Since July, over 1,000 farmers of Yavatmal in east Maharashtra have suffered from a toxic chemical exposure after spraying pesticides on the cotton crop. There have been fatalities too, with 23 farmers succumbing to “toxic pesticides” so far.
How did it happen?
The farmers in Yavatmal mostly grow the genetically modified ‘BT cotton,’ considered pest-resistant. But according to Ramdas Vadai, a farmer in Manoli village, the cotton plants grew unusually tall this year, up to 6 feet, and attracted pests. While spraying pesticides above their head, farm workers inhaled some pesticide particles.
Some farmers said the lack of rain this year may have contributed to the growth of the cotton plant as it received more fertilizer. The unusually humid conditions and the high density of cotton crop also made farmers vulnerable to chemical contact while spraying pesticides.
Some of the cases were so severe that patients had to be tied to the hospital bed because of convulsions. Earlier this month, Maruti Barbhate, 35, from Bellora village, was tied with ropes to a bed in ward number 12 of the Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College. He has since recovered. Almost all the infected and deceased farmers are cotton cultivators, or farm labourers who had gone to spray pesticide on the cotton crop. The post-mortem reports of the deceased farmers showed they had inhaled organophosphorus, a chemical compound used in pesticides, which resulted in respiratory failure. Over 25 farmers, including Mr. Vadai, could not see for a few days, but their vision has returned.
What were the lapses?
Most of the farmers and farm hands rarely cover their mouth and nose while spraying, a reason cited by some officials for the infection. However, many farmers claimed they had been spraying pesticides for decades, but only this year it caused infection and deaths. Asked whether the pesticides used this year were any different, Bhavesh Gandecha, owner of Jalaram Krishi Kendra, a distributor of agriculture products, in Ghatanji town, claimed that there had been no variations in the ingredients used in the pesticides.
“We are selling the same products and putting up big boards in front of our shops to educate farmers on the precautions to be taken while spraying them. Why would the Krishi Kendra owners want to kill farmers when their livelihood depends on them?” Mr. Gandecha said, apprehensive of government action.
When did it come to light?
Farmers of the region had been flocking to hospital since the beginning of July in various parts of the district, but the issue came to light in the last week of September when the Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swawlamban Mission (VNSSM), the task force of the State government on farm distress, issued press statements informing the media about the spate of deaths.
How did the government react?
The Devendra Fadnavis government swung into action only after the media began reporting the deaths and Opposition parties started raising the issue. The government constituted a seven-member Special Investigation Team to inquire into the deaths and announced Rs. 2 lakh in compensation to the families of the deceased. The SIT has been given three weeks to submit its report.
The district administration has booked five Krishi Kendra owners for “selling unauthorised pesticides” and sent agriculture officers to create awareness of precautions. But experts believe the action came late. VNSSM chief Kishor Tiwari, an adviser to the government on agriculture issues, blamed the deaths on the State and pesticide companies. Yavatmal has recorded 3,920 farmer suicides since 2001 and has been infamously called the “farmer suicide capital of India.” The spate of deaths due to pesticide poisoning has only added to the agrarian crisis the district has been facing for over a decade now.
What lies ahead?
Farmers urged the government to look at the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and regulate it. Unscrupulous agents and commercial outlets selling pesticides must be hauled up and government agricultural extension outlets made more responsible.