- Free power, excessive use of pesticides, over-exploitation of groundwater and rising Cancer cases have affected the state's well-being. IDEAS to revive farming in Punjab.
- Personal experience of a son on how his father did farming in Maharashtra about 40 years ago.
Have you heard of CANCER TRAIN? The Abohar Jodhpur train was given this name. According to a December 2020 Tribune report, "60 per cent of its passengers were cancer patients who came from all across Punjab. On an average, the train was the lifeline of 100 cancer patients daily." Patients get off at Bikaner to visit Acharya Tulsi Cancer Hospital for treatment.
Have protesting farmers-their funders-NRI's-Singers-State government (S.G.) spoken about the cancer problem and its link to farming practices.
Journalist turned champion of Organic Farming, now Director of Punjab based Kheti Virasat Mission Umendra Dutt, "uncovered a darker dimension of the Green Revolution – from the rise in cancer cases in the region attributed to indiscriminate use of agrochemicals, rising costs of farming, destruction of soil cover, overexploitation of groundwater to a food chain and ecosystem contaminated by toxins."
Dutt adds that Punjab owned 1.5 per cent of the agricultural land in India, yet it used 18 per cent chemicals on its farms.
Due to excessive drawing, groundwater is found deeper and deeper. This affects water quality, crops and their yields often. Since power is free, going deeper for groundwater does not cost farmers as much. Punjab tops in overexploitation of groundwater.
According to a 2017 article in Tribune by Agricultural scientist SS Johl and veteran I M Singh, "Environmental damage is incalculable as rice crop is the major contributor to pollution of aquifers and damage to the ecosystem."
Pesticides are mainly used by farmers who grow rice and cotton. Farmers mainly grow products that are sold at MSP (Minimum Support Price). Free power to farmers, starting 1997-98, has encouraged farmers to grow rice and discouraged crop diversification.
According to a December 2019 report in Tribune, "as many as 152 patients were detected with cancer in Punjab's Fazilka district this year. Sources say contaminated drinking water, excessive use of fertilisers and insecticides is said to be the cause."
According to a DownToEarth.org report of 2015, "Faced with increasing scientific evidence of pesticides-induced health disorders, the Punjab government has decided to begin a cancer registry programme. Cotton farmers were the worst affected because the maximum amount of pesticide is sprayed in cotton fields. "Banned pesticides are also in use,' Satbir Kaur said". The report states, "The survey found that pesticides seeped into the groundwater, which the villagers consumed through hand pumps and canals." Read Pesticide residue found in the blood of Punjab farmers.
M.P. is a top wheat producer like Punjab. Why do its people not face similar health problems as Punjab does?
The author spoke to a farmer from Bhopal who said that they used very little pesticide. Actually, wheat needs Urea/DAP, a little pesticide. No wonder makers of Aashirwad Atta advertise it is made from Sharbati (M.P.) wheat. Perhaps consumers know farmers of M.P. use less pesticide, so one reason why M.P. wheat is preferred.
The cause of Punjab problems is the growing of rice/cotton, over-use of pesticides, intensive farming, over-exploitation of groundwater and a damaged ecosystem. These are unique to Punjab, or else also top rice producers West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh would have similar problems.
All this affects soil quality adversely. This adds contamination of groundwater due to excessive use of pesticides and lack of biodiversity. Thus, agriculture and public health are both adversely affected.
Note, "The Malwa region of Punjab, a cotton-growing belt, has the highest incidence of cancer in India, admitted Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission, while releasing the plan for states for 2012-13.
It is difficult to establish a direct relationship between the use of pesticides and cancer. To be fair, is the problem of cancer only in Punjab?
Tata Memorial Hospital expert Dr Rajesh Dikshit said in 2017, "A high dose of pesticides and fertilisers leads to lymphoma cancer (that affects the immune system) and that of uranium causes leukaemia or brain tumour. There is nothing abnormal about the number and kinds of cancer prevalent in Punjab."
Given the above, it might be useful to know how farming was earlier done in, say, Maharashtra.
Fifty-two-year-old Dr Atul speaks about farming practices followed by his father. He spent the first 20 years in their village and continues to manage the farm today.
Earlier, agriculture and livestock farming were intertwined. The remnants from farms were used to feed cattle, and cow dung/household waste was used as fertilisers. Thus, a farmer's income from both ensured that the family had enough to eat.
They never purchased seeds but reserved last year seeds in muddy pots for next year's cultivations. The use of natural products meant lower production costs, better soil fertility, amongst others.
Earlier agricultural land was divided into two parts. Half was used for production for a year. The other was left uncultivated and rejuvenated through natural means, for e.g., by adding cow dung.
Since needs were less and animal products available, the surplus was distributed to the more needy sections of society.
Every farmer had cattle meaning there was an adequate supply of manure in the form of cow dung. With dwindling, cattle stocks supply of cow dung has fallen drastically.
However, with time and an increase in population, things changed.
Farmers started using tractors, chemical-based fertilisers and pesticides: this increased output and production cost but reduced soil fertility. Today land is over-used, affecting its fertility adversely. From being self-sufficient, the farmer has to now depend on traders for the supply of seeds and fertilisers.
The problem is serious. Dutt wrote in 2010 about 'Villages up for sale'. It was a first-of-its-kind protest in India at that time. In March 2002, Harkishanpura of Bathinda district put itself up for sale."
According to this 2015 TOI report, Sunita Narain of CSE said, "Maximum residue limits (MRLs) for pesticides are reviewed periodically globally to incorporate changes in dietary pattern and agricultural practices but in India MRL for registered pesticides are incomplete and not done periodically." Can the government tell when the last update was done?
Free Power, Pesticides, MSP have affected Punjab's well-being. Suggestions to revive farming-
1. S.G. (State government) must review and make the public impact of pesticides used. Regulate use and bans are counterproductive. Enlighten farmers about the downside of excessive use.
2. S.G. should assess farmers' exposure to chemicals. Will farmers co-operate knowing that pesticides/fertilisers are necessary for production?
3. S.G. to stop free power to farmers. Small farmers are to be subsidised through DBT. This might reduce rice production. Encourage crop diversity means growing millets and vegetables/fruits.
4. Researcher Devendra Sharma says that Punjab needs to move away from the intensive cropping system followed since the Green Revolution.
If Sharma's advice is followed, it will reduce farmer income/purchase of markers of affluence in an assertion of class identity.
5. S.G. should promote Micro-irrigation techniques (drip and sprinkler irrigation).
Are farmers to blame for over-exploitation of land or governments for continuing MSP?
6. Open more cancer hospitals for, e.g. Homi Bhabha Cancer Hospital, Sangrur was set up with aid from the S.G. NRIs/India Inc/Actors can co-fund. An AIMS is being set up, Bathinda.
7. S.G. must undertake a district-wide survey to ascertain areas where underground water is unfit for human consumption and consumable supply water.
8. S.G. to undertake water recharging by constructing check dams/village ponds and reviving river systems.
9. Under the Right to Food Act, grains given at subsidised rates are wheat and rice. The Centre should amend the act to include millets. It will reduce the demand for grains.
10. Centre must start an advertising campaign that eating millets than wheat/rice is better for the environment, health (for e.g. finger millet or Ragi is a powerhouse of calcium. Pearl millet or Bajra has high iron, Foxtail millet or Thinai in Tamil is high on protein)and requires less water to produce.
11. Centre must start Production Linked Incentive scheme for Protein crops (pulses) and Oilseeds, which are otherwise imported, Atmanirbhar Bharat.
12. S.G. and Centre should promote Natural Farming. Simply put, it is chemical-free agriculture. It has the potential to reduce fertiliser subsidies.
13. Punjab needs a Non-Jaat chief minister, perhaps an SC, who can think beyond vote-bank farmer politics.
Farmer's real wealth is water and soil so work towards restoring that. Stop being obsessed with harvest volumes and MSP. Will the state government and Punjab farmers assume responsibility for their future or transfer the buck to the Centre. If they do not accept change, the next generation might find Punjab becoming a desert with more sick people.