Besides cancer, other diseases have also taken roots in the area because of contaminated groundwater. The disease is not only confined to Bathinda but has also over the years spread its tentacles in the entire Malwa belt consisting of the districts of Muktsar, Faridkot, Moga, Barnala, Mansa and Ferozepur, where the patients were fed up of "hollow promises" of the Central and the state government.
The area has emerged as the epicentre of the disease and has come to be known as the cancer belt of Punjab.
The number of applications from patients for financial aid for the treatment was piling up in the office of the Chief Minister while the Union Health Ministry has "failed" to come out with some firm assurance on opening a super-speciality hospital for the treatment of the disease. The private sector hospital coming up here might remain out of reach for financially weak patients.
A series of studies conducted by the Chandigarh-based PGI, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and various other reputed institutions have indicated that drinking water being supplied particularly in the Malwa belt was a cancer cocktail as it was a combination of pesticides, heavy metals and fluoride. Besides cancer, this was causing serious deformities among children.
Residents of the Malwa belt believe that many people in the area became prone to cancer only after the Green Revolution was launched followed by the introduction of Bt cotton for which farmers indulged in an excessive use of pesticides and insecticides badly contaminating groundwater.
While the disease was on the rise, the officialdom of Punjab has somewhat remained "insensitive" to the issue that was troubling most households in rural areas. They were unable to furnish the exact number of cancer patients to a high-level team of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that visited the districts of the Malwa belt recently to have a first hand information about causes for the spread of the disease. The team was specially dispatched by Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad on the request of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and his wife and MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who met him in New Delhi with an SOS on the issue as 1,089 persons have lost their lives because of the disease in the past three years in the Bathinda parliamentary constituency.
Researchers have found very high level of uranium concentration in hair samples of children and also traces of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, strontium and barium.
According to the data provided to Azad by Sukhbir, out of the 3,409 tests and 894 mammograms conducted in Bathinda and adjoining Mansa district, 46 cases turned out positive while 131 were rated suspects. The region has no diagnostic and treatment centre and sufferers have to travel to Chandigarh and Bikaner for the purpose.
According to official figures, as many as 2,218 cancer patients, including 1,355 women, were detected in Bathinda district within eight years till 2009, of which 1,347 had died.
Similarly, 1,058 patients suffering from cancer were detected in Mansa district, of which 695 succumbed to the disease during the same period.
Roko Cancer, an NGO, was engaged in holding camps to detect the incidence of cancer in various parts of the Malwa belt and also educating the rural folk about the early detection of the disease.
During recent camps in the three subdivisions of Ferozepur district, the NGO, after examining 2,996 persons, detected 102 patients of cancer in Ferozepur, Fazilka and Abohar.
Another NGO, Kheti Virasat Mission, has raised doubts about the data of cancer patients built by the Punjab Health Department and has demanded a scientific approach on the matter to prepare an authentic list, as the NGO suspects that the number of patients was more than what was claimed by the authorities.
The Centrally-funded ONCONET project for the districts of Bathinda, Muktsar and Sangrur has remained in the doldrums because of the "laxity" of the Punjab Government. The project would have provided the district hospitals a direct link with the PGI for the treatment of cancer patients. Azad had snubbed the Punjab Government for delaying the utilisation of Central grants for setting up regional cancer centres in Faridkot and Patiala medical colleges.
Another alarming factor that came to light during the year was the presence of uranium beyond the permissible limits in groundwater in the Malwa region. This was causing mental retardation, physical deformities and neurological problems among children in various areas.
The worst affected was Teja Rohela village near Fazilka in Ferozepur district where more than 100 children were congenitally, mentally and physically found challenged by an NGO working in the area.