Cancer belt of Punjab

The number of cancer patients has grown manifold in the recent years in the Malwa area. Local people feel excessive use of pesticides has contaminated the ground water. The pollutants are also found in the vegetables grown in the area, reports S. P. Sharma from Bathinda

Diwan Chand, a cancer patient, and two other women patients wrapped in blankets wait for a train at the Bathinda railway station to go to Bikaner for treatment
Diwan Chand, a cancer patient, and two other women patients wrapped in blankets wait for a train at the Bathinda railway station to go to Bikaner for treatment — Tribune photos by Kulbir Beera

Wrapped in blankets, a number of ailing men and women steadily head towards platform number 2, Bathinda railway station, at 9 pm to catch the train for Bikaner for treatment of cancer. Over the years, this particular train has come to be known as the "cancer train" (marizon ki train).

The scene gets repeated every night for the past few years when it is the time for the Abohar-Bikaner passenger train to reach here and carry them to their destination. Cancer patients and their attendants outnumber other passengers on the platform by the time the train arrives.

This particular train has virtually become the hope for the cancer patients of the cotton growing Malwa belt consisting of the districts of Bathinda, Mukatsar, Mansa, Ferozepore, Moga, Barnala, Faridkot and Sangrur as it carries them to the place of their treatment. The fare is affordable for the patients who belong to small and marginal farmers’ category. Those who are in a position to pay a little more fare opt to catch the Jammu Mail or the other two Abohar-Barmer trains.

A debt-ridden Soma Rani, cancer patient of Jajjal village, whose husband died due to the disease, narrates her woes
A debt-ridden Soma Rani, cancer patient of Jajjal village, whose husband died due to the disease, narrates her woes

Most of these patients were receiving treatment in the Rajasthan Government-owned cancer hospital of the medical college at Bikaner. The increasing incidence of cancer in the cotton growing Malwa belt has created fear among residents of the area. Many cases of more than one member of a family suffering from cancer have come to light.

Thirtyfive-year-old Sarbjeet Kaur, a resident of Badiala, suffering from breast cancer, has made several trips to Bikaner during the past one year for treatment. Her husband, Ansa Singh, accompanying her, said that initially she was under treatment in a private clinic at Faridkot where he spent more than Rs15,000. However, the doctor later asked him to take his wife to Bikaner for treatment of cancer.

Most of the Bikaner-bound patients said that the treatment there was affordable and hospitalisation was cheap as compared to Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Delhi. Moreover, the attendants find boarding and lodging within their reach in a number of dharamshalas and serais in Bikaner.

Dewan Chand (62), who had come from Mukatsar to catch the train, said that he was undergoing cancer treatment for the past two years for which he has so far spent not less than Rs 1 lakh. He travels to Bikaner every month for follow-up treatment after a surgery. He had no one to accompany him as his two sons were fed up of making frequent trips with him to Bikaner.

Mukhtiar Kaur (65), a resident of Mansa, wrapped in a blanket lay on the platform waiting for the train that was late by about 30 minutes. She was undergoing treatment for the past one-and-a-half- years.

Balbir Kaur (58), a resident of Sangrur, also had the same woeful experience to narrate. Her relative, Om Parkash, said that a sum of Rs.60,000 has so far been spent on treatment.

Sawan Singh (60), whose cancer was recently detected, had come from Mukatsar to board the Bikaner train for the first time with his brother Baldev Singh.

The common grouse of these poor patients was that the Punjab Government continues to ignore them without providing financial relief. Many of them had mortgaged their small land holdings to raise money for the expensive treatment.

The number of cancer patients has steeply multiplied during the past couple of years in the Malwa belt and the common people attribute it to excessive use of pesticides that has contaminated the underground water that they consume. The cotton belt has now come to be known as the cancer belt of Punjab.

Traces of DDT and Benzene Hexachloride (BHC) were found in the canal-based drinking water supply some time ago when the Pollution Control Board conducted test of water samples.

Successive governments in the state promised to set up a cancer hospital near here but nothing has been done so far. The present SAD-BJP Government has now reportedly decided to grant permission to a private group for opening a cancer hospital here. It is to be seen whether the private hospital would be within the reach of the common patients.

The worst affected villages of the Talwandi Sabo block in the Bathinda district were Giana, Jajjal, Malkana and Laleana where the fear of cancer looms large among the residents. As many as 887 applications of cancer patients for financial relief were received in the office of the Deputy Commissioner during the past few months. Most of these were referred to the health authorities for their report or forwarded to the Chief Minister. Deputy Commissioner Rahul Tiwari said that 177 applications were pending disposal in the concerned section.

During a visit to Jajjal, I faced angry residents who blamed the media for attaching the stigma of cancer to the village. Darshan Singh said that "our" relatives have stopped visiting us out of fear of contracting cancer and in case someone gathers the courage to come to us, he refuses to accept the hospitality of sipping a cup of tea.

Hardev Singh said that people elsewhere were reluctant to accept matrimonial proposals of the boys and girls belonging to the village that hit headlines because of widespread cancer.

He said that residents of the four villages hesitate to drink water from the local sources and they prefer to buy drinking water from tanker owners who bring it from the nearby Haryana.

Soma Rani (55) was in tears as she narrated about the death of her husband, Jeet Singh, because of cancer six months ago. She herself was suffering from cancer but was now feeling better after treatment at Bikaner. She said that they got cash relief of Rs.12,000 from the government but had to raise about Rs 80,000 for treatment by mortgaging their agricultural land.

She said it was now uncertain whether she would be in a position to repay the debt and get released the land as her three sons have deserted her.

There were sad tales of cancer deaths in the village. A group of elderly persons sitting in the dera in the heart of the village had lost their near and dear ones during the past some time. Dev Singh said that his three younger brothers, Balbir Singh, Chottu Singh and Zilawar Singh died due to cancer.

Baldev Singh said that he lost his brother Amarjeet Singh who was suffering from the dreaded disease. Master Bhola and his three other family members died due to cancer, a village elder said.

It is a common belief that cancer struck the Malwa region soon after cotton cultivation was introduced here. This resulted in reckless spraying of pesticides to save the cotton crop. The underground water has now got contaminated to an alarming level.

The state government from time to time appointed different committees to study prevalence of cancer in these areas but no concrete results have so far come. A study of cancer cases in the Talwandi Sabo block was conducted some time ago by the Department of Community Medicine of the PGI. The study revealed that there were 107 confirmed cancer patients at Talwandi Sabo at that time, out of which 27 were male and 80 were females. There were 71 confirmed cases of cancer in the Chamkur Sahib block, out of which 25 were male and 46 were females.

Insecticides and pesticides like aldrin, heptachlor and endosulfan were detected from blood samples in Talwandi Sabo. Presence of such harmful pesticides was also found in the vegetables grown in the area.