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Punjab, the first state to adopt green revolution technologies
Green revolution and economic stress: A factor for an alarming increase in suicide rates in Punjab
Malnutrition in Punjab in the era of the Green Revolution
A rise of children born with mental retardation, malformation, autism and neonatal mortality
Increase in the number of death due to pesticide poisoning
Poverty eradication programmes (PEP) are designed to improve people’s lives; meaning that all components of human life, i.e., economic, spiritual, psychological and mental, physical, and health should be improved. The name PEP is sometimes used interchangeably with poverty alleviation programmes, and they include long-term series of actions arising from a country’s policy and might be influenced by other developed countries or international organizations with goals of eradicating poverty. According to Saha (1), India has gone through three phases in an attempt to alleviate and eradicate poverty. These phases are the land redistribution of 1950-1960; period of addressing poverty and measures for rural areas and creation of employment opportunities and distribution of renewable assets at the end of the 1960s; and finally the phase of actions to accelerate economic growth and to build a conducive environment for spreading effect in the 1990s.
In the second phase of PEP in India, there was a substantial rise in crop production achieved through the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, modernized irrigation systems, mechanical pumps and high-yield crop varieties obtained from hybridization. It was the period when the green revolution was born in India. Adoption of new green technologies was necessary to ensure food production for the growing population and avoid famine. However, Indians had their type of agriculture which respected the ecosystem for the survival of all living beings. Food security was the primary concern, but there were also external forces from the western world, especially the United States of America (USA). Some scientists (2,3) found that the western world wanted to control India by fighting communism and make money from the green revolution by selling the necessary inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery.
The green revolution saved India from famine by producing vast quantities of food, mainly rice and wheat. The new technology provides food for Indians and income through exports and selling food to other regions of the world. However, the green revolution has given birth to many challenges for the Indian ecosystem making it more vulnerable to man-made disasters. In this essay, I would like to focus on the negative, unintended health effects in the first state which embraced the green revolution in India. I will start by describing the basic facts of the state followed by the unintended health challenges, and I will end up with a summary.
The State of Punjab is located in northwest India. Its population has risen from twenty million in 1991 to thirty million in 2017; sixty-six percent of the population live in rural areas, and twenty percent are immigrants from other Indian states (4). It is reported to be the best state in the human development index of India and one of the leading states in agricultural production and per capita income (5).
Punjab was the first state in India to start using modern agricultural technology in 1965(1,6). There is speculation that the high literacy rate and the presence of wealthy farmers favored high rate of acceptance of the new technological inputs as compared to other states at that time (6,7). The new technology involved the application of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, intensive irrigation through the construction of dams and mechanization, and an introduction of high-yield-varieties of seeds (HYV). HYV consisted of the introduction of hybridized wheat and rice as new crops to the area. All chemical fertilizers and pesticides were imported from western countries, especially the USA. Shiva (2) said:
‘ American producers of fertilizer were anxious to ensure higher fertilizer consumption overseas to recoup their investment. The fertilizer push was an important factor in the spread of new seeds, because wherever the new seeds went, they opened up new markets for chemical fertilizers. ’ (p.29).
The green revolution brought many health challenges in Punjab's communities due to intensive and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, desertification, waterlogging and salinity, micronutrient s deficiency, and water scarcity. In the following sections, I will discuss the increase in the rate of suicide, malnutrition, cancer, deaths due to pesticide poisoning, increase in child mortality, mental challenges, malformations, and global warming linked to the green revolution in Punjab. I will also speculate on the possibility of an outbreak of infections that are caused by poor personal hygiene resulting from an inadequate water supply.
Agriculture has been the backbone of economic sustainability of Punjab since the pre-colonial era. Before the green revolution, the communities of Punjab lived in a social system in which members supported each other and used natural resources like animal and plant manures and diversified crops to ensure soil fertility (2). This system was user-friendly, and members had a sense of hope because they were living in a bonded community. The coming of new technology in the 1960s forced even poor peasants to end their original practices and adopt a market economy in which without money there was little chance to prosper. Under this new technology, Punjab shifted from diversified crops to monoculture, growing wheat and rice on nearly 78 percent of the land (1,8). From the 1960s to 1980s, peasants and agricultural laborers noticed a high monetary return from their efforts due to the high demand for wheat and rice in other states of India and other countries (8). Challenges emerged from the 1980s where many small-scale farmers had to borrow to manage the increasing cost of production and commercialization. The new agricultural style promised high returns and therefore easy credit. People’s consumption led to crop failure, and since they had raised their level of expenditures, there was an increased debt burden. In 1997 alone, the average debt was $88 per acre of cultivated land among small farmers (8). The overproduction of wheat and rice led to huge stocks and poor procurement and storage, which caused a market crisis
Indebtedness and lack of demand for wheat and rice led to economic stress linked to increased cases of suicides among farmers in Punjab (8-10). Stress is a well-known social determinant of health, which can lead to poor mental health (11), and arguably accelerated the rate of suicide among farmers. Punjab started to report an increase in suicide among farmers in the 1990s, and by 1993, the rate had increased by nearly 52% while throughout the rest of India the increase was only 5.11% (12). The national rate started to decline in 1994 but for Punjab, continued to rise (Figure 1). Figure 2 shows the trend in numbers of suicide including a decrease in 1996-1997. In 2011, around 40% of 250,000 deaths by suicide in ll of India occurred in Punjab (13) due to stress brought about by the green revolution. It is, however, of paramount importance to emphasize that these statistics are just an approximation of the magnitude of the problem, as many cases were not reported due to several reasons.
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Figure 1: Comparison between suicide rates in India and Punjab 1988-1997. Source: The Punjab State Co-Op. Apex Bank limited. Department of co-operation, government of Punjab. 1998
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Figure 2: General trend of suicide in Punjab: 1988-1997. Source: The Punjab State Co-Op. Apex Bank limited. Department of co-operation, government of Punjab. 1998
The program was supposed to bring development in all aspects of the economy including public health. The proposers and the implementers of the programme were supposed to reflect deeply on possible psychological issues which could have risen to improve health as defined by World Health Organization(14) as the ‘ state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity ’ before taking action.
The challenge of fighting hunger is not merely about the quantity of food produced but also quality and variety to ensure consumers get the necessary nutrients for good health. Diversified agriculture provides the presence of all nutritional components: proteins, carbohydrates, oils, minerals, and vitamins. Punjab has experienced a transition from crop diversification to monoculture (Figure 3). They produce mainly wheat, rice and cotton replacing pulses, oilseeds, and coarse cereals. As a consequence, during the green revolution until now the varieties of food consumed more by adults have more calories. The consumption of calories has led to an increase in obesity in both rural and urban populations. For instance, from 1998-99 to 2005-06 the proportion increase in obesity among women went from 30% to 38%, affecting urban areas, and 34% of men were obese (15). Despite the fact there are no data before the green revolution to compare with, it is more likely that it has influenced obesity in the state. When too many calories are assimilated in the body without physical exercise, they are converted biochemically into fats, which deposit under the skin. Obesity is a risk factor for chronic maladies like metabolic syndrome, diabetes mellitus, hypertension and others. The state of Punjab must prepare to face future health challenges linked to obesity.
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Figure 3: Trend in crop diversification in Punjab. SID=Simpson Index of Diversity. Source: Sharma, N. & Singh, S.P. (2013). Agricultural diversification and contract farming in Punjab. Journal of Economic & Social Development, IX, (1)
Despite economic growth by the green revolution, children in Punjab state lack a lot of necessary nutrients. State surveys (15) found that there is a deficiency of iron and folate in 80 percent of the children aged 6 to 35 months with 7% being severely affected in 2006. Bains et al. (16) found that only 18.5% of children between six to 24 months and 37.2% between 3 to 5-year -old children had an adequate intake of foods with iron. Iron and folate deficiency leads to anemia, which exposes children to diseases and low immunity level. One particular study (17) conducted in rural settings in 2002, found that 60% of preschool children were stunted and 12% wasted. These schoolchildren had a diet poor in minerals, fats, and energy. It is arguable that the green revolution has played a part in this deficiency due to undernourishment brought by monoculture system. However, other factors like infestation with worms could explain the high prevalence of anemia.
Ninety-nine percent of adolescents in Punjab were also found to be anemic in 2006 (15). In the same study, 2.8% of the people living in rural Punjab had dental fluorosis. This disease is due to overconsumption of fluorine and weakens the skeletal systems leading to frequent fractures. Overconsumption of this element could be linked to an excess of fluorine in water as a result of artificial chemical fertilizers used in agriculture. Currently, there are no studies to show an association of fluorosis and fractures in Punjab.
Pregnant women nutrition status has also been affected by the green revolution. A national survey in 2006 found a prevalence of 42% of anemia among pregnant women in Punjab (18). However, this prevalence is low compared to that of 73.4% in the nearby state of Haryana in 2004 (19) which also depend hugely on the green revolution. Undernourishment can explain the high prevalence of anemia due to lack of variety because of the adaptation of monoculture. Therefore, the new technology may be playing a significant role in promoting one of the factors to increase the chance of premature birth and death of the new-borns.
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