Punjab’s crisis in water management, both in terms of quantity and quality, neglected by all political parties

punjab cancer

Drinking water contamination is one of the factors for cancer in Punjab, with at least 90 cancer patients for every 100,000 population, higher than the national average of 80, reveals a survey (January 28,2013) by the Punjab government ( downtoearth.org.in). Geo-genic factors are complicated by anthropogenic causes, including those related to recklessness in Green Revolution. There are a few districts where the figure is above 100. (Note it is of Jan 2013, not the latest, and the situation changed a lot, also across India. However it is useful, indicative, and shows relative place of districts.)  

“Just 60% Punjab groundwater fit for use,” says a Report. Punjab is facing a crisis in water management, both in terms of quantity and quality:

“There is no denying that lack of political will has brought things to such a pass. The situation on the ground is unlikely to improve as long as political parties keep viewing the problem through the prism of electoral gains or losses,” says a report, in   tribuneindia.com, Sep 17, 2021. It says:   

“ A special Punjab Vidhan Sabha committee has reaffirmed that unceasing groundwater depletion is pushing Punjab towards desertification, which could become a reality in a decade and a half. In its report, the committee has recommended agricultural zoning and metering of the groundwater supply for arresting the slide in the water table.. The figures are indeed alarming: the groundwater level is going down by 70 cm in the state annually; the volume of groundwater recharged every year is far less than what is being extracted.”


The 2022 Punjab Legislative Assembly elections will be held in Punjab on 20 February 2022 to elect the 117 members of the 16th Assembly of the Punjab Legislative Assembly. The votes will be counted and the results will be declared on 10 March 2022.

No political party however is bothered about the basic issue of drinking water that decides the health status of the people. They are lost in calculations around vote bank politics of religion and caste. It is the same everywhere as discussed in articles on Uttar Pradesh in this series.

The rural poor with malnutrition are major victims

Effects of water contamination are more acute among the poor with malnutrition complicating the situation: the Dalit communities of Punjab, form 32% of the state’s population but barely own 3% land, and are among the most deprived classes.  As per the 2011 census, there were 1.1 million labour workforce in Punjab of which roughly half were engaged as farm labour, majority of them being SCs. Green Revolution and mechanization reduced the number of wage days in agriculture, and poverty haunts the rural poor.

Jai Kisan and Jai Jawan are more frequently used to hail Punjabis, who have a big share in India’s Green Revolution and armed forces.  But political parties see the rural poor of Punjab as no more than voting cattle and cannon fodder.

Rural Drinking Water Use Behaviors and Perceptions

A World Bank study of  January 2020 makes the following points, which are often true beyond Punjab also: 

“ Households tend to have access to private wells on premises. Rural Punjab is characterized by plentiful water resources and a long-term policy of free electricity. As a result, households tend to have private shallow bore wells on premises, either as hand pumps, or submersible pumps with storage tanks on the roof of the house. Generally, households display a preference for their private source, which is greatly vulnerable to contamination from nearby sanitation facilities and unclean storage tanks…

-People display an awareness that water from deeper sources is likely to be cleaner..(but this is not always true with different contaminants. For instance fluoride is mostly higher at lower depths…Habit of filtering of  boiling drinking water coming from such borewells and pumpsets is not there.)

-The management of the water supply system was focused on the quantity of water supplied, specifically the duration and frequency of supply, rather than the quality of water and services. ..

-People’s understanding of what constitutes safe water are perceptual and subjective, such as appearance (visible clarity, lack of yellowness) followed by taste (neutral or fresh-tasting) and smell (neutral). (But many contaminants are not bad in appearance or taste and smell.)

-Awareness of contaminants whether bacteriological or heavy metals, is very low, since these are not visible to the naked eye.

-Good health is seen more as a function of nutrition and a full stomach, rather than safe water.

-Chlorine is not usually preferred on account of its taste and smell.

-Punjabi society is highly patriarchal, and women in rural areas are largely left out of household decision making. ..The woman is the water collector and user, but she does not make decisions on water supply infrastructure and water safety issues in the household.

(Towards Managing Rural Drinking Water Quality in The State Of Punjab.)

Telangana’s experience:

TRS before 2014 polls had committed itself to provide safe drinking water piped to the doorsteps of 2.32 crore people in 20 lakh households in urban and 60 lakhs in rural areas of Telangana. ‘We shall not seek votes if it is not implemented’, declared future CM KCR.

The new Telangana State (TS) government, post-bifurcation of AP in 2014, undertook  Mission Bhagiratha with a budget of Rs. 43,791 crores. The project aimed to  supply clean and safe drinking water, from surface water sources,  from River Godavari (22 TMC) and River Krishna (19 TMC). By now the unique project is 90 percent complete, and helps to boost health and wealth of people.  

The villagers consume rice, vegetables and fruits grown on water polluted with fluorine and the government’s next plan is to provide canal irrigation from rivers, and to improve ground water table, by repairing all tanks and lakes.The Chief Minister asserted that at least 10 per cent water from all irrigation projects and reservoirs should be reserved for drinking water needs. It was a good beginning.

All other solutions, like filtered water (RO) projects, are inherently flawed, merely temporary, not sustainable, and too costly. Medicare, Cancer and dialysis centres are needed but not the real answer. More than 75 percent of all diseases in India are water-related.

Based on various experiences and field studies, drawn from Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and with its humble efforts, FMRRC, had devised a concept of SEAM, ie., sensitize, educate, agitate, mobilize, on drinking water, which it said should be fought for as a Fundamental Right.

Punjab with 3 crore population is neck deep in a crisis, as discussed below; it badly needs to focus on safe and potable drinking water; it needs such a program, but no party is committed on it.

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“Almost half of the groundwater in Punjab is unsafe and contaminated”: CAG

 “ Almost half of the groundwater in Punjab is unsafe and contaminated with hazardous chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive material. And in the absence of any remedial steps by the government, the remaining safe groundwater is depleting at a rapid pace. These facts have come to the fore in the first-ever audit report on Punjab’s groundwater prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General,” reported Tribune News Service, February 17, 2020, before it was tabled in the Punjab legislature.

The CAG report says 40 per cent of the groundwater in the state is contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals beyond permissible limits: While 10 per cent of it is unsafe even for irrigation purposes, 30 per cent is marginally to moderately saline/alkaline, but can’t be used by humans.

It was found that out of Punjab’s 23 districts, in 16 fluoride was above the permissible limit (which is 1.5 mg in 1 litre); in 19 districts, nitrate (was above 45 mg in one litre); in six districts, arsenic (was above 0.05 mg) and in nine districts, iron (was above 1.0 mg).

Green revolution helped push up India’s grain production, but the brunt of its more deleterious effects were born by Punjab, Haryana and a few other areas: Punjab is extracting water from the ground at the highest speed in the country. The report found that groundwater extraction has increased from 149% (of recharge) in 2013 to 165% in 2018. Going into the reason, the CAG has noted that paddy sowing is the main culprit. For Punjab and North India, it is to be noted, rice is not a staple food, but a commercial crop, and lead to many negative phenomena, including in water issues.

Overdose of fertilizers: The CAG observed that excessive fertilisers and pesticides were being used to increase production. Fertiliser use in the state shot up by 146.46% between 1980 and 2018. In 2018, farmers in Punjab consumed 232 kg per hectare of fertilisers, over the national average of 133 kg per hectare. The increased use is causing deterioration in quality of both surface and ground water.

The water is unsafe and unfit for drinking, with heavy metal contamination in various districts:

Lead: Amritsar, Bathinda, Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Muktsar

Cadmium: Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Nawanshahr, Patiala

Chromium: Sangrur, SAS Nagar, Tarn Taran, Amritsar, Barnala, Bathinda, Gurdaspur,                     Kapurthala, Mansa, Ropar.

Radioactive material found beyond permissible limit in Mansa, Bathinda, Moga, Faridkot, Barnala, Sangrur.


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Contamination of Water ever increasing

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More than half of Punjab’s districts have reported dangerous levels of uranium, arsenic, cadmium and lead in their groundwater. That is apart from fluoride (F), shown with stars in the CGWB map above. F above 1mg/litre is bad enough, and above 1.5 is very bad, shown with Red stars. (CGWB Map, 2018-19.)     

Uranium contamination is seen more in Faziilka, Moga, Sangrur, Barnala which are also affected by fluoride; the combined effect is worse and not well studied. Patiala and FG sahib are the other districts with uranium contamination.

High Arsenic : in Amritsar, Taran Taran and Gurdaspur districts in North west.

Quality of water used for drinking has been bad, and is going to be worse, as per Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) Reports.

Ground water at a few places, as per 2014 Report of CGWB, has higher concentrations,

  • of heavy metals such as Lead, Chromium, Cadmium, Copper, Cyanide, Nickel etc. around the industrial hubs like Ludhiana, Amritsar, Mandi Gobindgarh, Kapurthala etc.
  • of Selenium, reported from Hoshiarpur,  Nawanshahr Districts
  • and higher concentrations of Arsenic have been found in Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Ropar districts.
  • of Aluminium has been observed in Gurdaspur, Nawanshahr, Hoshiarpur, Patiala, Ropar and Moga districts.
  • The entire southwestern belt of the State comprising of Ferozepur, Moga, Barnala, Bathinda and Sangrur Districts have high incidence of Uranium in groundwater.

High Fluoride areas increased from 4 to 9 Districts

2018-19 Report of CGWB  shows high  Fluoride areas increased to 9 Dts, up from 4 dts in 2014: Fluoride having concentrations more than 1.5 mg/l were reported from 4 Districts: Bathinda, Ferozepur, Mansa and Patiala.

In 2018-19, found mainly in 9 districts of the State : Bathinda, Faridkot, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ferozepur, Mansa, Muktsar, Patiala, Sangrur and Tarantaran

The CGWB Report 2018-19 notably links it to agri practices:

“It is worth mentioning that high fluoride waters are encountered in areas where agriculture activities are predominant. It indicates the possibility that fluoride has come from the phosphatic fertilizers, which have fluoride as impurity.”

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World Bank Report On Punjab’s Water Problems

The World Bank prepared a report, in January 2020, based on an extensive study and field work during 2016-17, titled Towards Managing Rural Drinking Water Quality in The State Of Punjab. It discussed drinking water contamination as given below:

High Fluoride : Out of about 16000 wells that were surveyed and tested, 38 percent had risk of high fluoride: 8 percent had “high to very high risk” (fluoride above 1 and 1.5mg/l, respectively), and 30 percent (with above 0.5 to 1mg/l) had “low to moderate risk”. Mansa, Fazilka and Patiala districts faced the worst situation where “high to very high risk” was noted in 51, 41, and 36 percent (respectively) wells surveyed. Additionally, each of the three had “low to moderate risk” in about 40 percent wells.

(See Table 2.6: Share Of Wells By Fluoride Concentration And Risk 2010-17)

skeletal fluorosis

A case of severe skeletal fluorosis : Photo: INREM foundation. For representation purpose only.

High Arsenic : Out of about 17255 wells in 23 districts that were surveyed and tested, 18.6 percent wells had risk of high Arsenic: 10 percent had “high to very high risk” (Arsenic above 0.01to 0.05mg/l, and  above 0.05mg/l), and 8.6 percent (with above 0.005 to 0.010 mg/l) had “low to moderate risk”. Amritsar, Taran Taran and Gurdaspur districts faced the worst situation where “high to very high risk” was noted in 53.2, 41, and 28.5percent (respectively) wells surveyed. Additionally, “low to moderate risk” was found in about 13-14 percent wells in Amritsar and  Gurdaspur, and about 20 percent wells Taran Taran.

(See Table 2.5: Share Of Wells By Arsenic Concentration And Risk 2010-17)

Earliest  action on Arsenic is needed because “ the time of exposure increases the health risk”, the Report (in p.22) stressed: “Nine districts have a cancer risk value greater than 1 in 10,000 persons after exposure for 10 years.” The survey was done during 2010-17, and now we are in 2022. Amritsar, Taran Taran and Gurdaspur were listed above. Hoshiarpur, Kapurtala, Muktsar, Patiala, Roopnagar, SAS nagar, SBS nagar, and Sangrur are the other districts mentioned.

Overall more than 800 villages across the state have dangerous levels of arsenic, as per one study. Dr. J.S. Thakur, an expert on community medicine and public health at the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, said that several studies have shown consuming arsenic-contaminated water can damage the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs.

Lead, uranium and other heavy-metals have similar impacts on the body.

2009 study by Thakur and others reported that mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium and selenium levels had accumulated in more-than-permissible quantities in the ground- and surface water in and around the Buddha nala, Chitti Bein and Kala Sanghian drains in the state. “Gastrointestinal, water-related, eye, skin and bone diseases were significantly associated among people living in and around these drains,” Dr Thakur said.

Aside from the geological sources, he also pointed to excessive fertiliser and pesticide use in agriculture and discharge of untreated industrial effluents into water bodies, Chandigarh-based Vivek Gupta  reported.

 Arsenicosis 1

Pic of Arsenicosis : typical skin conditions leading upto cancers. With hands and legs of toiling classes so impaired, what kind of India is sought to be built?  

Arsenic is highly toxic, carcinogenic. In addition to skin cancer, long-term exposure to arsenic may also cause cancers of the bladder and lungs. It has also been associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In utero and early childhood exposure has been linked to negative impacts on cognitive development and increased deaths in young adults. ( see Key facts about Arsenic as per WHO in earlier article on UP: “ 40 Districts in UP are Exposed To High Concentration Of Arsenic and Mercury in Groundwater”)   

Thus as the Executive summary of the report (in p.viii) stresses “ Arsenic and fluoride present the most urgent risk, surpassing the risk of uranium, with the duration of exposure increasing the health impacts”. Further, “the potential adverse health impacts due to Arsenic are higher than those due to Uranium in both degree and speed”, the report (in p.23) says, also because it is carcinogenic, calling for priority containment. Though fluoride is not carcinogenic, exposure to higher levels and for longer duration leads to skeletal fluorosis and crippling that are almost irreversible in adults. It kills the productivity of the toiling classes who are the main victims of fluorosis, given that they are malnourished also.

Uranium : As to uranium contamination, it was found to be “above acceptable limit” of (30 micrograms)  0.03 mg/l in 1471 (8 % of ) wells surveyed, and “above permissible limit” of (60 micrograms ) 0.06mg/l in 284 (1.54%)  wells; in other words almost 10 % wells fall under these two categories.

Uranium contamination is seen more in Faziilka, Moga, Sangrur, Barnala which are also affected by fluoride; the combined effect is worse and not well studied. Patiala and FG sahib are the other districts with uranium contamination.

Even Lead contamination (above 0.01mg/l) is found in 484 wells surveyed.

TDS above the acceptable limit of 500 mg/l was found in 1608 wells, ie., 18.72 % of wells surveyed.

Biological contaminations: All the above are exclusive of biological contaminations that are leading to acute diarrheal disease (enteritis): ‘about 2 lakh such cases  occurred every year on an average over the last decade’ the Report says in its Executive summary.

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Green Revolution impact : “80% groundwater in Punjab’s Malwa region is unfit for drinking.” It needs to shift towards an eco-friendly farming

While Punjab, a key centre of Green Revolution as a whole faced the brunt of the crisis, it is all the more severe in Malwa region, that lies South of Sutlej river…and constitutes Southern, and South East region of Punjab, says a study.

Punjab has 23 districts and is divided into three regions: Malwa, Majha and Doaba. Malwa is the largest, with 14 districts, that is worst affected, Green Revolution being one factor.  

Green Revolution had pushed up India’s grain production, so crucial at one point of time. But it was pursued in a reckless manner and for too long, leading to many kinds of problems, which were ignored despite warnings from environmentalists.  

Commissioned by the Centre’s Department of Science and Technology, the study analysed 76 samples from all the 16 districts. The Water Quality Index (WQI) of 80 per cent of the samples was found to be unfit for drinking. Similarly, majority of the samples were found unfit for surface irrigation.(downtoearth.org.in, 27 June 2018).   

“The study found high levels of magnesium, fluorine, phosphates in the groundwater in many areas of the region. While some chemicals such as magnesium and fluoride are found naturally in groundwater, the presence of other chemical contaminants in the groundwater is due to agricultural practices which involve use of pesticides and fertilisers.”

“The entire region is highly contaminated with nitrate, which leaves children highly vulnerable to the blue baby syndrome,” and anemia (methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in which insufficient oxygen is delivered to cells), wrote Surindra Suthar, the author of the study, and an assistant professor at the School of Environment and Natural Resources, Doon University, Dehradun, Uttarakhand.

The main issue of concern is that people rely only on contaminated groundwater mainly due to non-availability of alternate drinking water sources, the study says.

Moreover, only 35 per cent of the samples from eastern and around 22 per cent of samples from the western Malwa region were fit for irrigation.( It means major part is unfit even for irrigation.)

The Malwa region of Punjab needs to shift towards an eco-friendly agricultural model and to adopt agrochemical practices, which focused on future food security without affecting environmental and human health. In order to delineate the long-term effects on soil and human health, the groundwater must go under remediation before use,” the study warns.

(for more see https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/agriculture/80-groundwater-in-punjab-s-malwa-unfit-for-drinking-60951)

Pollution in Malwa Region was extensively analysed by another important study:

Problem Of The Drinking Water, Pollution In Malwa Region Of Punjab: A Socio-Legal Study By Prof. (Dr.) Bhupinder Singh Virk, Department of Law Punjabi University, Patiala (2020 Nov).

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People depend on groundwater for drinking: contaminated all over Punjab

In Punjab, barring a handful of centres, even most cities and towns depend on groundwater, pumped up through tube wells, for drinking. This means the districts with high heavy-metal toxicity are at risk of contracting debilitating illnesses.

“New data that the Ministry of Jal Shakti has shared in parliament suggests that the problem may be out of hand,” says Vivek Gupta, in science.thewire.in, 22/08/2021:

“ It is curious that the topic of groundwater contamination in Punjab doesn’t get the public attention it deserves even as it causes immense human damage to the state’s people and environment,” he adds:

“According to the numbers, 16 districts in Punjab have more than the permissible amounts of uranium in their groundwater. There are also other heavy metals in dangerous concentrations: arsenic and chromium (beyond permissible limits in 10 districts each), cadmium (eight) and lead (six).

The same goes for lead in Bathinda, Ferozepur and Muktsar; cadmium in Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Patiala and Sangrur; chromium in Bathinda, Mansa and Sangrur. The ministry report doesn’t contain district-wise data for the Doaba and the Majha regions, which have four districts each, but the situation here appears to be no different.

Per information from the water quality wing of Punjab’s department of water supply and sanitation, almost all of Majha, including Amritsar, Taran Taran and Gurdaspur districts, have high concentrations of arsenic in their groundwater.

Almost no district is free from some contamination or the other.

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“ Uranium in water can cause CKD,  but India doesn’t monitor it.”  

Punjab’s Geogenic factors are aggravated by anthropogenic factors as in the case of high Fluoride, Arsenic and Uranium in drinking waters. Basically anthropogenic (man-made) factors aggravated water contamination by lead, mercury, nitrates; TDS and pesticides in water play havoc.

Uranium in water can cause chronic kidney diseases, CKD, but India doesn’t monitor it.

This is when severely high levels of Uranium are present in groundwater that people consume, says a study. (downtoearth.org.in, 12 June 2018)

More alarmingly, the study also pointed out that “despite such huge prevalence, uranium has yet not been included in the list of contaminants monitored under the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specifications.”

Punjab is reported as one of the worst affected state with Bhatinda, Faridkot, Mansa, and Amritsar districts possessing groundwater with severely high uranium levels.

Not just Punjab, but groundwater elsewhere in India is also severely contaminated with uranium, found scientists of Duke University in the US, who worked with Central Ground Water Board, Rajasthan Ground Water Department and Gujarat Water Resources Development Corporation for a research.

This study, published in 2018 May in the Environmental Science & Technology Letters journal, showed that water in more than one-third of the 324 wells they sampled has uranium in much higher quantities than the World Health Organization’s provisional standard of 30 µg/l for the country. Of 324 wells they analysed, 226 are in Rajasthan, of which 75 had high uranium levels, and 5 of the 98 in Gujarat crossed the WHO permissible limit.

Combined contamination

Uranium is not alone. Much of the high-uranium groundwater tested also had issues like high salinity, fluoride, and nitrate, which makes them unsuitable for human consumption. Despite this, great number of these wells are being used as primary drinking water sources owing to the lack of alternative water supplies, noted the study.

The direct evidence of impact of uranium exposure to human health is present as it has been proved that consumption of drinking water contaminated with uranium can cause chronic kidney disease, deformity of bones and liver. Though the main source of the uranium contamination is natural, but human factors such as groundwater table decline and prevalence of nitrate pollution may exacerbate the problem, the study noted.

Also, the researchers suggested a way to make the system to monitor uranium contamination stricter. As depicted in the study, the groundwater with bicarbonate concentration above 410 mg/L is highly susceptible to uranium concentration and should be targeted for regular monitoring. Bicarbonate concentrations in water are important since it provides important in-situ information about the suitability of the water for drinking purposes and is helpful in studying speciation of uranium radionuclides in aquatic environment. The suggestion may be helpful as bicarbonate is easy to measure and is already a part of regular groundwater monitoring efforts.


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Uranium Contamination Shrouded In Secrecy

FMRRC found that uranium contamination is one area that is shrouded in secrecy. Gogi village in Yadgir district of Karnataka had high fluoride, but that would not cause deaths. Local people showed an uranium facility (now closed or suspended) that played havoc with peoples’ health, and led to many mortalities due to a variety of diseases involving vital organs like kidney heart liver and lungs. Uranium was the chief culprit, and UCIL was covering up its crimes. It had conducted door-to-door health survey in the big village of around 30,000 population, it organized a mobile medical unit in the area for a ;long time, but its Report is a secret, even to the district health authorities.  Mangalore University had conducted a couple of commissioned studies there, but the Reports are kept secret. The University declined to share the report.

There was prolonged agitation by people that forced the govt to close the uranium facility. But still doubts are not cleared.

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Mapping cancer in the state of Punjab

Now we shall go back to the map given in the beginning of this article.

Professor J S Thakur, of Department Of Community Medicine in the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, worked extensively on mapping cancer (see map above) in the state. He said: Commenting on the state of affairs in the Malwa region, Thakur says multiple risk factors are at the root of the problem. “Chemical toxicity is high in this region. We have found high levels of arsenic and uranium. Pesticide use is also very high. In addition, common causes like alcohol consumption and high incidence of smoking among migrant labourers increase cancer risk in Malwa,” he adds. “The major government hospitals have to be equipped enough to handle such large number of cancer patients.”

A study by Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment in 2004 had found high residue of pesticides in the blood of certain farmers from Bathinda and Ropar districts.It is linked to increasing disease burden of Punjab.

Cancerous politics of Punjab

Cancer has become a political issue, even as basic issue of drinking water contamination is neglected by Punjab Govt. and various political parties.

To cover up the neglect, like elsewhere Punjab also installed some Reverse Osmosis Systems in various villages to protect residents from chemical-laden groundwater. It is at best a temporary relief, and not a real solution. Many RO plants are more show-pieces as maintenance is neglected after initial euphoria around it. Many of them are located in places that are not easily accessible to the oppressed people. Of course for some RO plants is good business too.

firstpost.com March 09, 2019 reported on “Cancerous politics”  of Punjab: 

But the problem is reaching such alarming proportions now that Bathinda’s cancer institute,  even though it lacks necessary facilities, has also been seeing a rise in the number of cancer patients coming there in the last three years – from 6,233 in 2016 to 10,109 in 2017 and then 10,648 in 2018, as per official records. Director of the Advanced Cancer Diagnostic, Treatment and Research Institute, Bathinda, MK Mahajan agrees that the number of cancer patients has shot up over the past few years.

The Homi Bhabha Cancer Hospital in Sangrur, which was commissioned in 2015, has registered about 5,000 patients so far.

Punjab government started the Mukhya Mantri Punjab Cancer Raahat Kosh Scheme to provide financial assistance to those suffering from the critical disease. An amount of up to Rs 1.5 lakh is made available for the treatment of every cancer patient.

The many schemes notwithstanding, the number of affected doesn’t seem to be going down. Bathinda and adjoining districts have seen many deaths because of it too.

For years now, Bathinda railway station has been seeing a crowd of passengers every day to get onboard train number 54703 that goes to Bikaner, Rajasthan for cancer treatment, so much so that locals have dubbed it the cancer train”.

Many young men in Bathinda district are no longer considered ‘marriage material’ due to the reports of cancer published in media quite often, that have given a bad name to the region.

Nonetheless, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had decided to make it a political issue during last Lok Sabha polls. AAP MP from Sangrur, Bhagwant Mann, says successive state governments have failed to address the issue. “I personally get hundreds of recommendations to help cancer patients in the Malwa belt. And as an MP, I do help. But the problem doesn’t lie in treatment alone; the disease needs to be removed from the root, which SAD and Congress governments in the state have failed to,” he alleged.

He adds that the Punjab Pollution Control Board doesn’t take action against the industrial units that pump effluents into the ground, thus contaminating the water table, only due to the politicisation of the agency.


Regional dimensions of cancer

So far, the cotton growing area of Malwa was called the cancer belt due to excessive use of pesticides and contamination of water.

But, timesofindia, Dec 6, 2017, reported, Amritsar, Ludhiana record more cancer cases than Malwa: “More than Malwa region, Amritsar and Ludhiana are more prone to cancer if the cases reported for financial help under the Mukya Mantri Cancer Rahat Kosh are any indication.”

Both districts have left cotton belt of Bathinda, Mansa and Muktsar behind in reporting cancer cases. These facts came to the fore in the data released by the state government about cases approved for financial help under CM’s relief fund scheme till August 23, 2017.

Official data revealed that the state government has approved/disbursed Rs 539.16 crore in 42,564 cases of cancer across Punjab from January 2012 to August 23, 2017. The state government provides financial help of up to Rs 1.5 lakh in the treatment of cancer.

As per data prepared by Punjab health department about the cases approved for financial help to cancer victims, Amritsar district tops with 4,692 cases. It is followed by Ludhiana with 4,052 cases in the same period. Bathinda is at third with 3,250 cases followed by Gurdaspur (2,859), Jalandhar (2,801) and Tarn Taran (2,204). Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran and Amritsar are in Majha and Jalandhar is in Doaba region — all these districts are non-cotton sowing areas.

Majha region comprising Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran and Pathankot reported 10,262 cases from January 2012 to August 23. In Doaba region comprising Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Nawanshahr, 6,200 cancer cases were reported. Punjab averaged 1,934 cases per districts. Amritsar, Ludhiana, Gurdaspur, Jalandhar, Tarn Taran reported higher number of such cases than the state’s average. Apart from these, Sangrur, Patiala and Ferozepur too reported 2,903, 2,817 and 1,968 cases, respectively.

“The data corrects the misconception that Malwa region, especially the cotton belt, is more prone to cancer. Reasons behind higher cancer incidence in Amritsar and Ludhiana need to seriously followed. As per cancer specialists, the effluents and industrial waste of industries in these areas are the reasons behind the spread of the disease. Areas along Buddha Nullah in Ludhiana have also shown high incidence of cancer,” said cancer specialist Dr Manjit Jaura, who has worked at Baba Farid University of Health Sciences, Faridkot.

In Bathinda, carcinogenic risk of arsenic and chromium was highest. The carcinogenic risk of chromium was also observed in Barnala and Ludhiana districts.( study by Ravishankar Kumar, Sunil Mittal etc. published in the international journal Environmental Geochemistry and Health.)

Various lobbies make arguments relegating the importance of prevention of cancer, including by tackling drinking water issues, and other man-made problems. 

Northeast is cancer capital of India, says a report, PTI / Aug 19, 2021, citing ‘cases per lakh population’.  But it is not exactly comparable because of its distinct demography.

“Punjab no ‘cancer belt’, it’s a myth: Tata experts” is another report, tribuneindia.com, Mar 19, 2017. But that does not negate high incidence of cancer in Punjab. The map given above is older, and may be taken as indicative of cancer cases across different districts of Punjab.

Whatever the cancer statistics, notable is the link with intensive agriculture: “ Cancer has spread its tentacles predominantly in the Malwa region of Punjab reportedly due to consistent use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture; these toxic materials have got mixed with the region’s water table and use of that water for agricultural activities as well as drinking has spread the chemicals in residents’ bodies, causing severe ailments among many, ” says a study.

Another  study reiterates “cancer’s unusually high incidence, especially in the cotton-growing districts of southwestern Punjab, linked to the use of pesticides by cotton farmers, among other factors.”

“In Mukatsar, the home district of Punjab Ex-Chief Minister, Prakash Singh Badal, there were 1074 deaths due to cancer between 2001 to November 2009. In Lambi, Badal’s home constituency, there were 211 cancer deaths during the same period,” says another report.

Punjab is not alone facing ground water pollution in India. Drug addiction in Punjab is an added problem of Punjab.

A Field Study that exposed the callous attitude of the Punjab Govt.

It is pertinent to cite a study titled “The Problem of Drinking water

pollution in Malwa region of Punjab: A Socio-legal study” (2020 Nov), by Prof. (Dr.) Bhupinder Singh Virk, Department of Law,  Punjabi University, Patiala. It  was based on collection and testing of samples of ground water from different parts (five districts, Muktsar, Bathinda, Sangrur, Mansa and Patiala) of Malwa region of Punjab (from rural areas as well as from Urban areas).

Field Study has been conducted in different parts, also  by visiting the schools, and interviewing the teachers and students regarding the problem of drinking water in the region; they visited the Gram Panchayats of villages of these areas and interviewed the representatives of villages and get the first hand information regarding the problem of drinking water pollution of this region; interviewed and collected the data from governmental hospitals and also met the social workers who are aware of this problem.

“It is pertinent to note that the Punjab Pollution control Board, Punjab,whose primary responsibility is the controlling, preventing and abetting of water pollution in the state of Punjab refused to test the samples collected by us on the basis of lame excuses…Ultimately it is the Sai Laboratories of prestigious Thapar University of Patiala, which helped me for proper testing and analysing of these samples.”

“The presence of uranium in the ground water of Malwa Region of Punjab is not due to any leaching from natural deposits because in the land of Punjab there are not any rocks of such kind which contain uranium contents. In the state of Punjab there existed neither the nuclear power plant and nor nuclear industry so human accident can also ruled out.

“ There seems to be four reasons which are probably causes the ground water contamination with uranium. These are the:

(I) The excessive use of pesticides and phosphate fertilizers and other chemicals by the farmers of this region.

(II) Deep digging of tubewell, and extracting of water from deep digging tubewell.

(III) Depletion of uranium from any places used by our neighbor country.

(IV) Use of coal in thermal plants.

It was one study that touched contamination by lead and mercury too. (Lead level was 0.30 to 0.36, except Mansa with 0.16) .

“ During the collection of samples we also met the people of these area and found that large number of people of these villages and cities are suffering from diseases relating to kidney, and mental and physical abnormalities. It is concluded that the one of the reason is of excessive intake of lead through water and food lead to these diseases…“ Heavy metal pollution is an inorganic chemical hazard, which is mainly caused by lead, uranium, cadmium, barium and mercury. These are the key heavy metal pollutants in malwa region of Punjab. These play a major role toward the declining health of people of this area.”


“ This is the position of every district, it is conclude that the main culprit of ground water pollution are the misuse/overuse of pesticides, weedicides, and herbicides and chemical fertilizers used by farmers in their field without consulting the experts. Secondly the small industries in every district through untreated/polluted water and industrial water into bore-wells or nearby drains in connivance with government officers.

“ Third cultprit is the drain/nalas which carries the industrial waste from the neighboring states.

“ Fourth is the village tank which became the storage of sewage water of village. In the whole study the role of governmental agencies like Public health and sanitation department, Punjab Pollution Control Board, and Public Water Works department is very discouraging.”

Remedial tasks all over India include switching from groundwater to surface and piped supply of  safe and potable water. Modi Govt set a target of 2024 for that. But the commitment, the ground realities and the pace are not indicative of its being realized anytime soon. Only Telangana displayed the necessary commitment, resulting in realization of the goal there which is over 90%…and that is thanks to a massive political movement by the people focused on drinking water and  fluorosis.

FMRRC believes drinking water is a fundamental right derived from right to life…there is a need to relentlessly SEAM (Sensitize, Educate, Agitate and Mobilize) on this issue.

***                            ***

(See also: It is poison, not water, that comes out of the handpumps’ in UP           


For more information on Fluorosis, see our earlier articles in CC including the one below:

Socio-Political and Economic Aspects Of Fluorosis (2016)


(FMRRC, Fluorosis Mitigation Research and Resource Centre, based in Hubli, Karnataka, is a small group with Dr. KS Sharma (1934-born Law Professor cum veteran Trade Union leader, ) as its Founder- Chairman, and Dr. M. Bapuji, Senior Scientist Ex-CSIR as its Scientific Advisor. It is not an NGO, but is part of a larger mass movement of workers (IRTUC) and rural poor ( Krantikari Janandolana) of Karnataka.

For enquiries email to [email protected].


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