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Home / India / Here, death stalks a generation

Here, death stalks a generation

The Centre for Science & Environment checks pesticide levels in blood from people of four Punjab villages and finds the levels of organochlorine pesticides shocking. Harjinder Sidhu reports.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2007, 04:41 IST
Harjinder Sidhu
Harjinder Sidhu
Hindustan Times

Disease menaces Malwa’s villages, knocking on one door after another, leaving behind orphans, ruining families, and squeezing the last paisa out of already destitute families. Huge expenditure on treatment is driving the final nail into their coffins.

The large number of deaths from cancer and other diseases, coupled with the severe drinking water crisis, have made Malwa villages shunned. Nobody wants to give a daughter in marriage to Malwa’s young men.

Cancer has taken such a fearsome toll that people hesitate to speak the word. Bathinda villages took the first impact, but Muktsar district and particularly the Giddarbaha area have ‘caught up’. Faridkot, Ferozepur, Moga, Mansa, Sangrur and Barnala districts also show high incidence of cancer.

Meeting families who have lost children to cancer is heartbreaking. They borrowed money for treatment; sold their land, ornaments and tractors but, in the end, cancer won. They fetch out old photographs of the son or daughter who is no more and say nothing in the numbness of grief. Debts remain, lives are gone.

The ruling SAD-BJP had promised to open cancer hospital in Malwa region but there is no sign of it. Anyway, a hospital is no solution to the crisis. Cancer is merely one symptom of environmental degradation and presence of toxic substances in the environment and food chain. Politicians and experts from universities remain silent about what has happened to the environment to cause this epidemic.

Before the elections in February, Manpreet Singh Badal (now Finance Minister) had prepared a list of 300 cancer deaths from his Giddarbaha constituency alone. “My worry is the cancer that has caused several deaths in the area. Polluted drinking water is said to be one of the main reasons for cancer in the cotton belt,” he said then, promising: “If my party forms the government, my priority will be to provide quality drinking water to people. Water works based on new technology will have to be installed to provide quality water to people.”

The villages are, however, still waiting for uncontaminated water.

Apart from cancer, one finds a large number of youth having grey hair, severe joint pain and spinal problems. The preliminary findings of the rapid survey by HT are disturbing. Almost all the households have one or other health problem. Common among them are heart ailments, paralysis, skin problems, asthma and arthritis. These health problems, many related to environmental contamination have become common enough for the villagers to accept them as their fate.

The writing on the wall is clear: Punjab is in the middle of a multi-dimensional eco-disaster which is showing up in the form of unprecedented epidemic of deadly disease. Remedial steps are urgently needed, but who cares?

The aimless debate on deraism, rackets, corruption and other politically surcharged issues make the headlines while environmental health, a issue that affects everyone, is ignored. The wake-up call has been buzzing non-stop and for a long time. But no one’s listening, certainly not the powers that be in power. Meanwhile, people die, or survive waiting for death, in pain.

Death stalks the villages

Village Sekhpura: Look at Sewak Singh, Gurjiwan Singh and Harjit Singh of Sekhpura village of Bathinda district: they are supposed to be the future support of their poor parents, but they are paralysed, unable to even feed themselves. Not one of the three sons of this family developed normally after birth. Their parents have taken huge loans for their treatment, but in vain. They know that their sons will not live long, yet they still want to try every remedy. What little money the family once had is gone now.

“It is better that my grandchildren should die than endure the hell they are living in now,” says their grandmother. There are many more like Sewak, Gurjiwan and Harjit in Shekhpura village and in other Malwa villages.

Simranjit Kaur of Shekhpura village is 20 years old, and despite undergoing eight surgeries, she is crippled and unable to walk without a support.

According to social worker Baljinder Singh Jaurkian (a teacher), who tirelessly work for such patients, about three dozen children below the age of 18 are suffering from congenital disorders in Shekhpura village alone. Similar was the story of Jajjal, Giana and many other villages in Malwa, he said.

Village Giana: Jangir Singh of Giana village near Bathinda is 70 years old and has seen the fortunes of his family go from hopeful to hopeless. He has lost his wife Hamir Kaur, daughter in-law Jaspal Kaur and grandson Gurdeep Singh to cancer.

Village Jajjal: Jagdev Singh of Jajjal village is 15 years old now. He was a healthy boy till the age of 9, but then he contracted a wasting disease that gradually pushed him into a wheelchair. He cannot speak nor do anything on his own. His father Bholla Singh has done his best, but Jagdev has shown no improvement.

Kartar Kaur (90) lost three sons, one after another, to cancer. She is alone now and prays for release from a life of misery.

In 2002, Jajjal village, situated in Malwa’s cotton belt, shot to fame and became a headache for the administration in the state. The media brought out the story of a retired government teacher, Jarnail Singh, whose study of his village revealed the abnormally high incidences of cancer deaths in Jajjal and some adjoining villages. Jajjal is a small village with 500 odd households and a population of about 3,500. Following this expose, several experts and study teams from across the country visited the village in the last five years. Surveys were done; stories appeared in papers on the news channels. But the suffering villagers got nothing. Distrustfully, the villagers when asked about this, say: “We got nothing, except visiting cards of media persons, government officials and doctors!”

Most of the villagers do not want to talk about cancer. Even cancer patients keep a silence about their disease. The code word is “Bikaner”. “Going to Bikaner” is self explanatory to the villagers. Their only respite for medical support is the cancer treatment facilities at Bikaner. But most people, who suspect that they may have cancer, fear to go for a medical check-up. The huge cost of treatment and the worried faces of their family members deter many from even going for an early diagnosis of the disease.

Village Chand Baja: Residents of Chandbaja Village in Punjab’s Faridkot district have witnessed the death of at least 11 people due to cancer in just the past one year and 12 others are critically ill. The whole village feels frightened and helpless.

According to Parmjit Kaur, sarpanch of the village, remembers the first case of cancer back in the 80s — Surjit Kaur wife of Nihal Singh died of uterine cancer. Such deaths are common now she says, reeling off names of neighbours and relatives who have died: Madan Singh, Gura Singh, Darshan Singh, Shinda Singh, Harpal Singh, Gurcharan Singh, Pala Singh, Meeta Singh, Bohar Singh’s mother and wife, Phoola Singh’s wife, the whole family of Jangir Singh Bhaou — husband, wife and son, Basant Singh’s daughter, Jagsir Singha’s wife. The number of cancer patients in the village at present is about 10. We should vow that our villages will no more give birth to Sewaks, Gurjiwan and Harjits’ and Jagir Singh would not have to spend their hard-earned money in such misery —neither in Shekhpura or Giana nor in Malwa nor in the whole of Punjab. But one question remains. Would the government have the will to do this? Would they have the time?

No water fit to drink

Apart from this, the ecological problems, like the alarming depletion in the watertable, waterlogging, soil salinity, toxicity and micronutrient deficiency are posing a big challenge. The water crisis is fast deepening in Malwa as there is no water for irrigation neither for drinking in many villages. Potable water has become a saleable commodity in Malwa villages. Subsoil water in most places is too saline or contaminated with residues of deadly aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin and heptachlor. The water in the canals is black and stinking; it flows over the fields carrying such heavy doses of organophosphates that it is unfit for irrigation. In districts of Faridkot, Muktsar, Bathinda and Abohar-Fazilka many municipal committees were forced to stop supplying tap water.

Untreated industrial waste released into drains is seeping into the soil and polluting the groundwater. Several towns are witnessing this problem. People living alongside drains in Punjab are fast becoming vulnerable to even DNA damage. Dr J S Thakur of PGI, Chandigarh, who is working on this issue, admits that water contaminated by untreated industrial waste might be leading to cancer and other congenital diseases.

Time and again, the lack of clean safe water has been brought to the attention of present Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his predecessor Captain Amarinder Singh. Nothing has been done so far.

Who cares?

The environmentalists are crying hoarse over the “apathetic attitude” of the state government blaming that the governments were playing in the hands of lobby of pesticide industrialists.

Punjab Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO active in Malwa, is working to educate the farmers about health and environment issues, even to the extent of asking them to pledge that they will forego chemical pesticides and fertilizers in favour of organic farming. PKVM executive director Umendra Dutt asks: “How should civil society respond when the government turns a blind eye, when the Health Department doesn’t even have a plan to tackle this issue? The environmental crisis is fast deepening but the state Health Department along with some scientists of Punjab Agricultural University are bent on denying and denying and denying.”

“It has been more than a year since the PGIMER-PPCB study revealed indiscriminate use of pesticides as one of the possible causes of spurt in cancer cases, the government has not yet implemented its recommendations,” boils Dutt. “Of 424 cancer patients from Bathinda, 328 were treated at Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Centre, Bikaner. Why a state like Punjab, much known for its prosperity is unable to build a cancer hospital in Bathinda?” Dutt questions.

Neeraj Patel: Muktsar

The school-going girls of Kotbhai village of Muktsar district have outdone their mothers in one way: they have started colouring their grey hair at the age of 13.

This isn’t an isolated example. Sumandeep Kaur, Ramandeep Kaur and Kirandeep of Government Senior Secondary School can count many grey hairs and there are still more students in other schools of the district, especially in Gidderbaha block, who need to colour their prematurely grey hair. What has caused this affliction?

Ask how many are suffering from pain in the joints and at least seven students in Class VI of Kotbhai Government School will raise their hands. Some complain of backache and others say its joint pain, especially in the knee. “I went to a doctor several times but no medicine helps so I have just stopped taking them. Now, it has been more than a year and I just put up with this backache; it never goes away,” says 12-year-old Gurpreet Singh of this school.

A Class VI student of Bhuttiwala village, Gagandeep Kaur finds it hard to sit through a period as she is suffering from a severe backache for the past 18 months. What’s more, she is not the only one — 13 other students in the same school suffer from joint pain and backache.

“Environmental exposure, unavailability of safe drinking water and pesticides in vegetables, pulses and wheat are probable reasons that leave the immunization system vulnerable,” says orthopaedic surgeon Dr Arun Jain.

“As a result, the elasticity of joints gets affected and even children suffer from arthritis and skeletal fluorosis,” Dr Jain explained, adding that he had treated a seven-year-old girl suffering from arthritis.

As if this were not enough, the death of 10-year-old Harjinder Singh, a student of Bhuttiwala Government School, due to cancer two years ago, caused panic among students. “They keep asking us about cancer,” said Bhuttiwala’s Government High School headmaster Sewak Singh.Even medical experts are confused as patients keep coming with new and unconventional problems. “In such a scenario and when even the latest studies are not helping, what can anybody do?” wonders Dr Jain.

Age is no criteria when it comes to cancer death. Bubby (7), Gulab Singh (1), Harpreet Singh (11) and Amarjeet Singh (4) were the children of Bhuttiwala village who lost their lives to cancer. Another, 26-year-old Daljeet Singh of the same village, died last year due to cancer. Fourteen-year-old Jaswinder Singh of Seerwali village was another victim. “We go to attend the bhog of one and we get the information of another death,” said Kuljeet Singh of Kothe Maana Wale of Gidderbaha, while underscoring the rise in number of cancer deaths. Two months ago, 21-year-old Gurjeet Singh of Channu village had been married just for two months when he was diagnosed with cancer. The disease was in its final stage. In Thraj Wala village, five- year-old Gulshan died of cancer on July 7, this year. “In our Dhani, where only 30-35 families reside, but at least six people have died due to cancer,” said Kuljeet, while demanding a government hospital in the area.

Financial devastation

Sukhmandar Singh of Bhuttiwala village had to sell 2.5 acre of his ancestral land for the treatment of his wife Harjinder Kaur (32), who was suffering from brain cancer for the past eight years. “I have already spent Rs 10 lakh on the treatment and now have to borrow money from relatives to continue the treatment at PGI in Chandigarh. But for how long can I keep asking for help from relatives who will begin to think that I am only wasting their money. My last hope is help from the government,” he said in a choked voice, sitting beside his ailing wife.

Four months ago, 27-year-old Sukhdev Singh of the same village lost his fight against cancer. He could not survive but the expenses incurred on his treatment have left the family penniless. His father Nachhattar Singh had to sell a part of their house to pay for the treatment. And for Sukhdev’s 24-year-widow, Paramjeet Kaur who gave birth to her second child after her husband’s death, life won’t be easy.

Alarming statistics

Almost all local papers report one death in a week, on an average, in Muktsar district. But such news get scant space in newspapers and the government is indifferent to deaths and more deaths. Five deaths in the past three-and-a-half month have been reported from Channu Village of Lambi Assembly constituency, which is represented by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. Kotbhai village, which is said to be

Malwa’s oldest village with a population of around 15,000, has witnessed about 100 cancer deaths in the past 10 years.

Three members of a Bhuttiwala family — Gurbaksh Singh, his wife Gurdeep Kaur and their son Sukhmandar Singh died due to cancer over a span of seven years. Balwinder Singh, the last remaining son of the family, said: “The fear of cancer never leaves me.”

Bhuttiwala village falls in the Finance Minister Manpreet Badal’s Assembly constituency, Gidderbaha. Cancer, in the past 10 years, has already claimed 43 lives in the village with a population of about 4,500 and eight are still fighting the disease. Bhuttiwala has earned the distinction of having maximum cancer death percentage in the district.

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