Written by Klaas van Dijken.
The basmati rice in your supermarket comes in packaging that tells a pretty story: of produce cultivated in the lush hills at the foot of the Himalayas, where the soil is fertile and aplenty. However, this rice crop is grown using severely-polluted groundwater. What damage does the basmati industry inflict on the environment and the farmers, and could it ultimately harm the consumer?
Punjab has been known as India’s bread basket since the 1960s, when a so-called ‘green revolution’ brought about great changes in the region’s agricultural sector. Farming was rapidly industrialized to increase food availability to ward off a looming famine. But the use of pesticides is proving disastrous in the long run. Many of the farmers are illiterate and do not know how to properly use the chemicals. They are unaware of the impact increased usage can have on their health.
For the agricultural labourers in Mari Mustafa, Punjab, the days start early. Harmesh Singh is one of them: in the time leading up to the harvest he will check his crop and the water levels every day. The rest of his time is devoted to the care for his wife Mohinder Kaur, who has been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in a three-year period. The doctors removed tumors from her belly, but the family doesn’t know with certainty which type of cancer she is suffering from. “I feel a little better at least”, says 48-year-old Mohinder. Her elder sister died of cancer. “And my younger sister has been diagnosed, as well.”
“Thirty years ago we would only spray the fields twice a year”, says to Harmesh. “Now, the crops are resistant and the soil has become less fertile. We use the chemicals four or five times, just to be able to harvest the same amounts as we used to.” The chemicals end up in the groundwater, which is no longer potable, according to Harmesh. Thankfully, he can afford to buy water at a government treatment plant that was placed in the town in 2013. But for the labourers, who spray the pesticides onto the crop, the purified water is too expensive. They still use the contaminated groundwater.
The cancer patients who travel to the public clinic can claim a monetary compensation. But everybody in Mari Mustafa tells us that this reimbursement does not cover the actual costs of the treatment – that is if the government pays at all.
In 2009, research conducted by Greenpeace demonstrated that twenty percent of groundwater samples taken from the Punjab exceeded the WHO standards for nitrates. This is caused by the fertilizer Ureum. Greenpeace claims that the excessive nitrates can cause cancer of the bladder or lymph nodes as well as ovarian cancer. The Punjabi farmers use the chemicals to cultivate fruit and vegetables and to wash themselves, their animals and the crops. The Indian Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found in 2005 that blood samples taken from farmers contained a total of fifteen harmful chemicals. “As the agricultural sector now relies on the use of pesticides, this is an invasion of chemicals that we see reflected in the blood works”, according to Amit Khurana from the CSE.
It is difficult to put an exact number to the cases of cancer in Punjab, says Dr. Gurpreet Singh, vice dean at the Adesh University in Bathinda. Here again, the worker’s illiteracy forms an issue, as many of them do not know that the disease they are suffering from could be a form of cancer. In other cases, the government does not keep a patient database. Still, researchers at the Post-Graduate Institute for Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh found that Punjab has many more cancer patients than any other of India’s states.
Dr. Singh does not only see cancer patients in the Punjab region. Increasingly, men have weak sperm. Women miscarry. And more children are being born with birth defects; deformed limbs or genitals.
So far, solutions to this problem have come from private initiatives. Ten years ago, Umendra Dutt founded Kheti Vrasat Mission (KVM), an organisation that educates farmers about organic farming methods. “Punjab was never a suitable region for such intensive rice cultivation”, says Dutt. “There is not enough water: the groundwater level drops every day. What little water is left, gets contaminated.” KVM have educated twenty thousand rice famers on less harmful methods.
But not everyone can quit using the pesticides. Rice farmer Gurwinder Singh lives just north of Mari Mustafa. He says he would like to change his agricultural practices because he is aware of the health effects of pesticides. But he cannot afford to do so, and thus continues to use them.
While the agricultural revolution that was set in motion almost a half century ago has reaped great economic results, it has been mislabelled as ‘green’. “As we’ve started to grow food for the global market, we’ve become greedy”, says Dutt. He admits: a reduced export of basmati rice could be a financial disaster for the farmers now involved in the sector. “But with that product we also export our last supply of fresh water. What we have left should belong to the generations who come after us. If we continue using the chemicals on this scale, we will not survive the next fifteen years.”
Klaas van Dijken is a freelance reporter in conflict areas and countries with repressive regimes like Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Somalia. He is based in the Netherlands and tweets at @. This story is part of an international project about basmati rice. Take a look at the online documentary The Price of Basmati. It has been funded by the European Journalism Centre via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme. A previous version of this piece was published in Dutch here. Image Credit: CC by Rice Fields in Punjab/Flickr