Women in Punjab’s Bhotna village say no to 'cancerous farming', adopt organic methods to save state's soil

Arjun Sharma | Aug 21, 2018 | 6 min read


Women in Punjab’s Bhotna village say no to ‘cancerous farming’

By Sukhcharan Preet

Barnala: Amarjit Kaur, 45, gets down from her bed on tiptoes early morning, while it is still dark and the rest of her family remains in deep slumber. She quickly fetches a sprinkler kept outside her house to water her small patch of vegetables, before going on to add manure into another tilled portion of the land. A resident of Bhotna village in Punjab’s Barnala district, Amarjit has been following this routine for the past 11 years. Adopting organic farming, said this feisty woman, was the only way to bring down the high incidence of cancer in the district, which has been linked to unregulated use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Amarjit is a member of the 2,000-odd group of women in Bhotna who have waged a war against what they call “cancerous farming practices”.

Often called the cancer capital of India, Punjab’s Malwa region is stated to have registered around 42,000 cases of this killer disease in the past 10 years. Malwa consists of the south western districts of Bathinda, Muktsar, Ferozpur, Faridkot, Mansa, Moga, Barnala and Sangrur. Cancer has crept inside the homes of farmers, turning successful stories of green revolution into a harrowing reality. So distressing is the scenario here that the Jodhpur-Bathinda passenger express has been christened as the ‘cancer train’ due to a large number of sufferers travelling to Rajasthan’s Bikaner for treatment.

Turning backyards green

Alarmed at the deteriorating quality of soil and water in the country’s bread bowl, and its effect on people’s health, the gutsy Bhotna women have been waging an aggressive war against disastrous farming practices. Malwa, they said, consumes nearly 75% of the pesticides used in Punjab. Its lush green fields often bury poignant tales of toxicity, disease and suffering. 

The women here found that renting a piece of land was heavy on their pockets. So they decided to instead make use of open spaces outside their house to grow vegetables. The aim, they said, was to recharge groundwater and save the environment.

“I was one of the first in Bhotna village to adopt organic farming methods. It was in 2007 when I tilled a small piece of land outside my house to grow vegetables. Today, I practice the method in large fields. I grow wheat in one acre without the use of pesticides. Some of us also sell their produce in the local markets and food festivals,” said Amarjit.

Organic farming is now practiced by more than 25 neighbouring villages where both men and women have been successfully running their kitchens with produce from these small and lively gardens. They claim to have saved nearly Rs 1.5 crore per annum by giving up pesticides, chemical fertilisers and other conventional methods of growing crops. 

Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO that promotes sustainable farming in Punjab, had first introduced women in Bhotna to organic methods. The NGO members also taught them ways of conserving seeds to be sown in the next season. 

Kamaljit Kaur, district coordinator of Kheti Virasat Mission, said, “With increasing awareness about healthy eating, people have been refusing vegetables grown with the help of pesticides. The families of Bhotna used to spend around Rs 1,500 to buy vegetables each month. That money is now being saved, with several women growing their own supplies.”

“Hundreds of Barnala residents, who we have spoken to earlier, said there has been a significant improvement in their health after consuming organic vegetables. They do not fall ill so often,” Kaur said, adding that the NGO had initially targeted only seven women in Bhotna village to teach organic farming methods.

Grain bowl serving health hazard

Punjab has a total geographical area of 50.36 lakh hectares. It is one of the most intensively cultivated and irrigated areas of the country. Nearly 84% (42.68 lakh hectares) of its total geographical area is under agricultural use. But official figures state that around 39% of this cultivable area is undergoing one or another form of soil degradation following excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Erosion, raising water table and alkalinity are just some of the consequences.

A research paper published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘International Journal of Engineering Research and Application’ states how high contamination of groundwater in Malwa is making it unfit for drinking or other domestic purposes. The areas under research were Bathinda, Muktsar, Ferozpur, Faridkot, Mansa, Moga, Barnala and Sangrur.

“Cancer prevalence (per million every year) in the Malwa region is found to be 1,089. Four of the 11 districts in Malwa are most affected by various kinds of the killer disease. Its highest incidence has been observed in Muktsar, followed by Mansa, Faridkot and Bathinda. Studies indicate that drinking water, particularly in the Malwa belt, can be a source of heavy metals, including fluoride and pesticides,” the paper reveals.  

The Punjab Agricultural University, along with the state government, has been running awareness campaigns about overuse of fertilisers and cancer occurrence in the region. Another study conducted by the state department of soil and water conservation states: “With the rotation cultivation of wheat and paddy crops, in a bid to produce more food grains, the natural resources of soil and water have degraded. If this continues, further depletion is likely to disrupt production levels which were achieved after the green revolution. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides has destroyed the physical structure of soil leading to its decreased water holding capacity, friable & loose structure.”

The research further shows how soil microfauna and microflora, which helps to store nutrients, allow good drainage and has essential soil building agents that are vital for agriculture, have been largely affected. Fertility and production capacity of soil have dwindled over the years, triggering an increase in its salinity and a subsequent biotic stress in plants caused by pathogens or weeds. All of these have also led to a drastic reduction in yield. With demand for organic foods dominating the markets, farmers in Punjab would have to drastically change their production methods.

Gian Singh, a prominent agro-economist of the state, said, “Groundwater pollution in Punjab is alarming. There is an increasing need to develop technology that can alter this situation.”

Planting a green future

The women of Bhotna today grow ladies finger, eggplant, carrot, radish and mustard crop among others, both outside their homes and in the fields. Satwinder Kaur, another resident of Bhotna, works at her agricultural field during the wheat season and grows vegetables at a small patch outside her house. “Reports about the growing number of people suffering from cancer here made me realise that it was time we stop using chemicals. We do not want people around us to die,” she said.



More stories published under