Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Saving money, spending health

Ever lost someone dear to cancer? Heard of young friends and family members battling a disease at great personal and financial cost?

Oh, what we’d not do to prevent cancer, right? We debate radiation from phones. The government makes us watch gruesome videos showing oral and lung cancers in theatres.

Oddly, the state isn’t reminding us of another health risk — toxic pesticides. No warning hoardings for farm workers. No cinema slides about contaminated water. For years, we’ve known about the ‘Cancer belt’ in Punjab. In 2008, the state, well aware of the link between pesticides and cancer, started a cancer registry programme.

A recent door-to-door survey in Punjab has confirmed a higher incidence of cancer compared to the national average. It reports 33,318 cancer deaths over five years. The survey covered over 97 % percent of the population, found 23,874 patients and over 84,000 people with cancer-like symptoms. Greater numbers lay in Malwa, a region of southern Punjab that was reasonably dry, but after the Green Revolution, was irrigated heavily — often using groundwater — and pumped full of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Result?

Unsafe water, not nearly enough for drinking and bathing. Rivers and wells were found contaminated with heavy metals, chemicals or uranium. Carcinogenic residue was found in blood samples. A report from Punjab University in Patiala mentioned a high rate of DNA damage among farmers using pesticides. Those who worked with cotton, paddy and wheat suffered the most damage. A lawyer, Jagmohan Singh Bhatti, has reportedly filed a PIL against the state for not safeguarding the lives of Punjabis.

This isn’t, however, about Punjabis. There are concerns that water and food pollution will lead to more cancers of the bladder, prostrate and kidneys in other states. In Gandhinagar, Gujarat, a survey showed a worrying rise in the number of children diagnosed with cancer. Doctors from the Gujarat Cancer Research Institute were quoted as saying that child patients have nearly doubled. These findings have to be researched and double-checked, but pollution and pesticides were hinted at as possible causes.

In Karnataka, a Lok Adalat bench stated that the use of banned pesticides was leading to cervical and breast cancer among women farm workers. The court asked the department of health and agriculture to conduct a survey and also to affix responsibility – ask pesticide manufacturers to cut back on toxicity levels, reduce the hundreds of crore worth of subsidies for pesticides and fertilisers, encourage organic alternatives.

This isn’t even about farmers. Contamination goes from soil to plant to food and water. This is about all of us who live here. And yet, how great is our resistance to our own well-being!
Kerela and Karnataka are the only states to ban Endosulfan, a pesticide linked to birth defects, brain damage and reproductive toxicity. Yet, a nationwide ban did not follow. The Supreme Court finally imposed a ban in 2011, but now the government is asking the court to reconsider, because existing ‘live stock’ is due to expire, that safe disposal would cost a ‘huge amount’, that other states are willing to be Endosulfan-ned for another few months.

This ‘huge amount’ is reportedly Rs210.82 crore. I doubt the government can build and run a good multi-specialty hospital for that much money. So I’m not going to express my horror at the evil of this bargain. I’m just going to ask — do you think any baby deserves the risk of birth defects, does any farm worker in any state deserve DNA damage, just so Rs210.82 crore might be saved?

First published here

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