Punjab: A Dying Civilisation?
By Umendra Dutt
07 July, 2010
“Of course, it is a degrading environment and a dying civilization in Punjab; a whole community has been put to slow death” affirmed Dr Amar Singh Azad, my senior colleague in Kheti Virasat Mission. “It is a crime committed against humanity and nature by our own governments, that too in the name of Development”, I said, endorsing his observation. All of us were very upset and angry after visiting villages near Dhakansu drain and Ghaghar River in Patiala and Sangrur districts.
This was our third visit to a river or drain area to educate ourselves on environmental toxicity and its multiple impacts. About eight years ago, we did a padayatra along the Jayanti River in Ropar district. I found several similarities between the disappearance of Jayanti and Ghaghar rivers. Both rivers have lost their relevance after society forgot and neglected the significance of these rivers. The river eco-system was ruined at both places by the developmental activities carried out by “modern society”. Our latest Yatra was a field visit to learn more on the crisis of water, environmental toxicity, condition of agriculture, biodiversity, the unfolding health crisis and the socio- economic fallout of this ecological disaster.
The entire picture is extremely frightening. There has been a lot of debate on the severe health and water tragedy apparent in the districts of Malwa region. But we should correct our view point - it is the whole of Punjab that seems to be under deadly devastation now. Some of our well-wishers ask us again and again that – “Why are you activists bent on such scare-mongering around these things?” I would like to repeat the words of Dr Azad here – “Yes, we want to create a scare, because the situation is far more destructive and scary than our government and people can ever imagine.
It is a life and death question for Punjab; it is clearly evident that Punjab is a dying civilization. Several people may find this offending, ugly and uncalled for. However, the indications that we are getting from across Punjab point to a death sentence written for the whole eco-system in this part of the country and particularly for this brave community.
‘Villages up for sale' are a unique symbol of distress and devastation in Punjab. It was a first-of-its-kind protest in India at that time. In March 2002, Harkishanpura of Bathinda district put itself up for sale and then Mal Singh Wala of Mansa district followed in 2005. Both of these villages are situated in cotton belt of Malwa. Both have a common reason -– the Water crisis. It was a desperate step that was taken by the villagers. Now, this water distress has engulfed the villages of the apparently ‘eco-prosperous' area of Puadh. A village in Patiala district near Chandigarh - Mirzapur Sandharsi is contemplating putting itself up for sale. The reason is the same “waterlessness” that has now become a nightmare for this village too. After reading reports in the media, we visited this village – what was bluntly visible and extremely disturbing to find is that Punjab is fast turning into a waterless region. It can be Harkishanpura, Mandi Khurd or MalSingh Wala or Teja Rohella, Dona Nanka near Fazilka or Mirzapur Sandharsi - villages after villages are caught in the grip of a severe water crisis.
There are several indicators to confirm what Dr Amar Singh Azad said about Punjab being a dying civilization. The disturbing symptoms of this slow death are common, in a journey from Mirzapur Sandharsi, Harpalpur to Shahpur Theri and Makrodr Sahib in Sangrur. Earlier the same was said by our friend the famous singer Rabbi Shergill in his article-“Sindh Ghati Phir Maran lai tiar Hai”.
The symptoms are: severe, multiple environmental toxicity, drinking water crisis due to drying-up of upper aquifers and rapid deterioration of the groundwater situation all over the state, water quality going drastically down with multiple kinds of contamination, destruction of river eco-systems and vanishing aquatic life, loss of biodiversity and crop diversity, increasing health problems particularly those related to reproductive health, declining immune capacity, early ageing and cancers etc.
Disturbingly, the same pattern of health problems is being found in domestic animals: farmers repeatedly reported that animals are unable to conceive and if they conceive they abort frequently. Further, the all-round crisis is also reflecting itself in agriculture and agricultural livelihoods: falling agriculture productivity, increase in external inputs and rising debts, growing disconnect between farmer and his/her land, farmers selling their farms and lastly, emergence of loss of self- confidence and self-esteem amongst the affected people to tackle the situation.
I often say in Punjabi that Punjab is fast turning into Be-aab and Punjabis of Be-aab Punjab are bound to become Be-abaad (displaced). I find that Mirzapur Sandharsi and nearby villages are an apt illustration for this idiom. Surinder Singh, Sarpanch of Mirzapur Sandharsi told us, “There is no proper water; this water crisis has forced us to sell our land. We are ready to sell even our village”. As there is no water left in two upper aquifers – at 70 feet and 150 feet respectively - villagers are facing a lot of hardship to meet even basic requirement of water. Around ten years back, the 70-feet aquifer began to go dry and about five years ago, water started disappearing from the 150-feet aquifer also. “We are forced to increase the lowering by 12 to 20 feet every year”; told Harbans Singh, Chairman of village Cooperative Society. “When Ghaghar was alive about 20 year back, there was no such problem. As Ghaghar died slowly, this water crisis engulfed our area”.
Now villagers are forced to draw water from third aquifer to be found at the depth of about 400 feet, but unfortunately at many places this aquifer is having water unfit to even irrigate their farms, so it is of little use. Even if it is fit for irrigation, it is very costly to draw it and more over how long will it last. After all it is‘Fossil Water'. It is going to be exhausted. What after that?? No body is able to answer.
Farmers are able to grow wheat and paddy but with this hard water, vegetables cannot be grown. It's very difficult to find anyone growing vegetables from last ten years in the village. “We forgot the taste of our own grown vegetables”, said a farmer. This is a common trend in all villages of this area where purchasing vegetables from cities is common. Earlier, farmers here used to grow several kinds of vegetables for sale in the market as well as self-consumption. Now, they don't cultivate vegetables in several villages of Ghannour area of Patiala district. Farmers from Harpalpur gave a more pitiable picture: “Earlier we use to sell our vegetables in Rajpura and Chandigarh markets; now, because the water quality has deteriorated, we are not able to cultivate vegetables anymore. Farmers will tell you the same story in villages like Shahpur Theri, Mandavi, Chandu, Makorad Sahib and Foold. Everywhere, farmers have turned into buyers of vegetables from being producers. This is sign of loss of household food and nutritional security. This has also put an economic burden on them”.
The average wheat yield dropped drastically in the last few years in all villages we visited. Farmers reported getting yields as low as 5 quintals per acre of wheat. ‘As groundwater is going deeper and deeper, it is also losing its quality. This affects crops and their yields often.' It is a common perception of farmers from different villages. This has another impact -manifold increase in usage of chemical fertilizers, making agriculture more expensive now. All of this makes the farm economics unviable, with farmers becoming more indebted. Almost all the agricultural land here is mortgaged! “We were happy and prosperous those days, using Ghaghar water and getting higher yields in comparison to today. We used to grow Basmati about 15- 20 years back with very less water from Ghaghar and used to obtain 16 to 20 quintals per acre, 14 to 16 quintals of wheat and even 10 to 12 quintals of pulses. We had these results without using any Urea in our fields.” said Gyani Subeg Singh, a 70-year old farmer from village Shahpur Theri .
Loss of agro-biodiversity is another issue of concern. It was found that in the last 20 years, there has been a drastic loss in agro-biodiversity. Earlier, most of farmers used to grow pulses. Slowly, as yields started declining, they stopped producing pulses. It was found that earlier, diversity-based farming was the main approach. Farmers grew Corn, Basmati, Cotton, Sugarcane, Wheat, Mustard, Pearl Millet, Barley, Pigeonpea, Moong, Masar, Moth, Alsi, Til, Tara-Mira, Gwara, Arhar and Chilies.
Farmers reported that all these crops were grown without any chemical inputs simply by irrigating their farms with Ghaghar water. But as Ghaghar has gone dry, the biodiverse farming system which flourished here for hundred of years also dried up. Farmers' real wealth – water and soil - was plundered.
This has also eroded traditional knowledge system of farming in this area. Now farmers are using high amount of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weedicides. They are now so obsessed with chemical farming that they lost self confidence. “We cannot grow any thing without chemicals. We know it is poison – but we have no other alternative” said Jaswant Singh of Shahpur Theri, while preparing to apply chemical fertilizers in his farm.
When asked about debt situation, Harvinder Singh, Youth Club President of Shahpur Theri says with grief, “Death of Ghaghar has destroyed both our wealth and health. Now, the entire village is under debt. Not a single acre of land is free from loan. Several farmers were forced to sell their farm land. About 35 to 40 people sold their entire property and shifted out of the village. Several farmers are now working as landless laborers”.
This situation is reminiscent of my earlier experience in Mirzapur Sandharsi and Harpalpur. In these villages, a large number of farmers had already sold their land. When I asked farmers at Harpalpur in Patiala what they thought of Mirzapur Sandharsi villagers putting up their village for sale, more than three farmers replied at once in a collective voice – “We are also ready to sell our village.” Then one farmer added “Why talk about only these two villages - the whole belt of around 40 villages is up for sale though we are not declaring it openly. But if we get a chance, we are all ready to quit agriculture and move out of here”. Everyone sitting there supported his views. These farmers no more feel any attachment to their village. Sadly, the cord of affinity with their land no longer exists.
The most painful experience we have had in this tour is that of the murder of a river and her bounties. It was the case of entire society breaking away from its water heritage. Everybody whom we met during our visit told us - “Once Ghaghar River used to be full of life and we used to drink Ghaghar water about 20 years back - it used to be clear, sweet and tasty”. Vaid Piyara Singh (55) of Makrodr Sahib said with unshed tears in his eyes: “Ghaghar was clean and the whole village used to drink its water; I used to drink Ghaghar water almost every day while returning from fields – I never experienced any problem with that – that was about 20 years back”.
In village Phoolad, which is just 300 meters from Ghaghar we got to know that except two young men, all the persons sitting in front of us had once been able to drink directly from the river.
“Fish from Ghagar used to be quite famous once upon a time; people used to come from far away to purchase fish here. Thousands of fish of different species, small and big tortoises and so on used to be present in large numbers in Ghaghar. Ghaghar died right in front of our eyes”, said Kulwant Singh (52) of Makrodr Sahib with visible grief on his face.
In adjoining Chandu village, all households used to irrigate their farms from Ghaghar water, but now they are forced to look for other options. “Earlier our animals would go there for grazing, bathing and drinking Ghaghar water, but now we cannot even think of it. It is acid only.” said Vaid Subhash (37).
The entire belt of villages on the bank of Ghaghar in Sangrur district was using Ghaghar water not only for irrigation but also for domestic usage. Some people also pointed out that the river bed had several springs like Nadiya Taal from where they got water throughout the year. There were large numbers of Dhaak and Dhaki trees, Jand, Kiker, and bushes of Duaansa. This indicates that along with destruction of Ghaghar the native plants and trees also got ruined.
“In those days, several species of birds were found; now we hardly see even common birds like the crow or the sparrow. They are all gone”. We heard this almost everywhere that we went. Many report that the number of birds in this area has gone down. Dr Azad kept muttering that this is our Silent Spring unfolding in Punjab. I am speechless since the picture emerging in front of us was a hopeless picture of doom.
In every village we had also enquired about existence of honeybees and earthworms and unfortunately got the similar answer indicating more vast destruction of life – ‘Now honeybees and earthworms are almost gone, we hardly see any hive around our villages' villagers told us. Every time when we got negative answer about presence of honeybees, Dr Azad reminds me famous prediction of Albert Einstein, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live."
Like earthworms and honeybees several other insects were thrown out of web of life. And the younger generation of farmers even does not know the names of several friendly-insects.
In spite of floods every year, Ghaghar was generous with life and prosperity. Now it appears that hell is flowing here and villagers are forced to live with the situation. They reported that Ghaghar got polluted some years back with toxic effluents from a factory at Main near Patiala and Chambowali drain which joins Ghaghar at Chandu village. The water is black, with bad smell and with no life at all. The water, if touched, produces irritation, itching and skin rashes, it was explained. We do not even dare to touch it where we used to earlier be able to drink the water, they said.
Punjab is going to be a state of sick people highly dependent on medicines”, Dr Azad keeps saying again and again. His words were reinforced during this tour as we had personally witnessed a massive health crisis all around. What we have witnessed during this study visit has reaffirmed our earlier hypothesis that Punjab is being subjected to multiple environmental toxicity. Every village we had visited illustrates the same tragedy.
As Dr Azad often says, “The whole ecosystem of the earth is interwoven in a web of highly sensitive and complex interdependence; any toxin in the environment – air, water and soil - affects all forms of life right from the microbes to human beings. Wherever toxicity is high, humans, cattle, wild animals, other living forms including microbes and plants are gravely affected. Punjab today is witnessing the whole spectrum of ill effects on human health shown through various studies, of such contamination. The immunity of Punjabis is being ruthlessly damaged”.
In each village we visited, people reeled out high numbers of cancer deaths in addition to a long list of cancer patients under medication. What we got from villagers is shocking data regarding cancers, raising infertility and other reproductive health disorders, increasing number of neurological disorders, allergies and impaired immunity. As farmers gave this information to us while sitting in front of us by recalling names, the possibility of errors must certainly be there; however, this is an indicator that cancer is on the rise while reproductive health is deteriorating fast, that too in all parts of Punjab. We found quite a large number of issueless couples, cases of miscarriages, spontaneous abortions and premature deliveries; in each village, we also found cases of neurological disorders Children with mental retardation and congenital abnormalities, cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, ADD, learning and behavioral disabilities and so on were identified. It is hard to believe that the list of illnesses is much longer then we thought.
Skin diseases are also very common in all villages; Dr Azad points out that this is a sign of impaired immune system in people of Punjab. We also found large number of patients with kidney problems, stones in kidney and gall bladder, digestive system disorders etc.
This starkly visible disease pattern can be correlated to the toxicity load caused by environmental toxicity and prevalence of toxins in our eco-system and food chain. During group discussions, it was also noticed that number of young deaths in last ten years is on the rise. Though it may be because of other reasons too, a young death is an indicator that something is seriously wrong in Punjab.
Poisoning of ecology has a deep impact on animal health as well. The status of animal health in these parts seems to indicate that the toxicity everywhere has reached its threshold level. People reported that apart from human beings, cows and buffalos are also losing reproduction capacity. They observe lesser lactation period and lesser reproduction cycles. It has come down to 5 from 15 reproduction cycles. More and more cows and buffalos are becoming sterile. These animals are unable to conceive and miscarriages and abortions are increasing amongst these animals. At least 70% animals have become unproductive and sterile, people reported. Their milk productivity is also going down. Moreover, even horses are reported to be getting sterile. Some farmers observe that desi hens are not able to lay eggs properly.
When the villages had pasture lands, the animals used to give more milk, they recall; now, the animals are falling sick and dying. These animals cannot go to Ghagar now and farmers have to run pumps for water, which adds to the financial burden of the families. “We are ruined due to the poisonous water that was allowed to flow in Ghaghar”, they say.
But question is - who is responsible for this ecological destruction? How are we going to restore justice to river Ghaghar, her inhabitants and Nature? Who is to be blamed for subjecting this whole area to this severe environmental health crisis? What has killed River Ghaghar and its thousands of animals, fishes, tortoises, birds and other creatures?
The answer is very simple - our Development model obsessed with high GDP. The factories of liquor and wine at Banaur, Patiala and Patran have contributed to the death of Ghaghar. The owners of these factories, their management, the government departments which gave clearances for the establishment and running of these factories, the officers with whose signatures these factories came into existence, the Punjab Pollution Control Board which is primarily responsible for monitoring and controlling pollution and effluents, the Revenue department and Directorate of excise and taxes, the Finance Ministry of Punjab which is filling its pockets from taxes on these factories thus giving them a legal status and lastly, the people who remain silent and indifferent during this demolition are responsible for the death of a river and her ecosystem, the destruction of health and environment here and for the displacement of farmers. These are environmental criminals who need to be held liable. Punjab needs a people's movement to take up the issue of life of our rivers and to keep alive Punjabi civilization. By giving a rousing call to the public, Sant Balbir Singh Seenchewal has already taken an initiative in this direction. But we have still a long way to go.
Moreover , After confirmation of presence of uranium traces in hair samples of children from Baba Farid Centre for Special Children and water and soil samples it is certain that Punjab is in midst of multiple environmental toxicity. This is an indicator that it is situation of extreme emergency in Punjab. Let us start talking the political ecology. Let people start thinking politically to punish the environmental culprits of Punjab. We have to evolve newer ways to punish those who are responsible for this devastation. Though, I also found that I was also one of the culprits, even several of us those who are now fighting for environment were not behaved in responsible manner earlier, otherwise situation would have been different. I feel we are also blameworthy and I am firm that all those who are guilty must be punished
My friend and the person who is carving my understanding on ecological issues, Prof. Shubh Prem Brar from Bathinda has rightly said, “Southern Punjab is surrounded by toxic water ways. It is as though a garland of poisonous water is encircling a large area of Punjab”. If you see the map of Punjab, you can see the absolutely terrifying picture of poisonous water encircling entire south, south-eastern and south-western region of Punjab. I ask further - Is it possible to change this death wreath into a life jacket? Can we stop our civilization from dying?
I am waiting for an answer…the 63-year old young revolutionary Dr Azad is equally eager to know this answer, as he constantly says “Punjab is a dying civilization and time is running out of our hands.”