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The Forgotten Issue Of Environmental Crisis In Punjab Elections

By Umendra Dutt

12 February, 2007

It is election time in Punjab. Parties are promising moon to the voters. The politicians are even ready to bring down the heaven to Punjab. Every body has started talking about development. The word Development has become a major issue. Election manifestos are painting a rosy picture of a Developed Punjab. But, none of them is kind enough to tell what will be cost of this development? And who has to bear the cost? Who will be sacrificed for this? More over how sustainable will be this development? This so-called development has already taken a heavy toll. Severe ecological and environmental health crises are quite visible in Punjab now. This environmental crisis has eclipsed the very sustainability, livelihood and the prosperity of the Punjab. But, unfortunately no political party has taken serious note of this. None of the party manifesto has touched the environmental crisis in its real sense. Rather they are promising new gifts at the cost of ecological balance and long term sustainability of environment, agriculture and economy.

Punjab agriculture is under severe debt pressure. The debt burden on the farmers of Punjab is about Rs 22,000 crores. According to a study the average farm debt per hectare in Punjab is Rs 56442, where as this average in cotton belt of south-western is as high as Rs 69518. NSSO survey done in 2003 reports per farmer household debt of Rs 41576, were as a PAU study in same year reports per farmer household debt of Rs 92394. This indicates that there is some thing seriously wrong with agriculture model of Punjab. The capital intensity of Punjab farms is increasing on very fast pace. In 1982-83 it is Rs 7572 per hectare, which goes as high as Rs 34089 per hectare in 1994-95. This capital intensity is further gone up and according to an estimate it is near Rs 45000 per hectare now. Farm economist also estimates that farm machinery of worth Rs 10,000 crores was standing in farms of Punjab at present. There is a strong view among the farm economists that this investment is need of present capital intensive model. But high capital intensity does not generate employment accordingly. There has been amazing decline in number of marginal and small land holdings in Punjab. According to a PAU study in 1991-92 there were 2.95 lakh marginal and 2.03 lakh small operational holdings, but in 2000-01 these land declined to 1.23 lakh marginal and 1.73 lakh small land holdings. About 1.20 lakh farming families has moved out of agriculture between year 1990 and 2000. Where these farmers have gone? What has happened to them and their families? More over farmer's suicide is another indicator of instability and unsustainability of agriculture in Punjab. According to a participatory survey by BKU (Ekta- Ugrahan) more then 13,000 farmers have committed suicide in Punjab. Government may differ from this figure, but it is a harsh truth that farmer's suicides are a blot on so-called agricultural prosperity of Punjab.

The five year electoral system has made our politicians short sighted. They do not want to address the problems beyond this. Sustainability is not an issue for them at all. Making promises by ignoring ecological balance is a kind of bribe to get votes. Politicians are mere pampering the voters of today at the cost of lives of tomorrow. They may get power to govern, but Punjab will lose its natural resources ultimately, if these promises fulfilled unchecked. This trend needs to be questioned strongly.

It is the high time to take up the issue of environmental health crisis, depleting water resources, prevalence of high pesticide residues and subsequently the ecological and agricultural sustainability of Punjab. Elections are providing an opportunity for this. Those who want to save Punjab from an offing environmental and agricultural chaos should ask political parties to spell out their agenda for the same.

Punjab is fast exhausting its ground water aquifers. But politicians are promising more tube wells without owning any social and environmental responsibility. In 1970-71 there were only 1.92 lakh tube wells in Punjab, in 80-81 there were 6 lakh tube wells, and in 90-91 number went up to 8 lakh, 2000-01 again number rises upto 10 lakh and now there are about 14 lakh tube wells. In last four decades ground water exploitation has touched new heights in Punjab as area under irrigation through tube wells has gone up to as high as 78% and even more in 2000-01 from 37% in 1960-61. Cropping intensity has also increased from 126% to 185 % during this period. This means more and more dependency on ground water.

From last two decades water security of Punjab is under severe threat. But none of government had taken any concrete step to save Punjab from water disaster. There was no holistic plan to tackle the emerging water crisis. Neither any government has taken any initiative to evolve a perspective, vision and plan for environmental and agriculture sustainability. Despite all odds area under rice cultivation has increased from just 6% to 60% in last forty years. This is not only unsustainable agricultural growth but it is against the very fragile ecological balance also. Thus the results are very disgusting. In 1984 there were 53 blocks declared as dark zones, then in 1995 number of dark zones has increased upto 84 and in 2005 this figure further increased to 108 out of total 138 development blocks. Ground water level falling much faster then assumed. In 1973 only 3% area of Punjab has water table below 10 meters, it went up to 14.9% in 1989, 20% in 1992, and 28% in 1997, 53% in 2000, 76% in 2002 and in 2004 the situation goes beyond expectations when 90% area of Punjab is drawing water from the depth of more then 10 meters. More over 30% area of Punjab has depth of 20 meters or even more. This has also created the acute problem of drinking water in villages. In 1980 there are 3712 villages identified as drinking water problem villages, this figure went up to 6287 in 1990, and then in year 2000 the number goes as high as 8518 and as of now 11849 villages or habitations out of total 12423 in Punjab are facing drinking water problems.

Now our worthy politicians are luring farmers by promising more tube wells. With new euphoria for constructing Malls, SEZs and mega construction projects, the ground water will further exploited without any check. Any government can sanction tube wells, it can provide free power for the same, or it can install any machinery for water purification. But question is from where the water will come? Any government can allow more and more exploration of ground water, which means more and more fast depletion of aquifers. But who will take responsibility to replenish and re-charge these aquifers?

How can we expect from any government to act on water crisis if there is no water policy as such and no action plan to mitigate water crisis. Punjab has no state water policy as of now. In 2004 a draft water policy was circulated with in governmental circles only and it is still not more than a draft. This draft policy is mere spoiled carbon copy of National Water Policy -2002. Interestingly, this water policy is already under fire for being instrument to paving way for privatization and corporatization of water resources. More over this policy is meant to serve corporate interests rather then serving farmers and common people. Making water a sellable commodity has to have very serious repercussions. Several civil society groups are already demanding redrafting of National Water Policy 2002. Thus a state water policy draft copied from NWP can not be serve purpose at all.

Will the claimants of power in Punjab have any vision and perspective plan? Neither there had been a single minute of discussion in Punjab assembly on state water policy, nor does any political leader has raised the issue in or out side the house. It is important to know as to how many MLAs have got the copy of this draft water policy. Even those who are claming to be savior of Punjab water have not seen this document. This draft policy was all most kept secret and there was no public dialogue in any form on this has taken place.

The water resources are not the property of our generation only. They belong to our future generations too. The water security of Punjab's coming generations is already jeopardized. Punjab needs sustainability of water resources. Does any political party of Punjab dare to take up this issue?

Another environmental issue need to be thoroughly discussed during and after elections, is the severe health crisis caused by environmental degradation and toxicity. Horrible environmental health crises have engulfed the vast area of the state, particularly the Malwa region, as cancer, reproductive health problems, early ageing and skeletal fluorosis has become very common. But most infamous disease is Cancer, which has taken lives of thousands of people. People had borrowed money for cancer treatment; they forced to sell their land, ornaments and tractors to save lives of their family members. But, the deadly cancer wins. Neither the lives were saved nor do they remain able to repay debt. It is a grim sorrow saga of whole of the Malwa and despite all tall claims and promises there is no respite for cancer sufferers and their family members.

Now on the eve of elections both Akali Dal (Badal) and Congress (I) promised to open cancer hospital in Malwa region, but is it the real solution to the crisis? Cancer is mere one symptom of environmental degradation and presence of toxic substances in our environment and food chain. Opening up of a cancer hospital will serve though important but very limited purpose. It will treat the cancer patients, but certainly it will not undo the toxicity present in our eco-system. More over it will not check the high prevalence rate of cancer in all ages and sexes. We have to prevent cancer as prevention is always better than cure. Therefore we have to make environment free from toxicants, pesticides and other contaminators.

There are few more aspects of environmental health crisis in Punjab. The reproductive health is in very serious trouble. Punjab has one of the highest numbers of Neural Tube Defect NTD babies, then growing infertility, deformities, congenital abnormalities, high birth rate of brainless children (80% among this are females), deteriorating semen quality, DNA and chromosomal damage, weakening of bones and joints due to water with high TDS causing serious spinal problems even in children and more worrisome is large scale female foetal loss.

Punjab has very high pesticide spry density. It consumes near 18% pesticides of whole of India on just 2.5% agricultural area of country. The entire food chain of Punjab contains residue of several pesticides. The data from All India Coordinated Research Project on Pesticidal Residue clearly indicates presence of DDT, HCH and BHC in cereals, milk, butter, fruits, vegetables and even infant formula. The edibles have residues of other pesticides like Phosphamidon, Quinalphos, Chlorpyriphos, Endosulfan, Malathion, Parathion, Monocrotophos and lindane. The presence of pesticides in blood as detected by Centre for Science and Environment also raises serious questions. CSE report states the presence of cocktail of 6 to 13 pesticides in blood samples. CSE also find organo-chlorine and residues of the newer and so-called 'non-persistent' pesticides – organophosphates in blood .This is a serious threat to the health of people of Punjab. This finding is disturbing because organophosphates are now getting added in body to the earlier contamination of organochlorines. These organophosphates have far higher toxicity than the older organochlorines.

But our politicians have no time to discuss these issues. Even the two committees setup after CSE report came out were miserably failed to do any thing. The so-called high power committee headed by the Chief Minister did not held a single meeting. But, the opposition does not make this an issue. Then comes recommendations made by expert committee setup after PGIMER submitted its report on high prevalence of cancer cases in Talwandi Sabo block. These recommendations are not brought out in public. The apathy is not limited upto here. Punjab Pollution Control Board which had spent approximately Rs 15 lacs on this study has dumped the report. It is not published properly, only photocopies were distributed in a limited circle. Even the villagers of Talwandi Sabo block till date does not know what was written in that report. Because it was not translated in Punjabi, thus not circulated and neither its synopsis was distributed. But, again the opposition parties were also failed to take up this issue. Akali Dal - BJP or any other opposition party has not taken any clear stance on the crisis and neither any of them has questioned the role of Punjab government. No body knows how many politicians had gone through the PGIMER- PPCB report. It is also worth mentioning that Mr Manpreet Badal is committed to this issue in his personal capacity and he has also hosted a People's dialogue on Environmental Health Crisis organised by Environmental Health Action Group of Kheti Virasat Mission at Badal village in August 2005. But as main opposition and a party Akali Dal seems to be lesser concerned because it's other MLAs from Malwa region does not shown any interest in the entire issue. Congress is seems to be satisfied with governmental action only and as the party it remains mum. Where as, BJP is no where in the scene at all.

The pathetic situation of water resources and environmental health concerns ought to be raised in the elections. It is the issue of future generations of Punjab. The performance of politicians and political parties in Punjab should be evaluated on their concerns, commitment and actions for tackling the ecological crisis. Parties must bring out with their action plan to mitigate water and environmental health crisis. The voters should ask for the same.

After all, would be rulers should know the importance of understanding, vision and commitment for the issues of livelihood and ecological sustainability, water security and environmental health safety. Let us make the environment a voter's agenda.

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

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