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The notorious cancer train of India

Traveling to different places has been one of the best recreation for many people. For some, it may be research travel, vacation, volunteer travel for charity, religious pilgrimages, or even for a healthcare. Travel may occur by human-powered vehicles such as walking or bicycle or by means of vehicles such as cars, buses, or train.

In this article, we are mainly going to focus on the train travel which was exclusively organized for a healthcare purpose. Have you ever heard of India’s cancer train? Let us have a train ride now.

The green revolution was one of the biggest news in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a brainchild of a number of politicians, scientists, and philanthropists in the developed nations. They convinced that if the farmers in India switch from the traditional methods of farming to the modernized techniques which involve the use of pesticides, fertilizers, high-yield seeds and other inorganic substances- they could fight the hunger, and prevent the region from going, communist.  In fact, the Green revolution helped India transform from a nation that is chronically begging for food to the one that exports high-quality grains. But at what cost?

The farmers blindly followed their advice without even giving it a second thought. They failed to think of the consequences which they will have to face on undergoing this sudden shift from one technique to the other. This greedy act of many farmers, due to their money oriented mindset made them all fall into the deep pit of cancerous diseases.

Every night around 9:30 p.m. the train no: 339 pulls into the shabby station in the northern Indian farm town of Bathinda, the state of Punjab. The local people call it a “cancer train”, as the number of cancer patients traveling in this train increases significantly.

The most remarkable feature of this train is that 60% of its population are cancer patients. It runs between the Bhatinda town of Punjab to Bikaner in Rajasthan. It is known as the cancer train because of a high number of cancer patients traveling by the train.

The train leaves the Bhatinda station around 9:25 p.m. and reaches Bikaner at Rajasthan around 6:00 a.m. It covers a distance of about 325 km with 26 halts altogether. The train has about 12 coaches and has gained its name due to the sudden increase in the cancer patients traveling by this train. The drastic increase in the cancer cases is due to the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers which eventually have an adverse effect on the human body.

The train is packed to near capacity with 100 cancer patients & 200 other co-travelers who travel by this train. The main motive of this train is to help the cancer patients in as many possible ways. The cost of the train ticket is only INR 210 but it is free of cost for the cancer patients. The accompanying attendant will have a concession of 75% of the ticket cost.

One should be wondering why the cancer patients of Punjab have to travel all the way long to Rajasthan for their treatment when Punjab itself holds the art facilities for the cancer treatment?

The huge population of cancer patients traveling by this train is poor farmers from the districts of Punjab: Bathinda, Faridkot, Moga, Muktsar, Ferozepur, Sangrur, and Mansa. These southern districts are together known as the Malwa region. The farmers and their families here are suffering from cancer and health problems that have crept into their homes through the backdoors as the farmers of India’s grain bowl fed the nation. This is due to the lush fields hiding with scary tales.

Another poor condition of the farmers is that due to their poor economic background and low levels of economic status they are not equally treated at the government hospitals. There are cases of patients wherein despite visiting the hospital several times and waiting for the doctor for a long time, they never got a chance to have a consultation. Waiting to have a consultation with the doctors here will only deteriorate the condition of the patients. This is the reason why they travel to far-off Rajasthan despite the services offered at Punjab.

Another fact is that it is incredibly hard to avail cash incentives from the Punjab government without any political connection. The poor farmers hardly can’t avail for these incentives and are majorly neglected at the government hospitals.

The poor farmers finally unable to fight against the injustice will leave to the hospital at Bikaner, which has one of the top 20 cancer research center in the country. For the cancer-stricken in Punjab, one of the nearest and most affordable cancer treatments are provided at Bikaner, Rajasthan.

Here I will provide two case studies of poor farmers at Bhatinda which will explain clearly why they opt to travel to far-off places despite Punjab being the hotspot of cancer treatment.

Surjeet Kaur, a farmer from the village called Mansa, spent about INR 30,000 for chemotherapy to treat breast cancer. Another woman, Sathya Devi, belonging to the same economic background spent about INR 1,00,000 for chemotherapy on a cancerous growth on her hip.

We all are very much aware of how the farmers toil hard all day and night to repay the loan they have taken before the harvest season. In such a case, spending so much amount for their health and another medical expenditure is never an easy thing for them. Unfortunately, the poor condition of all the farmers out there in Punjab is undoubtedly the same. At the end of the day, they have to move to Bikaner anyway in order to get considerations and equal treatment.

Malkeet is one of the 25,000 people suffering from cancer in Punjab. A survey in 2009 showed there are about 7,735 people living with cancer. In February 2013, the graph raised drastically to 23,874 cases. Over the past 5 years or so, there have been 24,000 cancer cases and about 33,000 deaths.

What must the hidden reason behind these alarming rates of cancer victims?

The Malwa region of Punjab could be popularly called as the cancer belt. It topped the list with 24,000 cancer cases & 33,000 deaths. The main cause for a large number of cancer victims is the overuse of pesticides by the farmers for the cultivation of cotton in this region. The State Council for Science & Technology’s State of Environment reports: The cotton growing districts of south-western Punjab consumes about 75% of the pesticides. There are multiple factors responsible for the cancer cases including the pesticides, alcohol consumption and smoking. “PGI” is currently working to figure out the correlation between breast cancer and pesticide usage.

The Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) conducted a survey with the blood and food samples of 20 random people from different villages of Bathinda and Ropar. The samples showed that 12.5% of the samples tested were contaminated with non-approved pesticides which are the main cause for the increased risk of cancer among the people.

What role do the genes play?

A survey showed that more than 90% of the cancer cases have no family history. On an average, only 7% to 8% of the people are biological victims of cancer. The genes in them have higher chances of developing cancer or they don’t have genes that control the tumor growth if at all they have cancer on being exposed to environmental and lifestyle factors.

Genes can be the main causes for breast, ovary, prostate and colon cancer. If the risk of breast cancer is increasing at alarming rates among the people then, a very close screening is required. An early detection of cancer can be cured with the treatment itself. Even otherwise a surgical removal of the breast can help save the life. If it is ovarian cancer then either the ovary or the fallopian tubes can be removed by surgical means. Apart from uterine and breast cancers, females also encounter reproductive health issues.

The environment and lifestyle changes also affect the lives of the people in a number of ways. Tobacco consumption, exposure to air, water, or smoke pollution, exposure to harmful radiations and unhealthy diets can also cause cancer among the people.  Earlier about 90% of the cancer cases were diagnosed at the end stage where nothing could be done to save the lives of the people. Now, with the advancement in the medical field, it has been reduced to 60-70%.

What do other health consequences the people of Punjab face?

Malwa also was known as Punjab’s cotton belt, the cotton crops grown here are prone to pests. The farmers blindly use 15 different varieties of pesticides and fertilizers keeping in mind only the profit and a huge yield. They  fail to think of the consequences which they will have to face as the result of their act.

Another worse thing to be quoted is that the farmers use the pesticide cans to store water and food. This will adversely affect their digestive system and the body on the whole.

Not only pesticides, even the quantity of fertilizer used is relatively high. Apart from this, the factories will discharge the waste water into the water bodies nearby. The water is entirely contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. The farmers when using this contaminated water for irrigation will adversely affect the crops.

Why is Bikaner preferred than Bhatinda?

The lodging and food at Bikaner are affordable as well. This makes it a lucrative option for the cancer patients. A room at Dharamshala in Bikaner costs only INR 50, while the thali in the hospital canteen costs only INR 5. The rates are so less so as to benefit the people’s stay in the region for the cancer treatment.

What role does the government play?

Had the government does its role efficiently in supporting the cancer patients of Punjab, the people would have been much more benefitted from the justice. The government works in a way similar to the private hospitals by treating the people of lower economic background differently. So it would be right to say, that the people catch the cancer train, not just for the cancer treatment at Bikaner but also to get justice.

This poor condition of the farmers is a very good lesson for millions of people out there. The greedy act of the farmers has also in some way contributed to this deadly situation. Had they balanced well both the traditional and the modern techniques of Green revolution, such a situation would not have raised.

Having read of this train journey, I would like to put forth the fact that if we don’t balance well between the modernization and healthy habits, many such “cancer trains” will run throughout India.

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