Vidarbha pesticide deaths: Probe panel may file report this week

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Mumbai: The deaths of over 40 farmers and farm workers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region since July has put the spotlight on the abuse of pesticides and lack of protection for those spraying them, even as a committee investigating the case prepares to submit its findings this week.

A seven-member special investigation team (SIT) formed by the Maharashtra government to find the cause of farm deaths is likely to submit its report this week, a member of the SIT, who did not want to be named told Mint. The panel was set up on 13 October and given three weeks to complete the investigation. The SIT member cited above said the team has met all stakeholders and nearly completed its probe.

Meanwhile, the SIT has come under pressure from two broad sections of stakeholders. Pesticide poisoning deaths have triggered a bitter battle between farm activists, environmentalists, non-government organizations, and advocates of organic farming on the one side and pesticide companies and some sector experts on the other. The activists have held pesticide companies and also genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton seeds including illegally sold herbicide tolerant (HT) seeds responsible for the spate of pesticide poisoning cases. But pesticide companies and experts have cautioned the SIT against arriving at “populist conclusions not based on scientific data”.

Maharashtra has the largest area under cotton cultivation in India—4.1 million hectares on average—and Yavatmal district alone has the largest area under cotton cultivation in India—4.5 lakh hectares on average. Vidarbha alone accounts for 1.6 million hectares under cotton.

“Vidarbha and Marathwada alone account for 65% of cotton cultivation in Maharashtra,” said a senior official from the Pune-based directorate of agriculture. In the 2017 kharif season, both Maharashtra and Yavatmal districts saw larger than average area come under cotton cultivation—more than 4.2 million hectares in Maharashtra and 4.70 lakh hectares in Yavatmal district, according to the directorate of agriculture. “There has been a significant increase in cotton cultivation this season. In the 2016 kharif season, cotton was grown in 3.8 million hectares in Maharashtra because farmers moved towards pulses, especially tur (black pigeon). But since farmers did not get a good remunerative price for tur, they moved back to cotton this year,” the official said.

Since July this year, more than 40 cotton farmers and farm labourers have died in Vidarbha, 21 of them in Yavatmal district alone, reportedly of pesticide poisoning. At one point in September, more than 800 persons were being treated at different government hospitals in Yavatmal district for pesticide inhalation and poisoning. Farmers and farm workers Mint spoke to in Yavatmal district said less-than normal rainfall, extreme humidity, abnormally high growth of cotton plants, and intense infestation of pink bollworm which forced farmers to resort to higher-than-normal spraying of pesticides and use of different concoctions, were the primary causes.

A team of scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) undertook ground surveys in September to find out the reasons for “pesticide deaths” and came out with a report on 20 October. The report maintains that the majority of the poisoning cases were associated with the use of insecticides like Monocrotophos, Profenophos, Cypermethrin, Fipronil, Imidacloprid and Diafenthiuron. Monocrotophos, the report claims, is the most commonly used insecticide in combination with other insecticides and growth regulators.

“Monocrotophos stimulates growth and has a greening effect on plant. Use of Monocrotophos has been banned on vegetables in India. However, its use on crops like cotton, paddy, maize, pulses, sugarcane, coconut, coffee, etc., is still allowed keeping in view of its bio-efficacy and cost-effectiveness. According to the World Health Organisation-Recommended Classification of Pesticides by Hazard and Guidelines to Classification 2009, Monocrotophos is categorized as Class 1b (Highly hazardous),” the CICR report says. Similarly, Diafenthiuron has been classified as a slightly hazardous insecticide (Class III).

The CICR report also pointed to lack of protective gear while spraying pesticides; prolonged and frequent direct exposure to insecticides; humid climate during September with day temperatures 20 degrees higher than normal and which induced profuse sweating that facilitated absorption of pesticides through skin; abnormally high growth of cotton plants up to 5-6 feet (1-and-a-half feet taller than the normal height) which forced farmers to direct the sprays above their shoulder height and increased the chances of contact and inhalation of pesticide directly and in higher quantity.

Sachin Kathale, a 31-year-old farmer at Kalamb in Yavatmal district, demonstrated in his farm how factors like extreme humidity, lack of protective gear, abnormal height of cotton plants, intense infestation, and depleting resistance of Bollgard II Bt cotton seeds caused poisoning. “I myself felt dizzy after I mixed the pesticide with water. I immediately ran under tree shade and rested till I felt better. But farmers and farm workers who suffered more serious inhalation probably did not take precautions and sprayed the pesticide in extreme heat and against the direction of the wind,” Kathale said.

He said the intensity of the pink bollworm attack this season was unprecedented. “I have been growing Bollgard II Bt seeds for the last eight years but never experienced this scale of pink bollworm attack. So, I too did four rounds of spraying, which I have never done before. Obviously, the Bollgard II seeds are losing their resistance to pest attacks,” he said.

C.D. Mayee, chairman of the Delhi-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) and former CICR director, said it was clear that pesticide alone could not cause such heavy tragedy and that it was a result of multiple factors. “Why has it been so rampant only in Yavatmal when there are several other areas of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and even North India where much more spraying is being undertaken by cotton farmers? Let us compare grape or apple plantation sprays. In grapes, on an average, nearly 47 sprays are given but we have not heard any such tragedy. In brinjal in Bengal and Odisha, on an average, 50 sprays are given to control fruit and shoot borer but rarely such tragedy is noticed. The tragedy is the culmination of contractual spraying methods where the same person daily undertakes spraying from morning till evening without any protection mixing incompatible chemicals, lack of protective apparatus while spraying, fog type droplets remaining in air in colloidal state which could get inhaled, and chewing tobacco or drinking water or liquid without washing hands, could expose inner parts to the chemical reactions,” Mayee said in an emailed response.

A fact-finding team formed by the Delhi-based Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) studied the pesticide deaths and came up with a report that blamed, among other things, lack of regulation over use of pesticides and GM seeds including the illegal HT seeds. “Farmers and their use of hazardous technologies is getting more and more desperate in the country—this is apparent with pesticides and GM seeds and the rampant misuse, with regulators and others turning a blind eye to the unfolding problems. It is clear that end use regulation is not going to be possible since there is no existing mechanism or possible mechanism by which the use of the pesticide by the buyer, after the product leaves the retailer, can be monitored and regulated. The fact-finding team can clearly anticipate chronic health and environmental problems that are bound to emerge sooner or later, especially with the illegal use of herbicide tolerant GM cotton,” the report said. The team demanded that the government ban all those pesticides involved in the poisoning cases as well as those pesticides that have been banned elsewhere. The report also demanded that the Maharashtra government revoke licences of sales of these pesticides in the state without waiting for a decision on their prohibition from the government of India.

In its submission to the SIT, the Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), the apex trade body for Indian crop protection industry, has claimed that “there is no causal link between pesticide application and alleged deaths reported from Yavatmal district nor is there any observed co-relation between the two. “The news that the deaths were caused by occupational exposure to certain pesticides application appear to be motivated rumours spread by foreign-funded activist NGOs subtly exploiting the public suspicion about chemicals and pesticides. Their ultimate agenda is to tarnish the image of Indian cotton as per the dictates of their donors,” the CCFI said in its submission to the SIT.

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