This published article was sent to me and I reproducing it here on my blog and hope the author has no objections. It’s a very very insightful and important read.
Punjab: A DYING CIVILISATION?
The repeat of devastation of Sindhu Valley Civilization
By Umendra Dutt
About two years ago my friend the famous singer Rabbi Shergill in one of his
Punjabi article says “There is no doubt that it was just because of a major
environmental change that the great civilization of Indus valley had
completely vanished. The same reasons, in the same form are today existed
before us. The only difference between the both situations is this that in
those times it was a natural disaster but this time it is of man made”.
Rabbi equated present situation of Punjab with Sindh valley which destroyed
because of water scarcity.
Rabbi concluded his article by saying ‘Sindh ghaatti aj fir maran nu tyaar
hai’ which means Sindh valley is again prepared to die “Will this really
happen?” I asked my co-passengers “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, I
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
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 Makrod Sahib in Sangrur. I wondered how accurate is forecast made
by Rabbi Shergill.
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 Their.
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.” None of us want Punjab
to die, do we?
(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission; a Jaitu based a
civil society ecological action group working on natural farming and
environmental health. Contacts: Phones: 09872682161)
Umendra Dutt, Executive Director, Kheti Virasat Mission
KHETI VIRASAT MISSION
JAITU,District- FARIDKOT- 151202
Phone:01635 – 503415, Mobile -9872682161