.
The Punjab Agriculture University at Ludhiana recommends only seven sprays on cotton in six months, but farmers in Bhatinda went in for as many as 32 sprays. Says Sardar Jarnail Singh, former sarpanch of Mandikhurd village in Bhatinda: “There are cases where land has been left uncultivated as that is the only way to minimize the losses. Pesticide worth Rs. 8000 were normally used in one acre.”
In Harkishanpura, the village sarpanch passed a resolution announcing that the whole village was up for sale. There was not a single house that was free of debt. Says Lal Singh, a cotton farmer in Bhatinda: “Before 1990, we had no problems. We used to earn well and so eat well and lived well. But after the pests came, we saw hell. We had to spray throughout the year and sometimes as many as 35 times. As the pesticide was very expensive, we had to take loans.”
But as crops were failing year after year, their debts increased. In the hinterland of Punjab, honour is a sacred word. The people here are a proud lot, and they attach great importance to their dignity. As moneylenders came knocking on their doors, they could not hide their shame and hundreds of them committed suicide. “Have you heard of Punjabi farmers committing suicide [previously],” asks Umendra Dutt, Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission, a non-governmental organization in Punjab that is now propagating organic farming and sustainable development.
Harkishanpura, a village with a population of around 900 from 125 families spread over 1,170 acres, tells it all. A year ago, the village sarpanch passed a resolution announcing that the village was up for sale. This hit the headlines and created quite a sensation as it came from one of the most prosperous states of India. But it brought home the fact that there was not a single house in the village that was free of debt. The average debt of each family is between four and six lakh rupees. Over 300 acres have already been sold so as to pay up debts. Nearly eighty farmers in the village have debts totaling to around Rs. 3.5 crore. Many have sold their lands to pay debts.
In many ways, it is the collapse of a dream. Fortells Sukhminder Singh, a cotton farmer and member of the village panchayat at Harkishanpura: “We will all end up as agricultural labourers. Our children have already moved out to nearby areas like Rampura city as casual labourers earning around Rs. 70 a day.”

Health concerns
In villages where pesticide use is high, health concerns are widespread. Umendra Dutt says that incidences of cancer are frequent but there has been no study to link it to pesticide. Dr Rajender Kumar, a biologist from Punjabi University based at Patiala points out that the problems really started in the nineties, at the same time that soil fertility started declining, and farmers started pumping in fertilizer to overcome this. . And with excessive use of pesticides, he says, there was a rise in infertility clinics, diabetes, heart attacks, mental retardation and abortions. He agrees there is no study to confirm that pesticides are responsible in Punjab but notes that research worldwide has shown that pesticides do produce these effects.
Farmers are equally sure pesticides are affecting them. Says Gurtej Singh, a farmer at Nandgarh Kotra village: “The spray burns our eyes, leads to skin rashes and itching. We do not let a sprayer sleep for many hours after spraying fearing that he might slip into unconsciousness. After spraying we feel intoxicated as if we have consumed liquor. Magher Singh, a farmer from Banginihalsingh village in Bhatinda district found himself in hospital one day. He has sprayed in the fields for over five hours. He returned home and fell down after he was overcome with giddiness. He was rushed in an unconscious state to the hospital.
The water in Harkishanpura has been certified as unfit for drinking by the government, but everyone continues to drink it as there is no alternative. The water was found to have high concentrates of chloride. Dutt says that excessive pesticide use has destroyed the topsoil in many areas of Punjab and it has even crept into the water table endangering health of the villagers.
Dr. Gulab Singh Sihag, who runs a hospital in Sirsa, Haryana, sees numerous cases of pesticide poisoning coming into his emergency wards every week. Say he: “Pesticides are used while sowing, growing, harvesting and preserving the produce from the fields. So we end up consuming pesticide residues that weakens our immune system and opens up our body to various diseases.”
The danger of pesticides creeping into the food chain has still not dawned. Many families use empty pesticide containers, gunnybags, and buckets used to store the chemicals to also store their food and drinking water. The danger of pesticides creeping into the food chain has still not dawned in Punjab. Many families use the attractive plastic containers of pesticide to store foodstuff once the spray is over. Says Deep Kamal, a student from Haryana: “Gunnybags containing pesticides is often used to store wheat flour once the pesticide powder is over.” Adds Jaggar Singh, a cotton farmer from Mahinagar village in Bhatinda: “Buckets that were used to mix pesticides are also used to store drinking water.”
Slowly, Kheti Virasat Mission is trying to sell them a dream of a healthy life again if they resort to switching from cotton back to foodgrain and vegetables and take up organic farming. Says Lal Singh: “Pesticides have destroyed our soil, water, crops and our environment that was so wonderful. We have to get rid of pesticides by opting for natural and indigenous methods.”
Chemical farming has brought with it disorders of endocrine glands, cancer, asthma, skin diseases, digestive track complications and infertility. Studies have shown pesticide in breast milk samples from Punjab. Inderjit Singh, a farmer from Saholi village near Nabha in Punjab says he used to use a lot of pesticide on his five acre farm that had paddy, chilli, bitter gourd and even mushrooms. Convinced it is dangerous to everyone’s health, he has completely shifted to organic farming. He has come to terms with the fact that his yield is going to fall initially. However, with his land regenerating with organic manure, his profits will climb. So will his health.
Even some pesticide dealers see all this as a problem, despite their immediate gains. Kulbhushan Bharti, a pesticide dealer in Bhatinda town, has this to say. “Our earnings have dramatically increased. But excessive use of pesticide may damage the soil in Punjab'. That would hurt his long-term business, but he's not sure if the government is paying attention. 'The government is not thinking of it when it gives subsidies for pesticide”, he says.
India gloated over the success of the Green revolution that introduced pesticides and agro-chemicals. But it failed to see what this did to the rich biodiversity of the land.
Amidst all this, Punjab, the land of five rivers, has turned into the Be-aab, as water tables have dipped everywhere. Eighty four development blocks in the state have been declared as dark zones by the agriculture department of Punjab; sixteen blocks have been labeled as grey zones leaving only 38 as white zones. Even the water in the white zones is often unfit for human consumption. In some cases, it is even unfit for irrigation. The water has residues of nitrate, selenium and chloride. Umendra Dutt warns that all the water of Punjab is either depleting or getting poisoned by pesticides and other chemicals.
“Every Punjabi has to save Punjab without waiting for government intervention. In their prayers, each Punjabi exclaims: Sarbbat da bhala, which means 'may goodness come to all'. But what we are doing in Punjab is Sarbbat da vinash, which is destruction for all. All of us who live in Punjab have good reason to worry.” ⊕

Ramesh Menon is a journalist and documentary film maker. In April 2006, Ramesh Menon won the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism award for Environmental Reporting, for his articles on pesticide poisoning in Punjab.

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