Pesticide Deaths Sweep Indian Villages as Small Farmers Beat Back Bugs

Credit: Shuriah Niazi
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Debt-ridden and inadequately trained farmers are dying as a result of using toxic pesticides to combat increasingly aggressive crop pests.

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The government of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, already grappling with an ongoing spate of farmer suicides in the state, has woken up to a fresh crisis of pesticide poisoning.

Debt-ridden farmers are sometimes so desperate after crop failure that they end their lives. Maharashtra has seen suicide by a large number of farmers in the last few years, the majority of which took place in the state’s Vidarbha region.

The deaths of farmers after accidentally inhaling pesticide, however, is a new challenge for the government to tackle.

Farmers are falling ill and dying while spraying pesticide on their fields. According to local media reports, more than 50 farmers have died in Maharashtra state in the last six months, including 24 in Vidarbha alone, after they sprayed unsafe pesticide to protect their crops from disease. Over 850 farmers were hospitalized in the state and at least 40 of them have lost vision.

A probe by the state government has found that the administration of affected districts neither took immediate remedial measures nor reported the deaths to the state government on time. Pesticide exposure first affected cultivators in June and farmers with complaints of dizziness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach-ache, difficulty seeing, and other symptoms. They were admitted to hospitals, but no alarm was raised until the number of affected farmers increased drastically.

Nineteen deaths have been reported from Vidarbha region’s Yavatmal district. The state's government has said that the farmers were not following precautions while spraying pesticides and would now be given proper training in the safe use of pesticides. A mandatory safety kit including gloves, goggles, special clothes and respiratory masks will also be provided free of charge, and the government will also run a public awareness campaign in the region.

Farmers in Yavatmal mainly cultivate cotton, soybeans and lentils. They also grow a genetically modified variety of cotton known as Bt cotton. Cotton is susceptible to attack by pests – particularly bollworm – but the Bt cotton crop was engineered to be pest-resistant.

This year, bollworm unexpectedly attacked the Bt cotton crop, forcing farmers to use heavy doses of pesticides as a countermeasure.

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Credit: Shuriah Niazi
Farmers gather to show evidence of crop devastation as a result of bollworm.

The Maharashtra government investigation revealed that the pesticide manufacturing companies and distributors had convinced unsuspecting farmers in Yavatmal and other affected districts to use highly toxic and expensive pesticides with trade names of Police and Polo, which are recommended only for use on sugarcane.

“Agro-chemical companies that manufacture Police and Polo have been booked,” Maharashtra Agriculture Minister Pandurang Fundkar said.

India-based Gharda Chemicals Ltd. makes the pesticide called Police, while Chinese-owned Swiss conglomerate Syngenta AG manufactures pesticide with the trade name Polo.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has announced compensation of 200,000 Rupees (about US$3,000) will be offered to dependents of peasants who died due to pesticide exposure. However, farmers’ organizations and victims’ kin say the amount is inadequate. The government is also bearing the cost of treating sick farmers.

Madhvi Raja, who lost her husband to pesticide poisoning almost a month back in Kalamb village of Yavatmal district, says the compensation will not last a year. “My husband was the sole breadwinner of the family. I have two small children and I’ll have to work in order to feed them. I’ll surely not like to work in farms after the death of my husband and so many other people in the district due to pesticide poisoning. This work is unsafe but this is the only work that I and many others like me can do.”

Agriculture activist Kishore Tiwari in Yavatmal blamed the unregulated use of pesticides for the tragedy. He said: “Modern farming techniques heavily depend on the use of pesticides and chemicals that can kill humans as easily as they kill pests. Farmers use the pesticides indiscriminately and most of them have received no training about their safe usage. Dependence on pesticides has not decreased with Bt cotton.”

Another activist, Rajendra Sharma, pointed out that a whitefly epidemic had similarly ruined the Bt cotton crop in the northern state of Punjab two years ago.

“The agriculture department of the state government is responsible for educating farmers about the use of pesticides and other inputs for the crops. But they failed to discharge their duty,” said Sharma. “Pesticides that were not recommended for the cotton crop were used and they killed the farmers. The ignorant cultivators were taken for a ride by pesticide manufacturing firms who sold the pesticides only to make more profit. The government must promote organic farming as organic practices control pests while genetically modified crops create them.”

Editor: Morley J Weston

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