Killer spray

The death of 20 farmworkers who sprayed pesticides on Bt cotton crops in Maharashtra puts the focus on the risky practice and on the claims about Bt cotton not needing pesticides.

Published : Oct 25, 2017 12:30 IST

A farmworker spraying insecticide in a field in Yavatmal district.

A farmworker spraying insecticide in a field in Yavatmal district.

ON August 19, reports of the death of a farm labourer who worked in the Bt cotton fields around Kalamb in Maharashtra’s eastern district of Yavatmal took his co-labourers by surprise. Twelve days earlier he had sprayed the pesticide Profex Super, a combination of the insecticides Profenofos and Cypermethrin, in the fields. Since then, in the same month, 20 more farmworkers died in Yavatmal district and 16 in Buldhana, Nagpur, Akola, Wardha and Chandrapur. All the deaths were a result of the spraying of the pesticide. About 1,800 people who handled the pesticide in these districts were admitted to hospitals with symptoms ranging from severe nausea, vomiting, acute abdominal pain, diarrhoea and blurred vision and even temporary loss of sight caused by passive, accidental inhalation of the chemicals.

News of the deaths remained largely unknown except in the neighbourhoods where they happened. Informed sources in the region said that every year there were cases of unintended poisoning by pesticides, so such patients were almost a routine matter during the season. And since the deaths happened over a large geographical area, the government only realised that something was amiss when these were reported in small local publications. Although the authorities sent quality control teams to find out whether the pesticide was spurious, there was no immediate intervention to halt its use, withdraw it temporarily or even send out a general alert on the dangers of handling it.

Although pesticides are categorised as hazardous materials, safety gear for the handlers is non-existent and emergency medical aid is lacking. Advice on the use of pesticides is given by the seller, who naturally has commercial interests in mind. Besides, there is little government monitoring of usage of pesticides.

Vijay Jawandhia from the farmers’ group Shetkari Sanghatana confirmed that basic safety precautions were non-existent. “The hazards of using pesticides must be explained to users, but no such extension work is done by the Agriculture Department. Also, gloves, goggles and masks push up costs and this is not factored into the cost of production. Hence, they are left out.” Equally seriously, the local primary health centres (PHCs) lack even basic medication such as the drug Atropin, which is an essential antidote if pesticide chemical combinations affect the eyes. “If Atropin had been available at the PHCs, the temporary blindness could have been averted,” said Jawandhia.

Stretching the limits

Under the Insecticides Act, 1968, which seeks to regulate the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides, government officials are required to train farmers in the use of these chemicals, but in reality it is the privately owned Krushi Seva Kendras that give them advice. Since the kendras are commercial ventures, it is likely that they stretch the prescribed limits of the spraying dosages. The usage instructions on the packets in a number of languages are of little use as many of the farm labourers cannot read.

Other reasons, too, contributed to the tragedy. Pesticide spraying is a sought-after job because a labourer gets Rs.350 a day for it and only Rs.250 for other farm work. Sometimes farmers and labourers also negotiate a fee on a per acre or per-tank-sprayed basis.

Naturally, said Jawandhia, “in this system the labourer is tempted to spray more tanks a day to earn more, ignoring the increased inhalation risks”.

Furthermore, the haphazard monsoon this year meant that the heavy rains that normally come in July and August were absent. “Heavy rains kill at least one generation of the bollworms, but this year the poor rains resulted in multi-generation survival of bollworms, and so the spraying was more intensive,” said Jawandhia.

The crop had reached a height of about five feet (1.5 metres) and harvest time was nearing. This, along with a closely planted crop, meant that the labourers were literally in the thick of the chemical cloud they were spraying. The hot weather, which made many of them go bare–chested, and the lack of protective gear were a perfect recipe for the tragedy that ensued.

Kishor Tiwari of the Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swavalamban Mission (VNSSM) affirmed that the deaths were due to excessive inhalation of the chemicals. Poisoning occurs when this group of organophosphates and organochlorides enters the body via lung and/or dermal (skin) absorption. The poisons enter the bloodstream and are then distributed throughout the system.

The VNSSM, which is the standing task force appointed by the Maharashtra government to look into farm distress, said in a statement: “Environmental changes have resulted in huge attacks of Bollworm and Whitefly on cotton, which forced these farmers to go for continuous uncontrolled insecticide and pesticide spraying to save their standing cotton crop.” The anxiety felt by farmers as the harvest neared in September fuelled the problem. The price was already down from Rs.5,500 a quintal last year to Rs.4,200 this year. Keen to maximise profits, they did not compromise on the pesticide, especially since Bt cotton had not been living up to its promise of being pest resistant.

Questions about Bt cotton

There are two obvious questions that arise from the current scenario. If Bt cotton is supposed to be resistant to bollworm, why is there any need to spray pesticides? And should this tragedy promote some rethinking on the use of Bt cotton? Jawandhia agreed that there should be a rethink on its use and said that the resistance bit was “propaganda by Monsanto”. He added: “They mention in their pamphlet in small print that every week farmers must inspect their fields and randomly select 20 plants, and if 20 bollworms are found they must spray their crops.” Jawandhia said the seeds had no resistance to sucking pests such as thrips, whitefly and green leafhopper, but “that was not told loudly”. For farmers, the need for increased spraying had led to a sense of disillusionment with Bt cotton.

Tiwari, too, agreed that Bt cotton had lost its potency. Explaining the economics of it, he said that when farmers sowed it they had hoped for a decrease in input costs, but this never happened. In fact, the costs actually rose because of increased application of pesticides, fertilizers, growth enhancers, and so on. In rain-fed areas, Bt cotton yields about eight quintals an acre. If the fields were not sprayed with chemicals, the yield dropped to two quintals an acre. “Obviously, the farmer will go in for the full chemical treatment,” he said.

Tiwari said that a few years ago seed companies had claimed that the BG-II variety of Bt cotton, which is in current use, would be resistant to the pink bollworm. This implied that less or no spraying would be required, but field reports showed that the pink bollworm feasted on the crop unless pesticides were applied. He said the next generation of seeds, called BG-III, was waiting to hit the markets, but its introduction had been stalled because of some international legality. Despite this, he said, eight lakh seed packets of the unauthorised BG-III had been sold in Yavatmal district alone this year.

It took the government two and a half months after the first death to take action. On October 3, it ordered a probe into the deaths and earmarked a compensation of Rs.2 lakh each for the families of victims. On October 6, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court issued notices on a public interest petition asking for criminal action against government officials and manufacturers of the pesticide. Although Minister of State for Agriculture Sadabhau Khot said there would be an explanation for the deaths, none had come as of mid October.

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