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Cover Story

RESIDUE OF A REVOLUTION

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Jun 15, 2005 | From the print edition

-- Bhola Singh is dead...

Bhola Singh was a farmer from village Balloh, district Bhatinda, Punjab. He is part of a story with a beginning and an end. But it has no middle. Thus what follows is a fragment. But it is not fiction.

Punjab practices intensive agriculture that needs pesticides. Industry says that, compared to the developed world, we use little pesticide in India. That is true, perhaps even in Punjab. But what industry does not tell you is that we find much more pesticide, compared to the developed world, in our food, our water, our soils. And now, our blood. As you will find, in this story that has no middle.

We know pesticide use in Punjab is one of the highest in the country. We also know there are residues in the food it produces. But what else? Do we know what pesticides are doing to people there? Whether cancer rates there are higher, or of a correlation between growing disease burden and the use of toxins? No. We don't. Why? Because there is no definite evidence. So, industry says, don't ask hypothetical questions. So, this story has no middle.

But our colleagues have tried to understand the science and politics of pesticide regulation: a piece of the missing middle. Another piece: they travelled to two districts -- among the highest users of pesticides in Punjab -- and collected samples of human blood. This was in October, 2004: spraying season. Pesticides everywhere: in fields and storerooms of kitchens. Shops stocked to the rafters. Pesticides sold over the counter, like aspirin. You can mix, you can match, use as much as you can afford. There are no rules here. No corporate responsibility on educating farmers on right use. But the market works on marketing, not on telling the truth, right? Nobody is supposed to ask what is right. Because there is nobody to tell you what is wrong.

This story tries that. We found pesticides in the blood samples. All samples. A mixture of pesticides. At high levels. And at this point, the story falls apart again. For, what is a 'high level' in human blood? How much is safe in human blood? How much unsafe? We do not know. There exist studies in India, of human blood, for a range of what are called 'persistent' pesticides; they bioaccumulate. But such pesticides have been banned, at least on record. So are the residues we found a 'historical burden'?

No. Moreover today, says industry, they peddle Gen-next pesticides: these do not persist. They degrade. We beg to differ, strongly. Invented for chemical warfare during World War II, these Gen-next concoctions are less persistent but more toxic. We found the blood of people in Punjab contain these pesticides, which should have disintegrated into metobolites and excreted, as industry would have it. But they are there. We found them.

Industry is completely mum on what Gen-next pesticides do, in the human body, in the time they circulate there. And what about metabolites? What do we know about their impact on our bodies?

We know chemicals can suppress the immune system, in turn triggering disease. But since no doctor will give you a death certificate which says the cause is an unknown trigger, industry is safe. We cannot pinpoint blame. All stories of cancer will be dismissed as fiction. No truth. No connection. Certainly no liability.

But this is chemical rape. What we found in Punjab has no comparison. Still, we are not saying cancer in Punjab is because of the pesticide it uses. There is no proof. In this world of industry, the onus is on us to prove, our death, in the face of an evident murderer.

So, we ask you to read. Do read between the lines, the horrendous pain of cancer and no cause. We ask you to read so that we can jointly ask for change. This, we repeat, is not fiction. It is real life. About all of us. About our bodies. It cannot go unsaid. It will not remain denied.

-- Sunita Narain and Chandra Bhushan

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