A motley crowd of waiting passengers on the dimly-lit platform number one of Bathinda junction, in south Punjab is a common sight. Every day the passengers wait for the Lalgarh-Jodhpur train, “cancer train” as they call it, which carries, on an average, 70 cancer patients daily to Bikaner in Rajasthan for cheap treatment and free medicines.
The passengers of this train are small farmers of Malwa region of Punjab who are exposed to toxins because of the excessive use of pesticides over the years. They started using pesticide after the Green revolution to increase productivity. Experts believe excessive use of pesticides results in decreasing the nutrition value of the crop and pesticides become a part of the food chain.
This is what happened in the Malwa region, the cotton belt of Punjab, which comprises 11 districts, including Bathinda, Faridkot, Moga, Mansa and Sangrur.
The excessive use of chemicals has repeatedly been blamed for an increasing number of cancer cases in the region and even destroying the food chain which has resulted in high rate of birth abnormalities among children and low fertility among young couples.
Aamir Khan in the eighth episode of ‘Satyamev Jayate’ highlighted the bad effects of chemical farming and showed the plight of farmers in the Malwa region.
The show highlighted that there are about 67 types of pesticides which are banned all over the world, but are still used by our farmers. Consumers end up consuming four to five times the permissible limit of pesticides.
When I visited Punjab in January this year to report about the cancer train, I found that despite the high rate of cancer patients, the government had no policy to promote organic farming and no facility for the poor farmer to get treated. However, experts believe that opening a hospital is not the solution and the government should pass legislation against the use of pesticides.
In its election manifesto, Shiromani Akali Dal promised to boost organic farming. In April 2012, the Punjab government banned the manufacture, import and use of pesticides which were injurious to health and restricted the use of some dangerous pesticides. This happened only after the National Human Right Commission (NHRC) took suo motu cognisance of media reports alleging that the disease of cancer among farmers in the Malwa region is caused by excessive use of pesticides on crops.
The government also said that it will train farmers on judicious use of pesticides and it has taken steps for providing cheap treatment for cancer. An amount of up to Rs 1.5 lakh is made available for treatment to every cancer patient.
Not just Punjab, many other states are facing a similar situation. It may not be possible for all states to switch to organic farming immediately but the state governments must start taking steps to save lives of farmers.
Organic farming and alternate ways of killing insects is one such way. Organic farming gives quality produce that does not cause any health hazard and the quantity of the yield is also high. Some states have started adopting the method: like Sikkim, which has banned all pesticides and is promoting organic farming and aims to become an organic state by 2015. Assam's agriculture department is implementing a project to boost organic farming in the state. Haryana government has also launched a new scheme to develop and promote organic farming in the state.
So it is time to learn from our past mistakes and adopt a method which would not just yield pesticide-free crop but also help in saving lives of farmers.