Chapter 13: Disease

If you asked the 97-year-old grandfather of one of my interview subjects about his trick for outsmarting the reaper, he probably would have responded something along the lines of “never let the sun see your skin.”   Just like the preacher, he would rise at 1 AM to get a head start on the heat. Every day was a race against the sun, and every day he won. Making it home by 7 AM, he proceeded to nap until 1 PM. Then, in the afternoon, he looked after his animals and rested.  Living to 97 is as easy as that! All that’s required is waking up at 2 AM every morning and committing yourself to back-breaking labor for 5 hours straight. 

Almost all of the respondents reported that the pre-Green Revolution lifestyle sponsored a healthier population. There are two main contributors to this health. First, the male laborers did not cede their physical exertion to mechanical farming implements; thus, at times, farmers had to work for 18 hours continuously.  This more laborious lifestyle kept the male population fit. Likewise, the absence of cars meant that women would walk up to 10km each day, transporting meals to the farm laborers.  Though this task seems grueling, almost all the women with whom I spoke preferred this task to modern household responsibilities.  Second, in addition to physical labor, the family’s diet was healthy, fresh, and diverse. In the summers, the people ate wheat and black gram chapati with kurd for breakfast.  In the winters, they consumed maize chapati and kurd for breakfast.  This chapati and kurd was prepared fresh on a daily basis.  Lunch and dinner consisted of 3 or 4 seasonal vegetable combinations.  In the warmer seasons, these vegetables included bottle gourd, split gram, and tindah.  In the colder seasons, people mostly ate sagh, a combination of leafy vegetables and weeds (there was no such thing as a “weed” prior to the 1960s).  Though villagers would throw anything edible in their sagh, bathu, bhakhda, spinach, and mustard leaves were common ingredients.  Throughout the warm and cold seasons, villagers filled their bellies with kitchari, a mixture of lentils and rice, and buttermilk, produced by native humped cows.  As opposed to the straw-based diet that cows consume today, the pre-Green Revolution cow was served three-course meals that aligned with their digestive preferences.  The cows ate black gram, mustard cake, boiled cotton seed, green fodder, and oats mixed with maize.  Respondents indicated that the healthier cows produced much healthier milk than the pasteurized milk they guzzle today. 

I had the chance of attending the origin of this pasteurized milk, a modern dairy farm, where I encountered a strangely familiar sight: the Jersey cow. As compared to the native Desi breed, distinguished by the large fat reserve that protrudes from its back, this western variety produces more milk. The cost of this increase in production is one unhappy cow. Upon seeing these cows, my bones ached with their discomfort. Their whole bodies were panting as their hearts desperately distributed blood to their limbs. The cows’ chest violently heaved up and down. Unlike Desi cows, the Jersey cows are not suited to the 40 degree Celsius climate.  For this reason, they need an arsenal of antibiotics to prevent their immune systems from caving in.  Even still, a handful of these foreigners submit to the heat each year.  Sher Pur Kalan pours the milk of the survivors into their daily chaay. Even without these foreigners’ milk and lower consumption of rice and fruits prior to the Green Revolution, people actually had more to eat.  The bihari laborer, who is turning out to be a recurrent character in this narrative, recalled that the sweet potatoes were so nutritious that one would keep you full for a whole day.  Now, he pointed out, people eat three meals a day and still aren’t satisfied.

As Sir Albert Howard emphasizes, the health of the soil is directly related to the health of a population.  Whereas the fruits and vegetables eaten by Sher Pur Kalan residents once sprung from fertile humus, the increased use of fertilizers has robbed the earth of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, iron, and manganese.  One born-again organic farmer postulates that the population’s current zinc deficiency is related to the soil’s depleted zinc content.

Despite more antiquated styles of milk preservation, respondents claim that illness was much less common prior to the Green Revolution. According to them, people didn’t even get fevers.  Most people denote the construction of hospitals as a sign of development, but not the residents of Sher Pur Kalan.  They announce that the 3 or 4 hospitals recently built in surrounding districts were born from an increase in demand for medical services.  Specifically, they suggest that the hospitals are retroactive attempts to cure ailments that came with the introduction of chemical pesticides.  One doctor gave examples of some of these ailments, listing an increase in blood pressure and a higher frequency of heart attacks as the major health concerns in Sher Pur Kalan.  The people of Sher Pur Kalan who are now prescribed allopatric remedies at developed health facilities were once treated by a single doctor who would visit the village every few days.  The only offering of this doctor was a brown tablet prescribed for everything from a headache to a swollen bug bite.  It was surprisingly effective, the villagers attest.

While I would love to end this short story on that note, I would be remiss to exclude a facet of the Punjabi health crisis articulated by nearly half of my respondents. According to these interview subjects, chemical pesticides and fertilizers have affected the mental health of villagers. Specifically, many believed that the food we eat changes our thinking, arguing that the introduction of pesticides polluted not only the land, but also the mind.  The farmers who have started to transition to organic agriculture cited this mental pollution and the improved taste of organic produce as the fundamental drivers of their decision to stop using outside inputs.  The 40-member joint family, who recently started growing organic food for their own household consumption, reported that the family members’ patience increased following the transition.


Anonymous. Land record manager. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 5 May 2019.


Anonymous. Former farmer and activist. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 21 April 2019


Anonymous. Housewives. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 2 May 2019.


Anonymous. Farmer Family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 18 April.


Singh, Sunny. Organic farmer. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 7 May 2019


Anonymous. Farm laborer. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 25 April 2019


Mann, Satvinder K. Professor. Personal Interview. Ludhiana. Punjab, 23 April 2019.


Howard, Albert. “The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture.” Page 217.


Singh, Sukhwinder, Julian Park, Jennie Litten-Brown. “The economic sustainability of cropping systems in Indian Punjab: A farmers’ perspective.” (2011): 1-16


Anonymous. Farmers. Personal Interview. Ludhiana, Punjab. 21 April 2019.


Anonymous. Farming family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 27 April 2019.


Anonymous. Retired farmer family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 20 April 2019.


Anonymous. Men of different backgrounds. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 5 May 2019.


Anonymous. Former farmer and activist. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 21 April 2019


Anonymous. Joint family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 17 April 2019.


Read more

Chapter 12: A Worker's Ethic

Chapter 15: Conclusion

Chapter 14: Punjab's Exodus

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