Agriculture is still one of the largest sectors in Bangladesh economy. Although the rural economy recorded considerable growth in recent years, the health and wellbeing of farmers engaged in agriculture do not get adequate attention or care. Rather, it has been observed in recent past that the incidence of diseases like cancer and those related to kidney, liver, lungs etc. are gradually on the rise among farmers all over the country. This has come to light in a report penned by the eminent social researcher Gawhar Nayeem Wara recently, which has shocked many as farmers have been the real heroes in Bangladesh's progress over the past fifty years.
There were many incidents of farmers falling seriously sick while working in their fields even during 2019 - the year before the onset of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. Some of them even died while spraying pesticides. But no elaborate investigations were undertaken about these deaths. At that time, a report was published in a leading daily with the title 'Farmers are collapsing in the fields', after which eminent personalities of the country issued a joint statement demanding judicial inquiry into those deaths. Some human rights organizations even pledged to go to courts for pursuing the matter. But sadly, the tempo for taking concrete actions on the subject was lost in the wake of the pandemic that struck early in 2020.
It is a tragedy that the well-off people of the country do not have much time for worrying about the farmers, who are often snubbed by so-called upper class citizens as belonging to a lower stratum. But they continue to toil silently in the crop-fields generation after generation for the good of society and nation - and even appear ready to become martyrs in the process. Apart from sudden collapses in the field, the farmers are also dying in large numbers due to the dreaded disease - cancer. According to the Cancer Registry Report 2015-17 of the Epidemiology division of National Institute for Cancer Research and Hospital (NICRH), one-third of those diagnosed as cancer-patients by the institute each year belong to the ordinary farmers' category. Besides, among those diagnosed with cancer, the proportion of farmers is continuously rising every year. It should be pointed out that the NICRH figures represent only a fraction of the cancer patients in Dhaka. But most of the farmers are unable to visit even the district or divisional hospitals, let alone Dhaka. Treatment of the disease is also beyond their means in many cases.
According to media reports, the proportion of cancer patients among farmers is rising in India as well, especially in northern India and Punjab region. The local people are blaming uncontrolled use of pesticides and fertiliser, excessive rise in pollution and indifference of relevant authorities towards this malaise. There are differences between Bangladesh and northern India in terms of physical make-up of peasants, use of technology and equipment, climate, food-habit, sizes and ownerships of land, crop markets, procurement policies of the government, and incentives offered to farmers. But why is there so much similarity in the spreading of cancer among farmers at both the places? Has that anything to do with the syndicates of pesticide producers cum marketers in both the countries?
There has always been a dearth of applied research regarding the profession-based causes of diseases in Bangladesh. Why are the farmers being afflicted with cancer at a higher rate? Is there any class-differentiation among these cancer-afflicted farmers? As for India, the researchers of the Post-graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh conducted an investigation to look into the causes of cancer among farmers in Punjab. They conclusively found that the outbreak of cancer is higher in those areas where farmers tend to use excessive quantities of pesticide.
Based on various studies, the World Food Program (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO) have also expressed concern about improper registration of chemicals used in agriculture, non-compliance with the usage limit, reluctance to ensure personal safety measures while spraying or using pesticides, and absence of national policies on the subject in line with international regulations. Time is now ripe for undertaking extensive research on incidence of cancer in the country, as well as how it is spreading among people belonging to various trades and professions. The farmers deserve special attention and focus in this research. But it is unfortunate that policy-makers seldom attach due importance to their predicament, and instead tend to view them as mere crop-producing machines.
The pesticide companies started their journey in this country by branding the farmers as fools in their advertisements. They wrote in the posters, banners and billboards: 'Pests eat the crops of fools'. The pictures in the broadcast media, documentaries and advertisements conveyed the same, "Farmers, you are fools, but the sellers of pesticides are clever. You can also become clever if you buy this poison quickly". In this way, the farmers took to poisonous pesticides for tackling the pests. But now its widespread application is crossing the limit.
At present, about 50 thousand tons of pesticides are imported annually in the country. As a consequence, excessive quantities of pesticides are applied, and the residuals are found even in crops and vegetables. A study by the National Food Safety Laboratory of Public Health Institute found in 2016 that the amount of pesticide in cauliflowers was 36-times higher than the permissible limit for human body. Just as anti-biotic medicines do not work due to over-use, similarly, incrementally higher doses of pesticides are applied for eliminating pests. As the cultivation of vegetables, fruits, flowers and crops increases, the demand for this poison is also rising.
In the above backdrop, steps should be taken on an urgent basis to regulate and control the application of chemical pesticides in our crop-fields alongside undertaking studies on the subject. The field offices of the agriculture ministry at the district and upazila levels should also pay due attention to the matter and take immediate initiatives for generating awareness on the subject among all stakeholders.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.