Religion is flawed only because men who preach and practice religion are flawed. In a search to find perfection and correctness, mankind has to grow in a more calculated and sequential path. One of the founding fathers of America, Patrick Henry, wrote during the struggle for independence about the concept of liberty and why a person would risk their own life and comforts to strive for liberty. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” The path of our religion guides us to stand up and be counted, to be willing to pay for liberty with life and to ever make an undying pursuit for equality, respect and the value of freedom for all. The spirit of Vaisakhi illustrates this and was given by our Guru Gobind Singh Ji even before the founding fathers of American independence thought about it; but we as Sikhs have not been able to uphold these ideals, despite having to undergo so many sacrifices and hardships. We are still struggling to attain life and liberty in Punjab from the priestly class, the never-ending hold of the Shiromani Akali Dal and other political parties. People like us who wanted to uphold Sikh principles and the value of life and liberty were left to fend for themselves and have since perished or been crushed under the onslaught of tyranny and indifference from our own brethren. Those who have attained leadership roles have played no role in pursuit of life and liberty.
Today, in this backdrop, I am writing about the moral degredation and lack of will to tackle the ecological disaster unfolding before us in Punjab. The farming sector is shackled by so many pressures to sustain itself that the farmers have no regard for the environment and the fallout of their actions. They are not to be blamed as such and indeed are paying the heaviest price now as our water table is shrinking and overuse of chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides is overpowering our health. Both humans and the surroundings are slowly but steadily sinking. There is pain and helplessness as the pressure to remain viable and afloat is leading farmers to overexert themselves in order to survive economically.
Dil De Parvidhghar,
Ish Mizzah ka,
Dukh Ki Garhi kau be,
Khushi se guzar de
The fallout from environmental impact in Punjab is severe and the suffering to our health so great that we are unable to undergo such pain with any poise. This environmental pressure in Punjab exposes the extreme rural insecurity which contradicts the myth about one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world. These developments have eroded our soil which has turned toxic whilst our water has become unsuitable for drinking and general use, and sadly the state of Punjab which ushered in the Green Revolution of the 1960’s is even today contributing in excess of 50% share to the food basket of India without getting back it’s due share.
The fallout is vast: many talk about farmer suicides where recent State Government figures show 2,890 suicides in two districts in the Malwa belt alone in just the last few years. As I mentioned in my earlier article, village life and the menace of drugs are causing Punjab to tear itself apart. The main degradation is starting at our roots – that is the village, the country side. The drug culture is eroding our rural border districts and is gradually seeping into urban life.
But similarly the effect of chemical overuse-based farming, especially in the cotton belt of South Punjab and the Malwa region is eating away at our childrens health and even the adult population in the form of many medical problems such as cancer. In recent years, thousands of people from this southern belt have died of cancer and closer to hundreds of thousands are infected with the same disease. This is not to mention other diseases like Hepatitis C, liver damage, asthma and more. The five districts of Malwa – Barnala, Faridkot, Mansa, Bathinda and Ferozepur are the worst affected. Measures to enhance productivity and keep alive the green revolution manifest in a dependency on the extensive use of pesticides like Endusulfan, which has increased manifold in the last two decades. The lack of central Government concern and the indifference of the State Government has resulted in a lack of any sort of guidance and we find that farmers overuse chemicals all year round and are using those like Endusulfan even today. This chemical is banned in over a hundred countries and is declared unfit for purpose, but India uses it the most and is the largest manufacturer of it in the world. The easy availability and lower cost of this particular chemical means it is used the most by poorer farmers like those in the Cotton belt. In Kerala, both people and State Government are openly agitating against this chemical’s manufacture and use, but no one is doing the same in Punjab. The Punjab’s power structure does not dare speak out although it is paying a heavy price ecologically and health-wise. Many experts suspect this chemical to be a major factor in the cause of cancer in the Malwa region particularly as it has been sprayed extensively for more than the last two decades. Other alternatives are costly and not easily available.
From Bathinda railway station, train number 339 travels to Bikaner in Rajasthan every night at 9:30pm. It has the unenviable name of ‘the cancer train’. Most of it’s passengers are afflicted with cancer and are travelling to Bikaner hospital for treatment. The cost of treatment there is much cheaper in comparison to the Punjab. This cancer train illustrates the suffering and helplessness of Punjab’s farmers: despite suffering from this deadly disease, their price of sustaining the Green Revolution, they are not even treated well in their own state. State Government funds for healthcare are held up in government loopholes. The basic healthcare facilities in Punjab are not at the level needed to treat these people and other private facilities are far away and very costly.
There is a deafening silence in the corridors of power, even though most of the leadership in Punjab is from this same region. Residing in the comforts of urban settings like Chandigarh they have all too quickly forgotten. Every third and maybe even forth household in certain villages of this belt is infected with cancer. The children who are supposed to attend school do not do so, as in the grip of this disease they have instead to go to Bikaner for treatment or to take care of the household or one of their own who is suffering from this disease. The cost of treatment is more than a bill and rail fare, but precious time as well. Forced by the situation, people mortgage their small land holdings and fall into the trap of debt. No Government arm has been extended to provide an alternative to Endosulfan use and other chemicals to further stop the decay of Punjab’s farmland and water resources.
The Health Minister of Punjab is a woman; the most powerful leader of the most affected belt is also a woman; and more women than men are afflicted with cancer; and still nothing is being done. It seems to me that the land of religion and the Gurus is today decaying from it’s very seams. We need to put our heads together and resolve the pain and sufferings of our struggling villagers and farmers before it is too late. They must not continue to pay for the life and liberty of the rest of the nation with their lives. If we don’t all have liberty, we will surely all face death.