RUMAN DEVI, 47, WAS DIAGNOSED with second-stage breast cancer in April 2019. The diagnosis came as a shock. She noticed a hard lump in her left breast which she left unattended for two months — until it caused a burning sensation. Ruman’s mammogram suggested an early-stage carcinoma with, according to her doctor, fair chances of rehabilitation. A farmer from Saroorpur Taga village in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Devi didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. She did not have a family history of the disease on either side. “I never understood why it had to happen to me,” she said.
The 14 acres of cabbage fields that surround Ruman Devi’s house in the farming district of Saharanpur in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh are routinely sprayed with a mix of pesticides, many of which are known to be harmful to human health. Most of the farmers can’t afford to buy the protective gear that they should wear during spraying.
The cause of her illnesss, according to medical experts, might lie in the 14 acres of cabbage fields that surround Devi’s house, a small, two-room building sitting in the middle of the Doab floodplains that extend between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Devi has tended these fields most of her life, as do most people in the farming district of Saharanpur, where her village is located. According to data from the district, 70 percent of the land in Saharanpur is under agricultural use and the sector employs 68 percent of the district’s population. Farming is the lifeblood of generations of families. For some, it’s also a death knell.
The same afternoon she was diagnosed with cancer, her husband Rakesh Kumar went out into the fields and spent four hours spraying pesticides on their cabbage crop. Even in a moment of tragedy, the fields, which the couple lease from local-landowners, need to be tended to. Kumar wore no safety equipment. Although the pesticide manufacturer recommends the use of specialized safety equipment when spraying the chemicals, most farmers in the region can’t afford to purchase the equipment. Few even bother to read the safety manual included with in the pesticide package.
Ankit Kumar is one of the few farmers in the region who uses a mask while spraying pesticides. “These chemicals are very toxic,” said Ankit, who lost his mother to colon cancer in 2019. “Every information leaflet in the pesticide container mandates the use of PPEs, but no one pays heed to these instructions unless something very serious happens.”
Farmers recognize the situation is unsustainable, but they have no viable alternatives to pesticides, “We know that herbicides are toxic, but we cannot afford manual weed control due to meager earnings,” said Sandeep Kumar, another local farmer.
Until about a decade ago, protective equipment accompanied the pesticide containers, but now PPEs are not provided with the pesticides and most farmers in the region, already burdened with increasing costs of everything from seeds (often patented genetically modified varieties), pesticides and fertilizers and other farm inputs, cannot afford the PPEs. Devi and Kumar were aware of the risks the pesticides posed, but not spraying their fields would mean that the cabbage crop — their sole source of income — would likely fail. There didn’t seem to be any other option. “If we don’t use pesticides on our crops, we will starve,” Kumar said. “We have no choice but to compromise our health to make ends meet”.
OVER 830 MILLION PEOPLE live in India’s agricultural regions. Many of them face the same health risks as those in Saharanpur district. In January this year Amit Shah, the Union Minister for Home and Cooperation, warned that without full scale regulation of the toxic chemicals in pesticides, India would face a health crisis that would tax India’s healthcare system and cause untold death and suffering.
“India’s farming is heading towards a dangerous future. Due to excess use of chemicals, the poison has started reaching underground sources of water”, he said after unveiling Gujarat state government’s project for natural farming. Shah claimed the country would see a 50 percent rise in cancer rates within the next decade due to the use of agrochemicals.
According to Dr. Vaibhav Trivedi, an oncologist at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), New Delhi, by at least some measures, the crisis has already arrived. “Central institutes like AIIMS are much overburdened with cancer cases causing long waiting periods — usually several months for investigation, chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” he said.
There is a clear link between exposure to pesticides and cancer, even if research hasn’t definitively proven the link Trivedi said. “Occupational exposure to pesticides has been identified as a major trigger for cancer development. “It certainly increases the risk.”
Farmers in Saroorpur Taga village have devised novel ways to apply fungicides to their cabbage crops. A pesticide tank kept on the edge of the irrigation canal drips a fungicide mix into the flowing water, furthering the chances of groundwater contamination.
The instruction leaflets that come with pesticide bottles recommend that the containers be safely disposed of after use, but it is common for families to reuse these containers to store food. Here pesticide containers are being used as buttermilk jars at a home in Saroorpur Taga.
As per the Department of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, India is one of the largest producers and consumers of pesticides in the world, and the states of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra use the most pesticides in the country. Several studies published between 2011 and 2020 attribute 45 different types of cancers afflicting rural farm workers in India to pesticide usage. The chemicals have been shown to cause DNA damage, hormone disruption, and lead to a weakened immune system. All of these contribute to the development of cancer in the body. A 2019 Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) report on absolute estimates concluded that the states of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have highest incidence of cancer by absolute numbers.
The pesticides most commonly used in the Saharanpur are propiconazole, thiamethoxam, profenofos, cypermethrin, acephate, Dichlorvos, Fipronil, and cartap hydrochloride,. Moreover, class 1 pesticides such as Carbofuran and Monocrotophos — which are categorized as highly hazardous by the World Health Organization and banned by 63 countries worldwide — are still being used in the region. Efforts to ban the most dangerous pesticides have so far failed due to resistance from the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers and a strong pesticide manufacturers’ lobby. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that many of these agrochemicals cause cancer in rodents, and it’s possible the same is true for humans. The most used herbicides in Saharanpur and surrounding districts are 2-4 diethyl ester (2,4-D) and paraquat dichloride, both of which have the potential to cause cancer.
In Saharanpur, the use of pesticides in the Nakur block — an administrative area that includes Saroorpur Taga village — is particularly overwhelming. Walking around the block in the evening is to walk through a cloud of chemicals that burn the nostrils and form a noxious haze. “When I come back to my native village in Nakur, I detect the stench of pesticides while breathing,” said Deepti Saini, a native of Nakur block who resides in Delhi.
According to Arvind Shukla, an independent agriculture researcher, lack of training means farmers often apply pesticides on the wrong crops or at the wrong time. In part due to a lack of appropriate training, pesticides that are meant for annual crops like sugarcane are instead used on seasonal produce like ladyfingers or chillies. The short interval between application and crop harvest leads to additional exposure, while the constant spraying has also made pests more resistant to the pesticides. As a result, farmers are forced to use even more pesticides to protect their crops and livelihoods. Meanwhile, climate change has made crop pests more abundant. All those factors have led the concentration and frequency of pesticide use to increase exponentially in the last five years. Pesticide use in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, rose from 10,824 metric tons in 2017 to 12,217 metric tons in 2019, according to Indian Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare.
“The more intensely we use pesticides, the more strongly pests attack back,” said Usha Devi, a cabbage farmer whose fields were recently decimated by moths. Her husband Ajab Singh echoes her sentiment. “We understand that pesticide usage is not ultimately sustainable, but we are helplessly stuck in a pattern,” Singh said. “We have not become injudicious; the pests have become resistant.”
PESTICIDES DON’T JUST KILL the species they’re targeting. They kill everything. Multiple pesticides used in the region, such as cartap hydrochloride and profenofos, are highly toxic to fish, aquatic insects, bees, and other animals – even in small quantities.
Usage of these pesticides has reduced the ecologically rich lake of Saroorpur Taga to a lifeless pond. Runoff from surrounding farms has caused chemicals to accumulate in the lake, robbing the water of its oxygen and turning the lake into a toxic puddle. “A few years ago, this lake was full of fishes, small and big, water birds and turtles,” said Sagar Kumar, the owner of a grocery store beside the lake. “But slowly over the past decade, all fishes disappeared.”
Agricultural chemicals have also made their way into human drinking water, posing a clear and immediate public health hazard. According to a 2021 report by the Central Ground Water Board, the nitrate levels in Nakur are above 45 mg per liter, four times higher than what the EPA considers a safe level. “Higher concentration of nitrates in drinking water supply has been linked to colon, ovarian, thyroid, kidney and bladder cancer,” said Dr Salomi John, a professor of microbiology at the University of Delhi. “Washed off fertilizers that leach into the soil is the most common source of higher nitrates in groundwater.”
Even if farmers in Saroorpur Taga village are able to rein in their pesticide use, they’ll still have to reckon with the health consequences of contaminated drinking water. In addition pollution from runoff, a 2021 report on groundwater quality in Uttar Pradesh by WaterAid indicated that the groundwater in Saharanpur is also contaminated with high levels of at least two heavy metals, arsenic and manganese. Arsenic is a known mutagen, and studies suggest that high manganese concentrations in drinking water can also contribute to cancer and other health problems.
Earth Island Journal sent samples from a community hand pump and a farm in Saroorpur Taga village to an independent lab. The results indicated that the amount of dissolved solids (TDS), including heavy metals, in the water was nine times higher than safe standards. Higher TDS in short term may cause nausea, lung irritation, rashes, and dizziness; while over the time it may also aid cancer development, kidney and liver diseases, and nervous system disorders.
When it comes to water quality, India ranks at 120 among 122 countries. Nearly 70 percent of the country’s water supply is contaminated, leading to about 200,000 deaths annually and some 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress, according to a 2018 report by NITI Aayog, a public policy think tank of the Government of India A quick-fix to deal with the drinking water emergency could be installation of community water purifiers but policy-level regulation of pesticides is required in the long run.
OVER IN SAHARANPUR, access to healthcare is scarce. With only one Community Health Center (CHC) and few ayurvedic medicine practitioners, people have limited treatment options for even acute infections, let alone cancer treatment. The CHC is not designed to provide specialized oncology services and people travel hundreds of miles looking for treatment.
After Devi’s diagnosis, she borrowed thousands of dollars from informal sources and traveled to the city of Chandigarh every week to access medical care. Their money ran out in four months and Devi discontinued her treatment. Pointing to her medical records, she said, “We are landless farmers. We have been through a lot — borrowed lakhs of rupees [thousands of dollars] for my therapy, traveled 200 kilometers every week to access treatment, but now, we can no longer afford it.” Her cancer has now reached terminal stage.
Thousands of rural farmers have found themselves in the same position as Devi — sick, struggling to pay for care, and struggling to find care. Although Devi’s cancer was treatable when she was diagnosed, overburdened public healthcare facilities meant that she wasn’t able to get the treatment she needed in time. Now she has gone 41 months without treatment and is too ill to keep up with her daily household and farming. “My diagnosis was difficult; living every day with the fear of pending death is even more difficult,” she said. “But not getting the required treatment is most difficult.”
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