20 dead, 50 critical, whether by suicide or poisoning, who cares when farmers die?


Nagpur: When Maharashtra agriculture minister Pandhurang Phundkar visited Yavatmal district on Friday, October 6th, some farmers led by the convener of the committee for justice to the farmers’ rights Devanand Pawar threw some cotton plants on his convoy protesting the “government’s apathy.”

Why should farmers not be angry? And the families of those who have succumbed be despondent and herat broken?

It has been two months after the first death owing to pesticide poisoning in Yavatmal, seven farmers from the region are on ventilator support, while two others are in critical condition. The condition of 40 farmers from Akola, Nagpur and Buldhana districts is critical. Over 20 farmers are dead.

Despite this unfolding tragedy, no arrests have been made, no inquiry yet instituted and farmers haven’t received any re assurance that anyone in Government, in Mumbai or Delhi, is really concerned about them.

The country’s Prime Minister is busy canvassing for elections in his home state Gujarat, where each venue of his meeting is decorated like for a grand and lavish wedding and the chief Minister is on a foreign tour.

In the past two months, 19 people have died of pesticide poisoning in Yavatmal. Twenty-five farmers admitted to the Government Medical College in Yavatmal have lost vision, while 800 have been hospitalized with complaints of dizziness, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomachache, among others. Most of them are farm labourers, who take up the hazardous job of spraying pesticides to earn extra money.

It was Bandu Sonule’s death on September 23rd, which finally caught everyone’s attention as local political activist Devandand Pawar’s “Shetkari Nyay Hakka Samiti” (Committee for justice to the farmers’ rights) began raising the issue.

On September 19, Bandu was spraying pesticides on the genetically modified cotton known as “Bt Cotton”. “He came home in the evening and complained of irritation in his eyes. After some time, he was unable to see properly so we took him to a hospital in Ghatanji town. The doctors referred him to the Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College (VNGMC) in Yavatmal where he died on September 23,” said his 39-years old wife Geeta, who now has to take care of her two teenage children’s upbringing and education.

When a Hindu correspondent asked Geeta if the ₹2 lakh aid announced by the Devendra Fadnavis government for those who died in the district after spraying pesticides will be enough, Geeta said, “I can beg and collect ₹2 lakh and give it to this government, but in return can they give me my husband back?”

Many others, who had been involved in spraying on BT Cotton began meeting the same fate as Bandu.

What was the government’s initial reaction to the deaths?

Somes days after the deaths, the administration sent a local agriculture officer to Manoli village, who circulated some pamphlets advising the farmers on the precautions to be taken while spraying toxic pesticides. According to Dr. Ashok Dhawad, Dean of VNGMC, “respiratory system failure due to organophosphorus” has killed 11 farmers and farm labourers in his hospital in the last five weeks. Almost all the deceased were spraying pesticide on the genetically modified cotton.

Genetically modified cotton, which is an American seed company’s ‘unwanted gift’ to Indian farmers is grown all over the country now : in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telegana and Andhra Pradesh.

Why did no one at the Central govt level or state level wonder why deaths had occured only in some villages and towns of Vidarbha? ( Pesticide poisoning deaths have been reported in districts of Akola, Amravati, Buldana, Nagpur and Bhandara apart from Yavatmal which has been affected most.)

Locals, farmer leaders as well as the opposition blamed the Maharashtra government for failing to act in time.

Right after the first death, or the first instance of blindness, why were samples of the pesticide not ceased and its further sale halted?

One opinion is that the cotton growers in this district have been using various varieties of seeds and fertilisers produced by a company from Andhra Pradesh. A survey by a Press Reporter found that most of the pesticide products had “instructions” written in extremely small fonts and mostly in English, making it difficult for the farmers to read.

“Some government people are saying that the improper use of pesticides caused this but how can you blame the farmers when the instructions are difficult to read. We can’t even pronounce the names of some products properly,” pointed out Mr. Lengure, Manoli Sarpanch. ” That is the reason action should have been taken immediately.”

Other farmers opine that it was not just one pesticide.

Many popular new generation pesticides like Cipronil, Imidachloropid, and combination called ‘Profex Super’ which is combination pesticide containing Profenofos and Cypermethrin have been used.

“Why has BT cotton grown so tall this year?”

This year the cotton plants’ height is more than six feet but its productivity has decreased drastically. There is bad infestation of bollworm and other pests – though BT cotton is supposed to be immune to bollworm – and farmers have had no option but to give a large dose of pesticides to these plants because they wanted to recover at least the input cost.

“The increased height has surely affected the farmers and farm labourers as they have to spray above their heads and they eventually end up inhaling the toxic pesticides,” said Gunwant Lengure, Sarpanch of Manoli.

Others discount this theory, stating that cotton has grown tall earlier also and so has Tur which habitually grows this tall. Tur and Cotton are often sowed interspersed with each other.

Farmers, of Amravati district, where fatalties have been low informed NT though that they follow the practise of either sniping the tip of the cotton plant and/ or spraying it with a liquid called ‘Chamtkar’ and Livosin to keep height of plant stunted. BT Cotton crops here are not more than 4 feet tall.

“A confused Pesticide policy of Central govt responsible.”

A progressive farmer of Amraoti district Diliprao, who is an agriculture graduate also, opines that governments have no policy where it comes to pesticides. Its casual and heedless attitude when Supreme Court suddenly put an ad interim ban on most popular pesticides Endosulfan, and hasn’t lifted it for five long years now, opened the flood gates for many newer and more potent pesticides.

“No research has been done yet on many of the ‘molecules’ in vogue. No guidelines are given to farmers OR dealers on which pesticide to use for which crop so everyone does as he pleases, or is advised by pro active MNC Manufacturers.”

A little research will show that India is probably the ONLY agricultural country where hundreds of agrochemicals are registered by Central Instecicide board in Delhi.

Even Pakistan has a much more scientific and studied approach which has paid excellent dividends.

Their cotton has more export demand, and their farmers are better off than ours.