The crowd waiting to board train no 339 from Bathinda Railway Junction shares more than the overnight journey to Bikaner (Rajasthan), its passengers are bound together by the misery of cancer and the hope of getting cured. “I see close to a hundred people boarding the train every night…What else can be done, there is no hospital for nearly 150 km and every street has patients,” says Vicky Kumar who runs a tea stall at the station. “It’s like a curse on the region, not a personal plight,” he added.
A family of five, from village Gehri Bhagi, 10 km from here, wait at the station to take their 17-year-old son to Bikaner. “We don’t know why he got cancer in the food pipe, he takes no tobacco, no alcohol. But there have been over 15 cases in the last year in our village,” his mother breaks down while speaking about her son’s illness.
Home to a million people, Bathinda boasts a thermal power plant, two coal power plants, a fertilizer plant, and a large oil refinery, and countless cancer patients. The latest data from the health department puts the number of patients in Malwa region at 120-125 per lakh against 71, which is the national average. The department states that there is a jump of 80 per cent in the number of cases from the region in 2010 compared to 2009.
“There have been over 90 deaths in the last 15 years in my village. There is a cancer patient in every house, every family; but no medical facility. Six years ago, they started making a cancer hospital, but that is a private hospital, they charge Rs. 500 just to enter the gate, the ticket to Bikaner is Rs. 34,” said Daljeet Singh (52) of village Jajjal, 30 km from here. The nearest medical facility is at Ludhiana (164 km) or Chandigarh (210 km), which has made Bikaner the medical centre for Malwa’s cancer patients. A super-specialty cancer and cardiac care hospital being set up here by the Max Healthcare Institute Limited under public-private-partnership (PPP) has failed to meet its deadline, April 2011. The Punjab government has given 4.8 acres of land of the local civil hospital to the Max Healthcare at an annual rent of Re. one for 50 years. However, details of treatment for poor cancer patients are not finalised yet. Only 50 beds had been kept for cancer patients in the proposed hospital, and Max Healthcare would give a part of its earning to the Punjab government to fund the treatment of poor cancer patients.
A 2007 epidemiological study, known as the PPCB-PGIMER Report, found that Bathinda surface waters are contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium and mercury. The waste water generated from industry “is drained mostly partially or untreated in the local drains, which had led to the pollution of these drains.” Pesticides such as heptachlor, ethion and chlorpyrifos were also higher in samples of drinking water, vegetables and blood in the cotton belt of Punjab. The study also found DNA mutations in 65 per cent of the blood samples, taken from over 5,000 randomly selected people. Despite the high positive correlation between cancer cases and modern farming methods and industrialisation, government-funded institutions report indecisive conclusions. “The research does not prove that pesticides were the culprit…it is important to remember something about health studies in general: They are difficult to carry out…it would take many more years to demonstrate whether pesticides actually triggered the elevated cancer rates they found in some farming areas. Farmers have improved their standard of living, they have smoked more tobacco and changed to unhealthy diets. Or a combination of all those factors, including pesticides, might have driven cancer rates higher,” one study states.
“Officials will deny the link to industry and green revolution; but farmers are encouraged to use excessive pesticides instead of farming organically. Crops that are not conducive to the soil and water are being produced by farmers who wear no protective layer while spraying toxic chemicals. Villagers use empty containers of pesticides for storing of most of the food items, still we treat the rise in cases of cancer as a medical mystery,” asked Umendra Dutta of Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM). “Not just cancer, the mindless toxic farming and industrial pollution has led to high rates of spontaneous abortions, cancer, reproductive aliments, genetic deformities, anaemia, diarrhoea, vomiting, fluorosis and a host of skin ailments including rashes and boils,” he added.
“Some people came and took our blood samples, vegetables and milk samples; but no one told us what is wrong. Poor farmers have to go through treatment that they can barely afford, young couples are migrating so that their children are not affected,” said a 37-year-old woman, in Gayana, 15 km from here, whose son and daughter-in-law moved to Hoshiarpur after she lost her husband to throat cancer and her nephew to stomach cancer .