Friday, January 11, 2008

Report : Environmental Health Dialogue

Summary and Recommendations

of Dialogue on

“Environmental Health Crisis in Punjab and civil Society Action”

Organised by

Environmental Health Action Group,


5-6 January 2008 at Mohan Dai Oswal Cancer Hospital, Ludhiana

A convention of doctors, veterinarians, agriculture scientists, economists, researchers, intellectuals, social activists, NGO representatives and farmers was held in Mohan Dai Oswal Cancer Hospital, Ludhiana, on 5th and 6th of January, 2008 on the issue of “Environmental Health Crisis in Punjab and Civil Society Action”. More than 180 participants discussed and presented their views about the numerous effects of environmental degradation due to agro-chemicals, amongst other contaminants, in India and in Punjab.

Several doctors who spoke in the convention were of the firm opinion that scientific evidences available up to now clearly shows that pesticides, chemical fertilizers and heavy metals which are the main pollutants of environment and ecosystem in Punjab are known for their toxicity as immunotoxic, neurotoxic, renotoxic, endocrinal disrupters, genotoxic, teratogenic, embryotoxic, foetotoxic and carcinogens. The prevalence of all these types of toxicity and their manifestation are clearly rising in Punjab. It has been clearly established that these toxins have entered the soil, water, food chain and human body.

There is a clear evidence of lowering of herd immunity; increased prevalence of spontaneous abortion, congenital abnormalities, decreased sperm count, childless couples, early onset of puberty among the female, late onset of puberty in males, various types of cancer, mental retardation and autism in children , menstrual abnormalities in women and hormonal disturbances etc.

The rapid degradation of natural resources like soil and water in a state like Punjab was stressed upon. The convention also discussed the alternative models of sustainable agriculture being tried successfully in many states of India.

Prominent amongst the speakers were:

  1. Dr. S. G. Kabra, Environmental Epidemiologist, Jaipur (Rajasthan);
  2. Dr. Inderjit Kaur, Chairperson, All India Pingalwara Society, Amritsar;
  3. Dr. Devinder Sharma, Food and Agriculture Policy analyst, New Delhi;
  4. Dr. Sucha Singh Gill, Professor, Economics Department, Punjabi University, Patiala;
  5. Dr B S Joia, Senior Entamologist, PAU ( Retd), Ludhiana
  6. Dr. Satish Jain, Director, Mohan Dai Oswal Cancer Hospital, Ludhiana;
  7. Dr. A.K. Jain, Indian Institute of Pathology, ICMR, New Delhi
  8. Dr. G.P.I. Singh, Professor and Head, Department of Community Medicine, Dayanand Medical College, Ludhiana;
  9. Dr. J. S. Thakur, Associate Professor, Department of Community Medicine, PGIMER, Chandigarh;
  10. Dr. Zakir Hussain, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad
  11. Dr. Sukhpal Singh, Professor of Economics, PAU, Ludhiana
  12. Dr Jaswant Singh Thind , President, IMA, Kapurthala
  13. Dr. Neelam Sodhi, Gynecologist, Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, Ludhiana;
  14. Dr. C. Satyamala, Professor,School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi;
  15. Dr Satnam Singh Ladar, Joint Director, PSCS&T, Chandigarh
  16. Dr. Amar Singh Azad, Pediatrician, Patiala;
  17. Dr Parveen Sobati, Pediatrician, Dayanand Medical College Ludhiana
  18. Dr. Ashok Goel, Professor, Department of Pharmacology, GOMCO, Amritsar;
  19. Dr. Ashwini Sharma, Guru Angad Dev University of Veterinary Sciences, Ludhiana;
  20. Dr. Manvir Gupta, IMA District President, Kotkapura;
  21. Dr. A S Maan , State President, Punjab Homeopathic Association, Sangrur
  22. Dr Satish Sharma, State President, NIMA, Jalandhar
  23. Shri Satnam Singh Manak, Senior Journalist, Daily Ajit, Jalandhur.
  24. Dr. Rajinder Choudhary, Economics Department. MDU, ROHTAK.

Following are the summary and recommendations passed unanimously in this Convention:

  1. The environment of Punjab has been badly polluted by the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in agriculture; by throwing untreated water of city sewers and industries, containing highly poisonous substances like pesticides, heavy metals and other chemicals into the water bodies like drains, canals and rivers. Such contamination has affected groundwater too. The soil, water and air have been thoroughly poisoned throughout the state, particularly in the Malwa belt, because of excessive use of chemical pesticides on cotton crop. The Malwa has been also poisoned by the untreated water from sewers and industries (having huge amounts of pesticides, heavy metals and large number of other highly poisonous chemicals) which pollute the waters of Satluj river via Budha Nala and East Bein(chitti bein) and Beas river via West Bein(kaali bein) thus carrying the poisonous water of half of Punjab to Hari-Ke-Pattan and further to Malwa belt through the canals. Water has become unfit not only for human consumption but also for cattle and other living organisms including crops. These poisons have already entered the food chain and the human bodies. The levels of these toxins have crossed maximum permissible limits and have severely affected the health and well being of farming communities, amongst others.

  1. There is ample evidence to show that highly poisonous pesticides, heavy metals and other chemicals present in the soil and water are causing serious health damage. The prevalence/ severity of some of the old infectious diseases are increasing, probably due to effects on human immune system. This is particularly true of viral diseases such as Common Cold, Herpes Zoster, Hepatitis-A and Dengue Fever etc. Tuberculosis is becoming more severe and Multi Drug Resistant. Newer diseases which are more dangerous and life threatening are coming up in a big way such as Hepatitis-B, Hepatitis-C, Hepatitis-E, HIV, SARS, Bird Flue and Chikungunya etc. Some of the parasitic and fungal diseases are also becoming more prevalent and severe too, such as Cycticercosis Scabies, Fungal Infections of Skin and Nails etc. Non-infectious chronic diseases are there in an epidemic form--Hypertension, Coronary Artery and other blood vessel diseases, Diabetes Mellitus, Bones and Joints diseases; Neurological Disorders particularly Peripheral Neuropathies, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinsonism; Psychiatric Disorders, violence of all types, Skin Disorders, Auto-immune and Allergic Disorders, premature graying of hail, excessive falling of hair, Cancers, Reproductive System Disorders (falling sperm count, increasing incidence of Spontaneous Abortions, increasing prevalence of Congenital Malformations, Mental Retardation and Cerebral Palsy, Menstrual Disorders, early onset of puberty in females and delayed onset of puberty in males, erectile dysfunction in males etc.).

Other living beings are also dying en masse and a large number of species is getting eliminated because of unfavorable conditions. The species higher up in the food chain are more affected because of the phenomenon of bio-accumulation/ bio-magnification of toxins. It was unanimously felt that the rise in the prevalence and severity of these diseases and en-masse killing of other species is directly or indirectly related to the presence of environmental toxins in excessive quantities and the model of agriculture being followed after the onset of green revolution.

  1. The timely initiative of the Punjab Pollution Control Board to sponsor the study taken up by Dr. J. S. Thakur and his team in the Community Medicine Department, PGIMER, Chandigarh is most welcome. This study, which is the first of its kind in Punjab, has proven that there is much cause for concern in Punjab regarding the environmental health status of its people. This study has observed that even genetic mutations are being caused by the toxins present in the water and soil of Punjab. This means that not just the current generation but the future generations too are going to suffer from the ill effects of a chemically-contaminated Punjab.

  1. Punjab State Environment Commission: The Government should constitute a ‘Punjab State Environment Commission’ as a statutory body. The proposed Environment Commission would be the first of its kind in India. The Environment Commission shall work as the highest agency for all issues related to environment and natural resources. The commission should be empowered to act as per the needs of the environment and to protect the environmental rights of people of Punjab to get clean air, pure water, safe and nutritious food and for the preservation of the natural, historical, aesthetic, cultural and spiritual beauty and values of the environment. In fact, the Constitution of India has laid down in its Directive Principles of State Policy the following duties for the State and the Citizen.

Article 48 states that “The State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.” Article 51A, states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures.” Punjab as a State and its Citizens individually and collectively have not only failed to perform the duties expected of us, but has also violated the constitutional provision. This is not just a legal question of non-compliance but a question of an impending failure to survive as a society, in a healthy and ecologically sustainable and productive manner.

Hence, one of the primary purposes of the State Environment Commission must be to ensure that the State and Citizens perform the duties demanded of them under the Article 48 and 51A, namely to protect and improve the natural environment. The natural resources of Punjab are the common property of all the people who are living at present. Not only that, but this life support system has to be maintained and cherished in such a way that the generations to come can also benefit from it. The present generation is a mere trustee and as trustees of these resources it is our duty to conserve them for coming generations.

  1. Ecological Agriculture:-The Government should formulate a policy and action plan with a fixed time frame to promote sustainable and ecological agricultural practices and eco-friendly methods of farming like natural and ecological farming. The major focus of this strategy should be:

(A) To draw a balance sheet of the collapse of Green Revolution. We need to know what went wrong with agriculture, so that we don't repeat the same mistakes. A post-mortem of the Green Revolution is absolutely necessary.

(B) While the people of Punjab are already reeling under the current environmental health crisis, without adequate assessments and based on biotech industry’s data, genetically engineered crops are now being touted as the solution to Punjab’s farming crisis by the agriculture research establishment. In a situation when the majority of the world rejects genetically engineered crops on a variety of grounds, even after 15 years after their introduction, this approach in support of genetically engineered crops is clearly unscientific and lacks any sustainable vision for Punjab’s farming.

(C) The current situation is all the more striking, given the fact that alternative models of organic/ natural farming have already been proven to be better and more sustainable than the existing model of chemical agriculture. These are the models which give more net incomes to farmers, relieving them of heavy debt burden than the intensive agriculture models pose. The alternative models also ensure better health for farmers and consumers alike. These models are not just sustainable – contrary to a popular myth, the productivity of farming in the ecological models does not decline, except probably in the first couple of years. In fact, many scientific studies have shown that the productivity of ecological farming models is actually higher in many crops, compared to chemical farming models. Further, recent Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report confirms that organic farming indeed has the ability to feed the growing population on this planet in a sustainable fashion.

(D) Pesticide consumption in Punjab, which is dangerously high in the state (18 % of national consumption with only 1.5% of India’s land), should be brought to 0% within the next 5 years, thus shifting Punjab farming to LEISA (Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture). Other states like Kerala have indeed announced such bold steps. In creating exemplary models of innovative and scientific farming through adoption of ecological models, Punjabi farmers should once again be encouraged to lead the nation by setting an inspiring example for farmers in other states.

(E) Chemical Fertilizers which are not only destroying the fertility of soil but are also poisoning the soil and water should also be phased out in favor of organic manures and natural farming systems in the next 5 years.

(F) Instead of giving huge subsidies to the industry producing pesticides and chemical fertilizers, subsidies and other support should be provided to all the farmers who go in for organic farming, especially for a transitional phase of 3 years. All such farmers are already being given subsidies in USA and Europe.

(G) The Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) model of Andhra Pradesh, supported by the Government of Andhra Pradesh and World Bank, which has successfully rid seven lakh acres of land this year of chemical pesticides through Non Pesticides Management (NPM) should be followed in Punjab. The CMSA programme has clear targets of reaching 25 lakh acres of small and marginal holders and ridding them of chemical pesticides in the next four years in Andhra Pradesh. These are the models that the Punjab Government and PAU should take up on a priority basis.

(H) To encourage Community Based Sustainable Agriculture System (like in Andhra) Punjab Government should encourage Co-operative Ecological Farming System in the state in order to minimize the costs and save the peasants of Punjab.

(I) A map of the soil health of Punjab should be drawn. In the future, all crop introductions should be based on soil health. If a crop (including cash crops) has the possibility of destroying the soil fertility and thereby accentuating the ecological crisis, that cropping system should not be allowed.

(J) A biodiversity-based system of agriculture should be promoted, with support for indigenous varieties of crops, cattle, and seeds. Incentives should be offered for farmers to implement this system.

(K) Attracting youth through awareness building, and making agriculture economically viable, and hence attractive as a livelihood option. This means that there must be support for the youth to take up agriculture and related activities.

(L) A cultural revival focused on reviving the farming culture of the state and upholding its heritage and pride as an agrarian state and food supplier to the nation.

(M) The phasing-out of investments and increased outlays for agricultural research based on external chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, financial allocations should be made for reviving low-input agriculture, which uses cheap and locally available technology and, in turn, improves production, reduces the cost of production and protects the environment.

(N) Phasing-out of chemical pesticides has to be achieved through capacity-building among farmers, women’s groups and local entrepreneurs to produce organic inputs at the household or community level. All these have already been successfully developed and tried in many states without reducing the outputs.

6. Health

(A) Epidemiological and environmental Mapping of Punjab:The first and foremost thing the government should do is to undertake a epidemiological and environmental mapping of Punjab, to assess the magnitude and type of ill-health especially due to contamination of food, water and air with pesticides, chemical fertilizers and untreated waste water of city sewers and industries. At present there are no statistics available to know the type of health problems being caused by these poisonous chemicals. The industry is shamelessly throwing its toxic waste in the water bodies-rivers, canals, seasonal drains, sewers and even in the groundwater through pits, wells and tube wells etc. Burning of fossil fuels is the third devil in this context. Strangely there is either no monitoring for these criminal acts or if it is there, no remedial action is taken. The latest revelations about gross pollution of Kali Benin, Buddha Nalah, Sutlej River and ground water of Ludhiana are well known. The people have a right to know the type and extent of damage being done to our water bodies by the polluting industry. We also want to know what type of health problems are being caused by these acts. But unfortunately there are no research/statistics to know all these vital facts.

It is quite a difficult task to know about these things firstly because the quality of health statistics is very poor in the state and secondly the medical profession itself is not aware of the health problems related to the toxic effects of the pesticides and other poisonous chemicals being used very extensively in Punjab. This is particularly true about the long term and chronic ill-effects of these poisons like falling body immunity, increasing prevalence of various types of cancers, increasing incidence/ prevalence of reproductive system and disorders etc.

The existing infrastructure of the health department for the collection, compilation and analysis of data about various diseases is very poor. This is even truer about these newer problems being caused by the toxic effects of various chemical poisons.

The statistics regarding acute poisoning which is also very common are available to some extent. But here also, the reported cases of acute poisoning are only a fraction of the total problem. The reason being that because of the police harassment and social stigma associated with poisoning, people don’t come to the government hospitals because they are bound to report to the police (it is worth mentioning here that otherwise also only 25% of the sick people come to government hospitals for treatment).Private hospitals are not reporting such cases- neither to police nor to the health department. If the patient survives it is fine and if he or she dies it is silently cremated. It is an open secret that accidental acute poisoning because of the pesticides is quite common because the prescribed precautions are rarely followed while spraying or handling these insecticides.

These are newer health problems not taught to the doctors by standard textbooks. There is an urgent need to sensitize and train health professionals to identify such health problems and then to evolve the ways to treat, mitigate and educate the people to take preventive measures. This will be possible only if our doctors know the epidemiology of these diseases. To do that, we need public health specialists, who have been fully sensitized to these health problems. We should put at least one such epidemiologist in each district and appoint a team of senior and experienced epidemiologists at the state level to analyze the data and evolve a strategy for the entire state. As there are increasing numbers of reports that the prevalence of cancers has increased significantly, particularly in the cotton belt, the health department should spread awareness to make the cancer easily detectable and should make a cancer registry compulsory in all government and private hospitals.

(B)Institute for Environmental Health Research and Studies: Considering the urgency of the situation, and also to act as a research support centre for the Environment Commission and for conducting the environmental audit etc., it is proposed that an Institute for Environment Health Research and Studies be setup. An eminent environmental epidemiologist of international repute and experience must head the institute, with regional centers in various regions of the state.

(C) Declare ecological and environmental health emergency in South Malwa: The southwestern Malwa region has been identified as facing the most severe environmental health crisis. The use of toxic chemicals is the highest in this belt. This entire area should be treated as a toxic hot spot. To focus its efforts, the government must declare and impose immediately the state of ecological and environmental health emergency in the entire belt. For this, specially drawn plans are needed with a specific focus on natural and organic farming, with adequately allocated funds for the targeted problem.

(D)Facilities for the treatment of cancer cases are very poor in Punjab. The existing hospitals of the state are highly ill-equipped to handle such patients. Cheap and good quality facilities to diagnose and treat those who have already been afflicted by cancer should be created in the existing Government Hospitals immediately so that the people whose health has been ruined are saved from economic ruin. Establishment of a Cancer Hospital in Malwa is urgently needed since cancer has emerged as a major health problem of Punjab. Presently there is no such center in this part of the country. Patients have to go to neighboring Bikaner and other places for treatment of cancer. The Oncology Department of PGI Chandigarh be expanded and upgraded to act as apex referral institution in the line of Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai for the patients referred from Medical Colleges and other hospitals in the state. Apart from this Punjab government should make arrangements for Mobile Cancer Detection Check-up Vans in every district of Punjab.

(E)Animal Health: Plant and human health are closely linked to environment and vice versa. These living beings are highly affected due to the environmental degradation. From the epidemiological stand point it has also been seen that not only plant and human health but the animal health is also being adversely affected due to severe ecological crisis. The veterinary experts pointed out that cancer and reproductive health problems among the animals are becoming more frequent. Thus keeping in mind this argument, KVM recommends that government should take proper action including epidemiological mapping of animal health particularly cancer and reproductive health of the animals.

7. As recommended by the study sponsored by Punjab Pollution Control Board and done by PGIMER, Chandigarh, urgent action is needed to protect the natural water bodies and groundwater of Punjab from untreated waste water of city sewers and industries which is full of large number of toxins including highly dangerous pesticides and heavy metals.

8. A network of Regional Testing Laboratories should be set up to monitor the levels of toxins in water, soil, air, food chain, livestock and human beings. At present, such testing facilities are almost non-existent or are very costly and beyond the reach of NGOs and the general public.

9. There is a strong evidence of increase in the prevalence of cancers in Punjab, but the registration of cancer cases is very poor in the state. Population Based Cancer Registry should be set up in Punjab in different regions of the state.

10. Reorientation of environmental education with local ecological perspective:

(A). Awareness about the present environmental disaster, in which Punjab has been thrown into, is quite low amongst the general public as well as the affected. This needs to be boosted tremendously. To achieve that, curriculum should be modified appropriately right from Class One in schools and colleges. The syllabi should be revised and updated according to local ecological and environmental health challenges of Punjab and it should reflect ecological history and present crisis and its solution.

(B) There is an urgent need to change the syllabus of Agriculture University to support an ecological approach to farming. Capacities of agriculture university students have to be built to understand the importance of conservation of local ecology and the need for an ecological revival of Punjab. This can include animal husbandry, forestry and fisheries students also. KVM is of firm opinion that ecological, environmental health and agricultural crisis should be reflected in the syllabus of PAU and GADVASU.

(C) A compulsory and complete course of environmental economics and energy economics which are of an utmost importance should be included in the curriculum of economics in graduation and post-graduation level at all State Universities in Punjab.

This convention demands that the government of Punjab acknowledge the extent and different dimensions of the environmental health crisis as experienced by the people of Punjab, that it takes up immediate relief and rehabilitation measures to mitigate the distress of the affected people like the Kerala government has done in the case of endosulfan victims, that it adopts successful models of ecological farming immediately through the department of agriculture, that it initiates a large scale campaign for creating awareness about the ill effects of agro-chemicals and the possibilities with alternatives and to fix accountability where it is due for the current crisis.

KVM also wants to affirm its commitment to the people, ecology and sustainability of Punjab. Despite KVM working as apolitical and peaceful constructive movement, the pesticide lobby is again and again attempting to disturb this civil society initiative. KVM being a people’s movement for Punjab will work till the goal is achieved. And finally the goal is healthy, ecologically and economically sustainable Punjab with imperishable prosperity, wealth and happiness.

KHETI VIRASAT MISSION, Bishnandi Bazar, Jaitu , Dist. Faridkot,

9872682161, 9872861321, 9915195061; E-mail:

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