Wednesday, October 18, 2017
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Photograph of one of the farmers who died while spraying pesticides. Source: Kavitha Kuruganti

Misleading marketing of farm poisons and tardy regulation are costing lives of farmers and farm hands

AS MANY as 50 persons died and around 1,000 were hospitalised with 25 losing their vision after exposure to chemical fumes from spraying of pesticides in Yevatmal district of Maharashtra.

Most of those affected were farm labourers who neither had any safety apparatus nor were guided on the ideal way to use the pesticides. These cases hence were unlike intentional intake of the pesticide by desperate farmers to end their lives. A fact-finding team of activists and social workers met the affected families and found that such incidents will repeat if the prevailing farming and regulatory practices continue.

A farm worker died while spraying a mix of three different pesticides, a practice not allowed by law. Farmers also prefer higher dosages than recommended by the extension department or pesticide companies.

In some cases, pesticide dealers advised the farmers on this while in others, the farmers themselves came up with combinations. Desperation about saving their infested crops and recovering the substantial investments ever season force these farmers to resort to such misadventures. 

What is well known and reinforced from the recent spurt in such incidents is that regulation is not possible at the farmer level

What is well known and reinforced from the recent spurt in such incidents is that regulation is not possible at the farmer level. Farm labourers get the raw end of the deal. In 12 of the 18 death cases in Yevatmal district, the victim was spraying on someone else’s agricultural field. 

The fact-finding team noted that pesticide spraying wage rates were similar to wages for other agricultural operations. In many cases, the sprayers, did not even know what chemicals  they wer spraying, in what dosage and whether it was safe or not.
    
In Aarni block, pesticide spraying wages were based on number of tanks sprayed. The workers share their wages with the sprayer owners who spend around Rs 5,500 in buying a sprayer each. At Rs 25 per tank sprayed, Rs 15 goes to the worker and Rs 10 to the sprayer owner. Thus, the current situation ends up exploiting the desperate socio-economic living conditions of agricultural workers and farmers. 

Flagging Regulation

The regulation of pesticide industry has always been lacking whether it’s about how the products are marketed and sold, review of chemicals banned in other countries or action against pesticide manufacturers and dealers for malpractices. 

Government had set up a committee to review the continuation of 66 pesticides banned in other countries. However, there were many gaps in the committee report

Family members of a deceased farmer at Yavatmal, Maharashtra.Image: Kavitha Kuruganti

There is also the additional matter of pesticide companies coming up with “combination pesticides", and the central regulator allowing such pesticides.

The Indian government had set up a review committee headed by Dr Anupam Verma, former professor at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, to look into the continuation of 66 pesticides which have been banned or (severely) restricted elsewhere in the world.

However, there were many gaps in the committee report. For instance, glyphosate, which has been banned in a few countries, was not even reviewed by the committee. Each government agency or department in Maharashtra has started blaming each other for the tragedy, but most importantly accused the “ignorant” farmers, failing to recognise that farmers are the victims of the situation.

Only a few pesticide dealers and companies have faced action.

While pesticide dealers are culpable to an extent for wrong advisories they may have given, the pesticide manufacturers, regulators, the health and agriculture departments and state and central governments are culpable too.

Pesticide dealers and their recommendations/advisories to farmers, especially in the absence of an effective public extension system, are not monitored or regulated. For instance, a particular pesticide of ‘Police’ brand was implicated in a couple of cases of deaths. It’s a mixture of Fipronil and Imidacloprid chemicals but is not approved by the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC). Similar was the case with two other pesticides.

No data means no problem

Several cases of ingestion of pesticides arrive at hospitals and are duly recorded, but accidental or occupational inhalation and exposure doesn’t enjoy the same attention thus masking the problem.

A Lok Sabha Question in 2007 on this issue led to the then Minister of State, Union Ministry of Agriculture, informing the House that during 2001-02 and 2005-06, only five states had recorded such cases. This is evidently gross underreporting.

Absence of or incomplete records allow authorities to overlook the issue as was evident in Yevatmal district where no department has ever taken cognisance of the matter despite years of experience of acute poisoning both through ingestion and inhalation. The Medical College and Hospital has not developed a system to monitor such cases or alert other agencies/departments so that preventive measures can be taken.

Media, including public broadcasters, show images of farmers spraying chemicals sans any protective gear, thus creating an illusion that this is safe practice.

Going beyond district administrations, it is clear that there is a general impression of safety and complacency that has been allowed to be spread about pesticides. Media, including public broadcasters, show images of farmers spraying chemicals sans any protective gear, thus creating an illusion that this is safe practice.

This is obviously not proven in our experience, especially of those engaged in farming, who are adversely impacted. The pesticides industry has organised itself around incentives and gifts to dealers and farmers, apart from aggressive marketing tactics to sell their products. 

A 2004 study by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), emphasised that “safe use of pesticides” is a myth in India due to various reasons like poverty, illiteracy and lack of awareness, feudal relationships and tropical and hot weather conditions. For instance, the advice to not spray against the wind for a farm worker who is working on a given patch of land for a fixed wage, the luxury of walking back to the initial line so that he can align himself to the wind direction does not exist.

Similarly, there are instances where farmers don’t reveal the deadly nature of a given pesticide to the sprayer poured into another container, for fear of finding no hired labour to do the job. The hot, humid conditions of work do not allow for protective gear to be worn comfortably.

The hot, humid conditions of work do not allow for protective gear to be worn comfortably

Promote alternative pest management 

There is a complete lack of awareness, experience and promotion of post-modern science of pest management which does not need either synthetic pesticides or genetically modified seeds to control pests and diseases on a crop.

Agro-ecology and organic farming is irresponsibly missing from the scene which is afflicted with acute agrarian crisis already. It is an unpardonable lacuna from the establishment that farmers are not trying out such methods through proper hand holding and marketing support systems from the government.

Agro-ecology and organic farming is irresponsibly missing from the scene

Added to this is a situation where regulatory failures around stopping illegal spread of seeds and illegal use of pesticides are apparent. The government has to address this situation immediately if it wants any medium and long term solutions to emerge from this crisis situation. Else, farmers and farm hands will continue to die and we will keep doling out condolences and meagre monetary compensations.

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