Sunday, July 8, 2007

Sorrow of Jajjal
The tale of a village in distress

By Umendra Dutt

Manish is the future of his poor parents, but at the age of two he cannot move, not even toddle. He is too small to understand why he is like this. Manish suffers from cancer since his birth. His father Tarsem is a daily wager. Manish lives with an abnormally enlarged head, showing that he has other serious ailments as well. His father has taken a loan of Rs 25,000. Tarsem and his wife are both labourers; and they work in the nearby town of Rama Mandi. This dalit couple has been spending hard earned money to save their only child. The poor child cannot play with his toys, and his parents are not able to bear the pain. Tarsem knows that his child would not live long, yet he wants to give him better treatment. But he has no means to afford the same. They are a landless family, and no one would give him loan beyond a limit. Malwa is a cursed land. There are many more Tarsems’ and Manishs’ in Malwa.

Cancer is a frightening condition, especially if you are born a poor farmer or labourer, in a village that is caught in a vicious circle of toxicity. It neither spares the old nor the new born, man, woman nor child. Kartar Kaur is a 90 year old mother, who has seen all the changes in their land in the last century. Today, she lives with little hope. She has lost her three sons, one by one to cancer. Choota Singh was only 45 years when he died in 2002. Then Balbir Singh died in 2003 at the age of 60. Jalore Singh died in 2005 at the age of 45. The family had a debt of Rs Nine lakhs, borrowed for treatment, and after losing the siblings, the family still has Rs six lakhs to pay off. Meanwhile, the family had to sell all their moveable things and even their tractor. In spite of this being a disaster, they have not got anything as aid or relief from the Government. Today Kartar Kaur is a living symbol of a bygone prosperity, devoured by time and a wrong farming policy. She lives with her grand sons and three widowed daughters-in-law. Kartar Kaurs’ and orphaned children are not uncommon in agrarian Punjab. Environmental toxicity is devastating farmer families in the villages of Punjab, and ironically, these are yet to be recognised as disasters. Who is going to take responsibility for this? Who is going to bring relief to these villages? For five years now, we have been asking these questions.

In 2002, Jajjal village situated in cotton growing belt of Malwa shot to in fame, and became a headache for the administration in the State. The media brought out the story of a retired government teacher - Jarnail Singh whose study of his village revealed the abnormally high incidences of cancer deaths in Jajjal and some adjoining villages. The village had witnessed about 20 cancer deaths and several new cancer cases were being reported. Jajjal is a small village with 500 odd households and a population of about 3500. Following this expose, several experts and study teams from across the country has visited the village in the last five years. Surveys were done; stories appeared in news papers or got aired in news channels. But the suffering villagers got nothing. Distrustfully, the villagers when asked about this, say – “we got nothing, except visiting cards of media persons, government officials and doctors!” “We have become infamous for cancer, it is becoming almost a stigma for most of us”, says a villager Jaswinder Singh.

Jajjal village is collapsing. The soaring debts, polluted waters, dwindling social structures, grave diseases like cancer, male and female reproductive problems, neurological ailments etc have shattered the families in this village. Now, huge expenditure on the treatments is driving the final nail into their lives. Suicides have become common. Most of the villagers do not want to talk about cancer. Even cancer patients keep a silence about their disease. The code word is “Bikaner”. “Going to Bikaner” is self explanatory to the villagers. Their only respite for medical support is the cancer treatment facilities at Bikaner. But most people, who doubt they have cancer, fear to go for a medical check up. The huge cost of treatment and the worried faces of their family members deter many from even going for an early diagnosis of the disease.

The Punjab government has made several declarations about providing medical help for the cancer patients, but practically very little has been done so far. Many assurances were aired, but till date only three families have got financial relief of Rs 22,500 /- each. This is when the village has at least 55 cancer deaths on record. The conditions of many families are so pathetic and cancer in the family has devastated them, financially and psychologically. A young man laments “We had lost our relatives as well as our prosperity”. According to a rapid survey done by a team from the Kheti Virasat Mission, 48 cancer cases were reported. 36 persons died due to cancer where as 10 others are still battling for their life. Pesticide sale and use has been growing in this region, and the villagers attribute much of their suffering to the exposure to pesticides and contamination of their environment and bodies. Cancer is the most visible way in which this contamination expresses itself. Both the CSE and the Greenpeace studies have shown that environmental loads of pesticides were the highest in this village.

The financial conditions in these cancer-ridden families in Jajjal are also a matter of serious concern. Each family carries a debt of anything between one to three lakh rupees. For many families the situation is worse. And it is spread all over the village – making no difference between rich and poor, land owner and land less labourer. Death menacingly rules the village in Jajjal, knocking one door after another, leaving behind orphans, ruining families, breaking the social system and wringing out the blood from this rural economy.

Cancer has snatched many a smile from the Punjabi faces. One daily wager whose 22 year old wife is suffering from cancer is not willing to tell her the truth, out of fear that she might loose heart. If a family member suffers from the deadly disease others tries to hide this from him.

And for all those who had the courage to undergo the painful and expensive treatment for cancer, their lives are in ruins. Seventy year old Mukhtiyar Singh, who got his cancer affected kidney operated, was forced to sell his tractor and a piece of his land to meet the expenditure for the treatment. And he still owes a debt of Rs two lakhs. Mukhtiyar Singh says “We manage by curtailing our needs, we cook vegetable once a day and take the meals thrice a day with that”. This is the condition of the much acclaimed State number one - Punjab.

Cancer is only one aspect of Jajjal's eclipsed fate.

Jagdev Singh is 14 years old now. He was a healthy boy till the age of 9, but gradually he became handicapped and now he is on wheel chair. He can not speak nor does he do any thing on his own. (We have heard of similar cases in the pesticide contaminated villages of Kasaragod, Kerala). His father Bholla Singh has done his best, but Jagdev continues to live on a wheel chair. Today Jajjal is also facing very severe problem of reproductive health. Premature aging is very common in the village. One can find large number of youth having grey hair. Pain in the joints and spinal problems are making the youth of the village older than their age. The preliminary findings of the rapid survey are quite disturbing. Almost all the households have one or other health problem. According to responses received in the survey, cancer has become too common, but other diseases are also causing suffering to the villagers. Common among them are heart ailments, paralysis, skin problems, asthma and arthritis. These health problems, many related to environmental contamination have become common enough for the villagers to accept them as their fate.

However, in this unfortunate world of poisons and cancers, there are a few apathetic players - the politicians and bureaucrats. Though the Punjab government initiated a study by PGIMER, no action was taken on its findings. No senior level official ever visited the village after the report was brought out. There wasn’t even an effort to start a simple early detection cancer camp in the region. The Punjab Pollution Control Board, after spending more then Rs 15 lakh seems to have buried the report and the health department seems to have totally forgotten to take any remedial measures. Jajjal is still awaiting a full-fledged environmental epidemiological study and house to house surveillance, much necessary even to understand the depth of this crisis. It is as if, a dying village is left to its fate – a choice that our bureaucracy prefers to take over the agony of facing the truth. Amidst all this government apathy and darkness, there are a few rays of hope. Jarnail Singh runs a Vatavaran Chetna Kendra (established by Kheti Virasat Mission) in the village. He has started this with the hope of making Jajjal pesticide free. He successfully does pesticide free natural farming and also motivates other farmers to join this community initiative.

But there is a bigger crime that is being perpetuated by none other than Agriculture Department of the State and the Punjab Agriculture University. Both these agencies have their regional centres at Bathinda, which is only 32 kilometers away. While they have no interest in this catastrophe, and does not seem to be anywhere near owning up responsibility for propagating poison-laden methods of farming in the guise of adopting modern technology, it seems to be busy vending the next generation of toxins – Bt. cotton. The irony is that officials of the department and PAU are prescribing Bt cotton as a remedy to this environmental health crisis !! And many politicians have also joined these “poison-marketing” agencies. The painful reality for us and the farmers of the villages of Punjab is that we are some how responsible for this disaster – because it is we who have given our votes to bring these politicians to power, and we who have paid our hard earned money to maintain these agencies and their officials ( and scientists) in their seats. It’s like the dog bitting the owner who fed it!

Added to all this is the dark side of our agrarian situation – a mounting national disaster – of agriculture debts and farmers' suicides. Jajjal has witnessed about 20 farmer's suicides in last ten years and there are several others who have moved out of agriculture after selling their land. Now they work as land less labourers. Jajjal is not a village that may collapse all of a sudden one day to a catastrophe; it’s a village whimpering itself to death.

But Jajjal needs a new start for life. This article is written to bring to the attention of the new government in Punjab, their most important and immediate task. This village and hundreds of other villages like Jajjal needs a mothers care to nurture it back to life and sustainability. A strategy and action plan for sustainable agriculture, free of chemical inputs and ensuring better and safer production is needed. Villages free of toxicity and cancer, debt and suicide must be the goal for the next five years. We should vow that our villages will no more give birth to Manishs’ and Kartar Kaurs’ would not have to spend their hard earned lives in such misery - Neither in Jajjal nor in Malwa nor in the whole of Punjab. But one question remains - Would the government have the will to do this? Would they have the time?

(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission. Jaitu, Faridkot district based environmental NGO in Punjab. Phone: 9872682161, E-mail:

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