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Killing us slowly...

By Huned Contractor

Sumit Khanna’s documentary Mere Desh Ki Dharti investigates pesticide overuse in Punjab, and its deadly impact

Mere Desh Ki Dharti

Mumbai-based filmmaker Sumit Khanna first embarked on the pesticides trail when he noticed the absence of the common sparrow from the green fields of Punjab. “Why is it, I thought to myself, that the sparrows have stopped making the fields their home despite the apparent presence of food? And then I discovered that the crop is so heavily sprayed with pesticide that no bird or beast can hope to survive in the fields,” says Khanna. This process of discovery took the route of a 58-minute documentary film, financed by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). To add a touch of irony, Khanna titled his film Mere Desh Ki Dharti, a popular song from a Hindi film that pays tribute to the abundance of food, water and happiness in India.  

Winner of the Best Investigative Film of 2006 at the 54th National Film Awards, Khanna’s documentary is intelligently edited and well-researched, highlighting how pesticide overuse is gradually killing us all.  

The story begins with the Green Revolution which took off in 1966 when India imported 18,000 tonnes of seeds from Mexico to solve the hunger crisis that had set in after the Bengal famine of 1943. “The next year, India saw a bumper crop but what was not revealed was that the produce was fertiliser-responsive, which meant that pesticides were necessary to prevent any damage to the crops by plant-eating insects and worms. When we look at it now, we realise that this proliferation of pesticides was not required,” says Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, in the film. 

Khanna maps a precise trail of the how, when, why and what of pesticide use by farmers across Punjab, a representation of what’s taking place all over the country. The film explores various angles: the farmer unconcernedly spraying his crops with pesticide, often totally ignorant about the health risks to both himself and consumers (studies clearly indicate that the ingestion of pesticides is extremely harmful to human health); manufacturing companies that take advantage of legal loopholes to continue making ever more potent pesticides; activists who can do little more than create awareness; and apathetic government agencies.  

What’s surprising, even shocking, is that experts too prefer taking a soft approach to the harmful effects of pesticides. For instance, Dr G S Hira, head of the Department of Soil and Water at Punjab Agricultural University, says that recommended doses of pesticide are absolutely necessary because no vegetable or fruit can otherwise be produced, and the Green Revolution maintained. He ignores the fact that organic manure is equally capable of producing high yields, a point that activist Vandana Shiva raises towards the end of the film. Khanna, meanwhile, intersperses the narrative with television commercials that aggressively cajole farmers to use more and more pesticides and their cocktails to prevent their crops from being eaten.  

In order to prove that pesticide overuse is indeed a “time bomb that may explode any moment”, Khanna looks at the issue from two angles: one, he visits farmers across Punjab to establish a link between pesticides and suicides and arrives at the conclusion that high input costs brought on by pesticide use allow the farmer no profit margin, thereby making it impossible for him to pay off his debts, and forcing him to contemplate taking his own life. Two: Khanna boards the passenger train that travels between Bhatinda and Bikaner to find that 50% of its passengers are headed for cancer treatment in Jaipur. Indeed, the train has come to be known as the ‘cancer train’.  

In an interview on camera, Dr J S Thakur of the Department of Community Medicine at the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh admits that pesticides play an important role in the development of cancer-causing cells. “Samples of ground and surface water reveal a high content of arsenic and mercury, and this comes from the pesticides that run off the crops into the water and then seep into the ground,” he says. A study carried out by Dr S G Kabra of the Indian Institute of Health Management and Research in Jaipur concludes that the high incidence of ‘brainless children’ born in Punjab and neighbouring areas is due to the presence of pesticides in vegetables. “Our calculations showed that such births can actually be traced to the consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits by women in the initial stages of pregnancy,” he points out. 

The unfortunate part is that even though everyone, including the trader who sells the farmer pesticides, admits that the dangerous effects of pesticides cannot be ignored, the government appears unwilling to take any proactive action. To drive home this point, Khanna shows, on film, how his repeated efforts at soliciting an explanation from government officials were stone-walled or ignored. This attitude is also due to the fact that the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture have no common ground, therefore the rules formed by them do not focus on pesticides at all. And, as Shiva points out, the government probably does not want to take any action for fear of displeasing the multinational companies that are engaged in the production of pesticides. 

It’s estimated that around 800,000 people in developing countries may have died due to pesticides since the onset of the Green Revolution. “The World Health Organisation has calculated that 20,000 people in developing countries die each year of pesticide consumption through their food. Multiply that by 40 years,” says Sharma. So, who is to blame for the deaths? According to Shiva, “agriculture scientists, companies and government agencies have to shoulder the blame equally”. And, will agricultural output fall drastically if India were to stop using pesticides? Shiva, Sharma and other experts don’t believe so. “We have such high yields in the country today that there is no need for anyone to go hungry,” says Sharma, while Shiva advocates a shift to organic farming. “If 84% of our farmers are indebted today, of what use have pesticides been,” she asks. Mere Desh Ki Dharti lets this question hang. Will someone answer it? 

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(Huned Contractor is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Pune)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2009