Yavatmal cotton farmer deaths Part 2: Educating farmers, controlled use of pesticides only way out, say activists

Editor's note: At least 18 farmers have died over the past three months in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district, allegedly owing to a toxic pesticide they were exposed to. Firstpost asked Karthikeyan Hemalatha to file a series of reports on their deaths and the practice of un-monitored pesticide use in this cotton-growing region.

It has been a good year for rain in Maharashtra's Yavatmal, and the crops seem to have thrived. But, beneath the veneer of lush green, lurks the shadow of death.

At least 21 farmers have died in Yavatmal in the last two months. Several hundred more have been admitted to hospitals for pesticide poisoning. While several factors have been put forth to explain the cause of the deaths, none of them implicates the state machinery. Instead, the blame has been laid squarely on the farmers; they were either not wearing protective gear, not following protocols on combinations of pesticides, or, worse still, they sprayed these toxic chemicals at heights above their heads, and the winds blew the mist right back in their faces. The latter is one of the most touted reasons behind the spate of deaths this year. However, these rationalisations and the ongoing blame game do not address the root of the matter, which, many activists say, is the controlled use of pesticides.

All of the farmers who died or were hospitalised were in their fields, tending to their crops when these accidents happened. While senior bureaucrats and politicians maintain that the actual reason is being investigated, farmers, pesticide dealers and district level agricultural officers have come up with their own. "With good rains, some crops grew over seven feet. Farmers were spraying pesticides above their heads and the hot winds blew it back into their faces," said Pankaj Barde, agriculture officer in Yavatmal.

 Yavatmal cotton farmer deaths Part 2: Educating farmers, controlled use of pesticides only way out, say activists

A farmer in Sindhursani village, Arni taluk. Image courtesy Karthikeyan Hemalatha.

Few others believe that it was the 'Chinese' sprayers that killed the unsuspecting farmers. "These sprayers are battery-operated and are very powerful," said Shamrao Madavi, the 65-year-old father of Deepak Shamrao Madavi, who died on 31 August. Dipak had used one of these 'Chinese' sprayers.

"These pumps can spray an entire tank in 30 minutes, as opposed to manual pumps that take at least two hours per tank. The mist from the Chinese models, which have more nozzles, is very fine," added Shamrao. However, a fact-finding team consisting of grassroots NGOs (and this author) found that in six of the 18 deaths, manual pumps were used.

"While the chief minister announced a ban on Chinese made, battery-operated power sprayers, which indeed appear to be dangerous in terms of the inhalation poisoning potential that they present, in six of the 18 cases of death, including two of the three we visited, old-style hand operated pesticide sprayers were used,” read the report submitted by the team to the Union minister of agriculture Radha Mohan Singh and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

Suresh Jillewar of Balaji Krishi Kendra, a pesticide dealer in Jawada, has neatly stacked bottles of pesticides in attractive bottles with catchy names. The lingering scent of agarbatti in his store is a testament to his piety. As the smoke from the incense clears, you will find curiously named pesticides, including Godzilla, Xplode and Shark. Xplode is shaped like dynamite and is red in colour. One of the responsibilities of a dealer is to ensure farmers are educated on the right combinations when mixing pesticides, as well as to provide safety gear.

"But no one listens to me," Jillewar said. "There is nothing more I can do than to tell them," he added. Farmers, growing desperate, do not adhere to these instructions. In most cases, it is the landowner who takes a call on the proportions and combinations to use. "In Dipak's case, he had used 20 millilitres of monocrotophos and 20 millilitres of Metasystox in a 30-litre tank,” said Bahu Saheb Wankhede, the owner of the land on which Dipak worked.

State officials say they are working full time to ensure that farmers have all the information on safe use of pesticides. "We have issued advisories to ensure such deaths can be prevented in the future," said guardian minister for Yavatmal Madan Yerawar.

Mangesh Shravan Thakre from Kalamb taluka was one of the few who did use masks and gloves. Yet, he was admitted to the hospital for poisoning. "I did not know what pesticides I was spraying. Although I knew ingestion could kill me, I did not expect to fall dangerously ill by spraying," he said. He worked on someone else's farm to earn Rs 250 for spraying ten tanks full of pesticides. The 24-year-old has been engaged in this labour for the last six years.

Other officials say humidity and non-adherence to safety procedures played a role in these accidents. "When the humidity is high, the spray gets mixed with sweat and enters the body," said deputy director of the district agriculture department RS Patil. He also said that rains were good this year, causing crops to grow taller than usual, suggesting that this is also a reason for the deaths. "Anyway, we are checking licenses of pesticide dealers and have taken action against some 13 shops for not adhering to protocols," he added. He did not elaborate further.

Bahu Saheb Wankhede, owner of a cotton farm where a farmer died from pesticide poisoning. Image courtesy Karthikeyan Hemalatha.

Bahu Saheb Wankhede, owner of a cotton farm where a farmer died from pesticide poisoning. Image courtesy Karthikeyan Hemalatha.

Activists working on pesticide poisoning say that the government should not get into a blame game which ends up putting the onus on the farmers. "The state government should take the moral responsibility for these deaths and ensure that all toxic and moderately toxic pesticides are immediately banned," said a member of Thanal (an NGO that works on agrarian issues in Kerala), Sridhar Radhakrishnan. He has been working against pesticides and played a crucial role in the Kerala government banning 20 highly toxic pesticides in 2011.

Yerawar said it would not be immediately possible to ban such pesticides. "Farmers are highly dependent on these pesticides. Such a step could lead to more farmer suicides. Who will be responsible for these deaths? Not only deaths but also the risk to nearly Rs 15,000 crores of farming income," he said. When this correspondent quoted Sikkim as an example, he said: "Sikkim's farming is equivalent to just half of Yavatmal’s. It is not possible," he added.

On 13 October, the state government formed a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the reasons for the deaths. "We have experts from the agriculture and health department probing the causes. We will submit the results in three weeks time," said divisional commissioner and a member of the SIT, Piyush Singh. "We are looking at all angles including what type of pesticides were used, changing climatic conditions, whether proper protocols were followed while spraying and whether farmers used protective gear," he added.

Activists, however, are not convinced. "In a country as vast as India, it is impossible to regulate pesticide use at the farm level. The only solution is to ban such toxic chemicals," said Radhakrishnan.

"The state government will take action based on the reports of SIT," said Yerawar.

Read Part 1: Blame games galore as toxic pesticides continue to claim lives

Read Part 3: Data scarcity on pesticide poisoning major hurdle in finding corrective measures

The author is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore. He covers issues relating to the environment, climate change, agriculture and marine ecology. He was selected as a fellow with the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists in 2015 to cover the UN General Assembly and international politics.

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Updated Date: Oct 21, 2017 13:50:16 IST