Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Economic Times
Himachal Pradesh, a state known for its pristine natural beauty, clean air, ambient climate, apples, tourism etc., is undergoing a transformation in terms of the effects of shift in agriculture and horticulture. “This” transformation does not pertain to the shift in the agri-pattern from conventional cereals and potato growing economy to apples and now mainly “off season vegetables”; this transformation took place some 2-3 decades ago. The transformation which is taking place now is in the effects of this first transformation, that pertains to “rapid rise in malignancy (cancer)” cases in the state.
The rise in cancer patients in the state could be attributed to various reasons, the rampant use of ‘synthetic pesticides’ (fungicides and insecticides) being one of the principal factors. Hence, there must be a concerted, coordinated research integrating the medical colleges, department of biochemistry and organic chemistry of Himachal University, scientists from the University of Horticulture and Forestry and other important scientists from the same fraternity. To state the least, the state is on the brink of a deep crisis where more than 5,000 new cases of malignancy are reported every year and an equal number go unreported. For a small state like Himachal, it is alarming!
THEOG: HUB OF OFF-SEASON VEGETABLES
Theog is the region where there has been the largest shift from conventional agriculture to off-season vegetables. It is considered to be the area growing the largest per capita vegetables in Asia. Theog is a subdivision in Shimla district. It is not just the largest vegetable growing area, but also sees the largest consumption of seeds as well as fertilizers and pesticides.
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Suman Kumari (34 years), Ranjana (33 years) and Jyoti (17 years) (names changed, same age); all these girls died in the last two years. All of them belonged to a contiguous area in Theog and suffered from Gastro-intestinal (affecting the digestive system) malignancy. Similarly, there are scores of other cases reported from the same region who died due to malignancy.
The data collected from the department of radiotherapy, Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC), Shimla, depicts that there is a rise in cases in successive years. It should be mentioned that the above cases (of three girls) do not figure in the IGMC records as after diagnosis of cancer, instead of getting treated in Shimla, they had gone to different medical institutions outside the state. The table below gives a picture of the cases from Theog who underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy in the radiotherapy department, IGMC Shimla.
||Number of patients from Theog who underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy in IGMC, Shimla
SPRAYS OF PESTICIDES: MNCs PROTOCOL
Sohan Thakur, a prominent vegetable grower and a former member of the zila parishad (district panchayat) from Theog, said that the agricultural transformation in the region took place in late 1980s when a large-scale shift took place from cereal growing to “off season vegetables”. The main vegetable crops in Theog are cabbage, cauliflower, peas, French beans and even tomatoes. In some of the places, apple is a major crop too.
According to the data collected from Theog , 600 kg of cauliflower seeds, 500 kg of cabbage seeds, 70 tonnes of French beans and 280 tonnes of peas are sown in Theog region. The table below shows the total production in the area.
||Seeds (average last two years)
||Quantity sown in Theog
||Average production of crop
||100 g produces 12.5 tonnes
||100 g produces 10 tonnes
||1 kg produces 750 kg
||1 kg produces 50 kg
The table itself explains the large quantity of seeds sown in the region and an equivalent large quantity of production in the region.
Interestingly, all these seeds are supplied by multinational corporations (MNCs) and are mainly hybrid. A cursory look at the money collected by these MNCs from the sale of seeds is astonishing. A 10 g packet of cauliflower seeds costs Rs 65,000; cabbage seeds Rs 35,000, French beans costs Rs 450 per kilogram and peas seeds cost Rs 250 per kilogram.
There is a protocol laid by the MNC seed companies that the vegetable grower is forced to follow for the spraying pattern of pesticides on the vegetables. Otherwise, the harvest will be of very poor quality. Considering the altitude of the Theog region, two to three crops are harvested and for a single crop 5-7 sprays of pesticides are done. Similarly, for apples there is a protocol of 8-9 sprays. The major sprays of insecticides are Chlorphyriphos, Cypermethrin, Bavistin, Dithane, Blitox, Nativo etc.
For an area sowing 300 grams of cabbage, on an average 40 litres of Chlorphyriphos and roughly 10 litres of cypermethrin are used. One can just imagine the scale in which these pesticides are used in the region of Theog.
Sohan while explaining the atmosphere after spraying of insecticides in the field said that at times, it is difficult even to breathe the air in the vegetable field. All of it (spray of insecticides) then gets mixed in air, water, plants etc. The fodder for the cattle also comes from the fields.
Professor Ghanshyam Singh Chauhan, one of the eminent scientists of the state and a former teacher in Chemistry department of Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla, termed the situation as highly precarious and said that if proper intervention is not undertaken, a major health crisis may hit the state soon. While explaining the reasons for such a fear, he said that there are twin forms of pesticides – organic and synthetic based pesticides. Theog and for that matter, the entire state is dependent upon synthetic-based pesticides as recommended by the MNCs who sell their seeds. Prof Ghanshyam explained that the synthetic pesticides have a long life span and are highly recalcitrant. These are non-biodegradable and are more harmful for the human beings and the ecosystem.
While spraying these pesticides, there is a phenomenon called “pesticide drift” , which affects not just the surface meant to be targeted, but even areas beyond that. Through the food chain, these pesticides enter the human body and there are cases of even congenital defects in new born babies.
It severely affects the endocrine system and is disastrous. Professor Chauhan is one among those scientists who had campaigned against the use of ‘anti-hail guns’ for its chemical properties which were highly carcinogenic. He said these pesticides are worse than hail guns.
He advocates the use of bio-fertilisers which has an organic origin and shared his vision of ‘drift management’ of sprays. He said, through the new technology in microbial and organic chemistry, the doze of the fertiliser and pesticide can be dictated in terms of discipline and instead of a drift spray, it can be used in capsule form to ensure that there is a direct effect.
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While agreeing for a multi-disciplinary approach, he argued for concerted intervention by the government to ensure that at least a proper study is conducted to ascertain the affects of the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers in vegetable and fruit production in the state, particularly in some of the potentially vulnerable areas.
WELL DOCUMENTED RESEARCH
Professor Manish Gupta, currently head of department of Radiotherapy, Cancer Hospital, IGMC, Shimla, shared the details of the patients that are present in his department. He said cancer is the second most rampant killer after cardio-vascular diseases and in Himachal, too, the rise is acute. While sharing some of the research papers on rise in malignancy in the state, he said the connection between GI cancer and rampant use of pesticides is not an area that has been ventured into. While explaining that almost 60% of the cancer patients in the hospital turn out to be lung infected where the principal cause is smoking, nevertheless, he said, this connection has to be done in a coordinated form. There are studies that explicitly shows the interconnection between the rise in the incidence of malignancy and the rampant use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. He said there must be well-documented research which should be jointly conducted by various institutions and the government must play a pivotal role in it.
Highlighting the serious challenge that the mountaineous state is facing, he asserted that an early diagnosis could prevent a large number of deaths due to cancer.
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There is no doubt that HP, especially the regions that have witnessed shift in agri-patterns, have a greater vulnerability to the hazards of exposure to synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. What is required is an urgent intervention for a concerted research on the effects of indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilisers. The mountain state, which has a relatively clean environment and a spartan lifestyle is in the grip of a serious crisis where the people do not even know what they sow and reap, whether it is beneficial or harmful to them in the long run.
The author is former deputy mayor of Shimla. The views are personal.