Cancer patients have been counted many times. Today begins the real exercise. On Sunday, the Punjab government approved the launch of a month-long cancer awareness and detection campaign in Faridkot from Tuesday, waking up to the fact that the number of patients may far exceed its estimate based on surveys. In December, it will extend the pilot programme to the entire state.
News of cancer deaths coming in from all the villages and cities of Punjab may have shaken the government into action. Under the Right To Information (RTI) Act, Gurpreet Singh Chandbaja, president of the Bhai Ghanaiya Cancer Roko Sewa Society of Faridkot, has secured details of 6,434 cancer patients under treatment at the medical colleges in Patiala and Faridkot. For just two hospitals in the state, the number is too huge. It shows the extreme penetration of the disease.
People have begun to blame polluted environment, overdose of chemical insecticides and pesticides to crop, and higher uranium content in groundwater for the aggravation of cancer, but scientists like to differ. "We only like to believe that insecticides, pesticides, and food adulteration are responsible for cancer," said Dr Hanuman Prasad Yadav, head of the cancer department of Guru Gobind Singh Medical College, Faridkot. "Some causes of cancer are still unknown, though the degradation of the environment is also a serious problem."
Details released under the RTI Act suggest that of nearly 3,000 patients who reported to the cancer department of the Faridkot medical college since its opening in June 2009, 865 were from Faridkot, which has a population of 6 lakh. Women are worst affected. "Cancer of the breast and lungs has affected large population," said Dr Yadav. "We have linked hormonal imbalance to cancer in women."
"It's not enough to just count the patients and open hospitals," said Dhanjinder Singh of Dhilwan Kalan village. "The government should check pollution, food adulteration and the overuse of chemical pesticides and insecticides. The government encourages only private and corporate sector to open hospitals, and most people cannot afford to seek treatment there."
"We eat vegetables, grain and fruits sprayed three times over with insecticides and chemical inputs. To ripen the crop before normal cycle, the dose is doubled or tripled," said Gurmeet Singh, a farmer from Kotkapura. "Most of the vegetable business is in the hands of uneducated, ignorant communities."
"I have done four sprays of insecticides on my guava crop," said a fruit contractor. "I wet the trees fully. Most of times, I spray the trees with monocrotophos salt." Monocrotophos, a systemic insecticide with long-lasting residue effect, is injurious to human health. However, the contractor doesn't even wait to pluck the produce. "I pick it the next day of spray," he said. He is then on the roadside, selling his fruit.
"The high content of uranium in drinking water is also dangerous. Three out of 5 water samples from Faridkot turned out to be contaminated," said Pirtpal Singh, who runs the Baba Farid Centre for mentally challenged children at Faridkot. "The department of atomic energy team from Mumbai collected the samples with the help of the department of health. One of the samples had 244 microgram parts per billion (mcg/ppb) of uranium against the permissible level of 20 mcg/ppb under the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. The uranium content in Karamgarh Satran village of Bathinda district was 644 mcg/ppb. Subsoil water should be tested for carcinogens (cancer causing agents)."
Impure drinking water is another problem. The 150 reverse osmosis (RO) system fitted to purify drinking water in Faridkot are inadequate to serve 6 lakh people in Faridkot, Kotkapura and Jaitu, and 171 villages around. Many waterworks systems have failed and many running below capacity. Schoolchildren are compelled to drink impure water.
"The government wasted a lot of money on installing the RO plants," said Gurpreet Singh Chandbaja. "Canal water is for irrigation. With only one-time investment, it can be made available for drinking, but its pollution is not being checked. The days is not far when people will be forced to buy expensive bottled water."
"If there is early detection, the cancer survival rate can improve," said Dr Yadav. "About 80% patients report to us at the second or third stage."