By Dhruvi Mahajan / World News Report Bureau
The Green Revolution in Punjab was one of the biggest news in the 1960s and ’70s. It was the brainchild of a network of politicians, scientists and philanthropists in the U.S. and other nations who were convinced that if farmers in developing countries like India switched from traditional methods to the American way of farming — with pesticides, fertilizers and high-yield seeds — they could fight hunger and prevent the region from going communist
The Green Revolution helped India transform itself from a nation that chronically begged for food aid to one that often exports grains. But at what cost?
Jarnail Singh, a farmer from village Jajjal in Punjab raised doubts whether the Green Revolution —in the 1960s and ’70s to introduce American farming methods like use of pesticides, fertilizers and high-yield seeds was damaging public health. The first clue Singh noticed was that peacocks — India’s national bird — disappeared from the fields. Seven people in his family suffered cancer — three of them died. Many others in Jajjal and surrounding villages were affected by cancer. Some farmers spray their crops a dozen times or more a season instead of one or two times as the pesticide labels instruct. Many of them do not wearing any protective clothing while doing so. Singh started speaking about the issue, first at a meeting in the village square, and then at environmental conferences till the researchers at Punjab’s Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research decided to investigate his fears.
After interviewing thousands of families in farming villages and reviewing their medical records the study observed that Singh’s hunch was right: There was a significantly higher rate of cancer in villages where pesticide use was heavy
Farm worker spraying pesticide in a mustard field in Ludhiana. Tribune photo: Himanshu Mahajan
The only possible explanation was that the farmers were overusing pesticides and not handling the toxic chemicals safely. Although pesticide containers have warning labels, many farmers in countries like India cannot read well. Government agents do hold workshops to teach farmers how to use chemicals safely, but many times these lessons fail to make an impact. Many farmers were not careful while spraying pesticides which got into their hair, body and eyes. This really meant that the government opened the doors for the Green Revolution without the safeguards to protect the population.
Researchers at School of Public Health in Punjab conducted a study to ascertain the correlation between pesticide use and cancer in the Punjab farming community. Based on data collected from 1993 to 2003, this study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It found a statistically significant increase in cancer rates in high-pesticide areas. Though industrial pollution, tobacco and other factors could also cause the elevated cancer rates the researchers warned that a lack of detailed, long-term records of cancer incidence could make it difficult to arrive at conclusive evidence.
Another study, on Children, Youth and Environments, found that children living in Indian villages that had high pesticide use performed poorly in memory and coordination tests than children in villages that used less pesticides. The study was modeled on a similar study in Mexico on the adverse effects of farm chemicals.
Every night at about 9:30, Train No. 339 pulls into the shabby station in the northern Indian farm town of Bathinda, in Punjab state. The local people call it the “cancer train.” It routinely carries at least 60 cancer patients who make the overnight journey with their families to Bikaner for treatment at the government cancer center.
As the cancer train comes to a stop in Bikaner’s station, at 6 a.m. the sleepy passengers get down board the motorized rickshaws to reach the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Institute. The wait in queue to get appointments the treatment before heading right back to the station for the eight-hour ride home — on the cancer train.
Cancer, once thought of as an urban disease, is increasingly afflicting farm villages. The number of cancer patients in this farm region is increasing significantly.
Research by one of the most respected medical institutes in India recently found that farming villages using large amounts of pesticides have significantly higher rates of cancer than villages that use less chemicals.
Though admit that their findings do not prove that pesticides are causing cancer, the passengers crowding the cancer train are part of a medical mystery that could have repercussions around the world: Are the modern farming methods brought by the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s making people sick?
16-year-old son, Jassa Singh has blood cancer. Another man says bone cancer has attacked his hip. Yet another man going to Bikaner for treatment throat cancer pushes a button in a device inserted in his throat that to make a sound. “It’s difficult to talk,” he says.
They are all from farm families. “The production is good, but everyone is getting ill. Their health is deteriorating he says.