Punjab university plays host to pesticide lobby
on november 9, papers in Punjab ran stories about a study exposing high levels of pesticides in blood samples of people in the state. Pesticides were also on the agenda that day at a symposium at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. But the "experts' gathered at the meet were not there to allay concerns raised by the report. Their energies were, in fact, directed at dispelling "myths' about pesticides.
Speaker after speaker, mostly from the university and the pesticide industry body, Agro-Chemical Promotion Group (apg), denounced ngos for "spreading rumours about pesticides'. "Judicious use of pesticides" was held to be imperative for the country's food security and a study by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (pgimer), Chandigarh, linking pesticides to the rise in cancer cases in the cotton belt of Punjab, was vehemently criticized.The meet did not take any note of a new study revealing disturbing levels of pesticides and industrial effluents in five major drains of Punjab: Buddha drain in Ludhiana and adjoining districts, Hudiara and Tung Dhab drains in Amritsar and adjoining districts, East Bein and Kala Singha drains in Jalandhar and adjoining districts. The study was initiated by researchers of the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar and taken forward by scientists at the department of community medicine, pgimer, and the Punjab Pollution Control Board (ppcb). The researchers aimed to find effects of water pollution on health of people living along the five drains.
Their conclusions were alarming. Vegetable, food, milk and blood samples had high pesticide residues. Heptachlor, b-endosulphan and chloripyriphos residues in groundwater exceeded the maximum residue limit fixed by the state's health department by 25 per cent, 21.5 per cent and 16 per cent (see box: Findings of the report). ppcb's member secretary, Birendrajit Singh, gave Down To Earth an insight into the possible reasons behind the contamination. "Local bodies dispose domestic waste water into the drains. Pesticide-laced agricultural runoff also goes into these drains, so does industrial effluent. A lot of this cocktail of chemicals, heavy metals and pesticides, seeps underground, contaminating the groundwater.'
This contamination is having a serious bearing on the health of people, the study concludes. According to J S Thakur, assistant professor, department of community medicine, pgimer, 65 per cent of the blood samples showed varying degrees of genetic mutation. Gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhoea, water-related vector-borne diseases like malaria, skin and eye ailment were common among people living along the drains (see interview: The industry's being conceited).
Omissions and commissions Thakur was approached with an invitation to attend the November 9 symposium, which he declined. "I did not receive any invitation from the Punjab Agricultural University, though R Sundareshan, apg' s general manager communications, did approach me. I declined his offer, and gave him a 200 page document containing over 1,000 studies linking pesticides to cancer, instead. The organizers of the symposium are being very conceited in refuting these studies,' he says.
But then who organized the symposium? On paper the Punjab Agricultural University and the state's agriculture department. But in fact, it was dominated by the pesticide lobby. Open invitations were sent out and signed by apg on behalf of the university. The preponderant role of a body comprising three associations of pesticide companies