Devidas Madavi, 57, a farm hand from Kalamb town in Yavatmal district, took up the job of spraying pesticides for the first time this year. By August 19, 12 days after he had used a can to spray pesticides in the cotton fields of employer Amar Gurnule, he was dead. Since July 19, 17 farmers have died of similar pesticide inhalation in the district while at least 12 more deaths are being investigated in the districts of Akola (5), Amravati (2), Nagpur (2), Bhandara (2) and Buldana (1). Over 800 people are in hospital, with symptoms of diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, stomach ache, and vision impairment. Yavatmal ironically is the farmer suicide capital of Vidarbha.
On October 3, two and a half months after the first death, the government ordered a probe and announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to families of each of the deceased. On Friday, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court issued notices on a PIL seeking criminal action against the officials concerned and pesticide firms. While no action has been taken against anyone so far, Minister of State for Agriculture Sadabhau Khot on Tuesday said, “Officials responsible will be made answerable.”
The Agriculture Department has meanwhile rushed two ‘Quality Control’ probe teams to Yavatmal and Akola to check if some of the pesticides were spurious. “Akola has many pesticide warehouses. We will also probe if farmers were apprised on the use of pesticides,” Commissioner, Agriculture, Sachindra Pratap Singh told The Sunday Express.
Madavi’s wife Mangala says they don’t have farmland of own, but would manage working on the fields of others. They have two children, Sandip, 25, and daughter Nikita, 20. Within five days of starting spraying of pesticides, Madavi fell ill, starting with diarrhoea. Mangala, 47, took him to the rural hospital of Kalamb, from where he was shifted to Government Medical College (GMC), Yavatmal, where he passed away. The official reason was ‘Accidental (passive) inhalation of pesticides’.
Sitting in a dark, two-room house, to which a stream of visitors has been making a beeline since news of the deaths emerged, Mangala remains confused about her husband dying of such a “saadi bimari (innocuous ailment)”.
Forty km away, in Manoli village, Deepa, the widow of farm labourer Bandu Sonule, 43, scoffs at the government relief. “I will collect Rs 2 lakh by begging and give it to the government instead. They should give us Rs 10 lakh.”
Most farm labourers take up pesticide spraying as it pays more, Rs 350 per day, compared to Rs 250 for other farm operations. The labourers say they know the extra money is for the hazards involved, and add that no officer has ever advised them on precautions to take. “Only now have they come out with some pamphlets,” say some of those in hospitals.
Farmers go by what the local, privately owned Krushi Seva Kendras, through which pesticides are sold, tell them. The packets have instructions in several languages, but the print is too small, and not all farmers can read.
Under the Insecticides Act, 1968, officials are required to train farmers in the use of pesticides. The Superintending Agriculture Office, Yavatmal, Navnath Kolapkar claims they undertake awareness programmes “but farmers don’t generally observe caution”. “We also keep tabs on spurious or banned products.”
However, Kolapkar admits that farmers going by the advice of Krushi Seva Kendras is a “big issue”. “Only qualified persons should run these shops. We are planning to make it compulsory for the kendras to make guideline leaflets available to farmers. Also, protection kits need to be given.”
This year, intensive spraying lasted from July 1 to about September 3-4. The graph of deaths and hospitalisations rose correspondingly. At the Yavatmal GMC, there were 24 admissions in July, 114 in August and 231 in September. Over 450 flocked to rural hospitals run by the Public Health Department in that period.
Civil Surgeon T G Dhote told The Sunday Express that as of Friday, only four patients remained in rural hospitals. At the Yavatmal GMC, six patients are still in ICU, four on ventilator. Meanwhile, the spraying continues, though it is tapering off now.
A doctor on duty at the GMU ICCU, who didn’t want to be named, says, “The damage has been caused by excessive inhalation of organophosphate and organochloride groups of insecticides, which first enter the fat below the skin, and then the blood. Patients have to be treated with Atropin drug, which causes psychosis and patients have to be tied to the bed if they become restive.”
About why it took so long for officials to react, Yavatmal GMC Dean Ashok Rathod says, “The first death happened on July 19. Till then, our doctors were encountering a patient or two every day, so it hadn’t become obvious. It was on September 19 after a newspaper report that we took out retrospective data.”
Scrambling for explanation, Amravati Divisional Joint Director (Agriculture) Subhash Nagre says a combination of factors were responsible. “The crop is right now standing at 5 feet or more, necessitating spraying at head level. Moreover, farmers have decreased spacing between rows in fields from 5 to about 3 feet. This year most farmers have also gone in for only cotton, due to disillusionment with pulses, which they would sow as inter-crop otherwise. With the crop developing heavy foliage and because of moderate infestation of pink bollworm, white fly and sucking pests, farmers did intensive fumigation.”
Hot, dry winds worsened matters, Nagre adds, with the pesticide fumes blowing back into the faces of sprayers. Gajanan Pathrode, a farmer of Rajurwadi village in Ghatanji tehsil, admits they resorted to excessive fumigation this time, adding, “Bt cotton did not require fumigation in the past 10 years, but the Bollgard II Bt hybrid is no more resistant to pink bollworm.” However, not all deaths have been attributed to spraying on cotton. Says Nagpur Collector Sachin Kurve, “Of the four deaths at the Nagpur GMC, two were from teshils that don’t grow cotton and two from Bhandara, which has only paddy.”
Two patients at the GMC ICCU, Haribhau Kumbhkar, 60, and Vijay Watkar, 30, from Bhari village in Yavatmal tehsil, are among those on ventilator. They both worked in the farms of Anar Thakre. “We take pesticides from the Krushi Seva Kendra owned by Ramesh Bharatiya. He uses the same on his own farm,” Thakre says.
Besides the height of the crop and winds, he says another reason pesticides hurt the farm hands this time was high temperatures. “The sprayers sweated a lot, and the pesticide perhaps stuck to the body.” Bhavesh Gandecha, the owner of the Jalaram Krushi Kendra, says they could never recommend a pesticide that was dangerous. “How can we do something to harm the farmer? Who will come to us then?” he argues.
Commissioner, Agriculture, Sachindra Pratap Singh, who earlier served as Yavatmal Collector, admits rampant use of pesticides with little information. “We have to check if farmers are using the most powerful pesticides, red triangle, instead of the moderately strong yellow triangle ones, which are abundantly available. The market also has two more qualities, as per their potency.”