Bhatinda, 31 January 2017. A Sikh man and his wife are sitting on one of the corner benches of platform number 1 at Bhatinda’s Railway station. Sukhpal and Magar are waiting to board the train to Bikaner, Rajasthan, something they do at least once every month. She has throat cancer.
It is a train trip hundreds of cancer patients take for subsidised treatment. The train, which originates from Abohar and goes all the way to Jodhpur, dropping off patients at Bikaner, has come to be known as the “Cancer Train”.
This is a train for the poor. It has no air-conditioned coaches. The seats are on the ‘first come, first served’ basis. But Sukhpal and Magar are familiar with the train. They know which coach fills up last, so they secure a sleeper seat to share.
“In a year, we travel at least 15-16 times. Almost every 20 days we travel for treatment. She has had chemotherapy and is slightly better now, but can’t speak too much. Every day at least 50-75 cancer patients travel to Bikaner,” says Magar.
The couple did not use water filters. “We drank straight from the hand pump. Then we realised fertilisers have made the water poisonous. Then we got a filter. But by then my wife already had cancer,” Magar said.
In another coach, Randhir Singh is travelling to buy chemotherapy medicine for his wife and a friend. “I have been doing this for 6 years. My wife has stomach cancer,” he said.
Bhatinda is in Punjab’s Malwa region, where a lot of chemicals are indiscriminately used for pest control, said agricultural expert Dr S S Chahal. “Unlike in other countries, the farmers don’t spray it only on the crop. It is all over the area, which results in the soil getting affected,” he said.
Of the 15 pesticides used, at least 7 are considered cancer causing by the US environment protection agency because it affects the drinking water.
Have the people in this cancer belt of Malwa been ignored by political parties?
In its manifesto, the Aam Aadmi Party announced a provision of life imprisonment for those who manufacture and sell spurious pesticides. It has also promised to provide healthcare upto Rs. 5 lakh for all farmers.
The Congress says it will provide free soil testing regularly and educate the farmers.
Only the Akalis are directly talking of cancer, promising an Advanced Cancer Institute in Bhatinda and a cancer hospital in Chandigarh besides free treatment to all farmers.
But these days, the ‘Cancer Train’ is being associated with drugs too.
In another bogey, Sukhdev Singh is travelling with his family. His mother has a heart problem and is going to Bikaner for more affordable treatment. Sukhdev, though, is a drug addict. His family admits he is under rehabilitation.
“I did afeem (Opium), chitta (synthetic intoxicant) and smack (heroin),” Sukhdev said. “The hospital in Bikaner has helped me recover. Every day, at least a 100 people affected by drugs come to the hospital,” Sukhdev says.