From 22 deaths to 0, how cotton district in Maharashtra battled pesticide poisoninghttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/from-22-deaths-to-0-how-cotton-district-in-maharashtra-battled-pesticide-poisoning/

From 22 deaths to 0, how cotton district in Maharashtra battled pesticide poisoning

In July and August, officials say, at least 28,000 safety kits — masks, gloves and synthetic aprons — were distributed free of cost in Yavatmal as part of this initiative.

From 22 deaths to 0, how cotton district in Maharashtra battled pesticide poisoning
Maharashtra used to witness 30-60 deaths of farmers on an average every year due to overexposure to pesticides. Express Photo by Deepak Daware

BHOJRAJ UIKE hands over a new white apron to his friend Nilesh Bagde, and both share a laugh. The apron is part of a three-piece kit that Nilesh received this year from the government for use while spraying pesticide on his cotton crop at Taroda village in Kalamb tehsil of Yavatmal district. Behind the laughter is a story of change. Last year this time, Uike (26) and Bagde (24) were undergoing treatment for poisoning due to pesticide inhalation. Now, both are beneficiaries of an ambitious awareness drive on the use of pesticides in their fields.

In July and August, officials say, at least 28,000 safety kits — masks, gloves and synthetic aprons — were distributed free of cost in Yavatmal as part of this initiative. And the results, they say, are showing. Last year, 22 deaths were reported from Yavatmal due to pesticide poisoning. This year, official figures show, the slate was clean in the state’s “cotton district” where the crop is spread across 4.5 lakh hectares.

The numbers mirror the pattern across the state’s cotton fields, including in Yavatmal, Akola, Buldana, Washim, Wardha and Amravati in Vidarbha: from 62 deaths due to pesticide poisoning across the state — 40 in Vidarbha alone — to two this year, including one each from Akola and Wardha districts. “It’s been a happy diwali this time,” says Uike.

According to government officials, the sharp fall in numbers is largely due to their awareness drive. But The Indian Express travelled across Yavatmal over the last week to find that a huge dip in attacks by pink bollworm, an insect that had ravaged cotton fields last year, was also a key factor. And that farmers were facing other problems that are yet to be resolved.

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“Maharashtra used to witness 30-60 deaths of farmers on an average every year due to overexposure to pesticides…for many years. Only two deaths this year stand out as a disaster management landmark, like the post-Latur earthquake relief operation,” says Subhash Katkar, who heads the quality control section of the state’s Agriculture Department.

“We started the awareness drive in villages well in advance. The farmers came forward when they experienced symptoms of the ailment. Timely treatment saw the patients recover. We had also approached manufacturers to participate in the process,” says Katkar.

Official figures show that a total of 507 patient admissions were reported last year from Yavatmal, while the count was 116 this time. The two fatalities in the state due to pesticide poisoning this year were reported from Telhara tehsil in Akola and Hinganghat tehsil in Wardha.

“We also opened dedicated wards in government medical facilities with dedicated staff to ensure that patients were attended to in a focused manner,” says Rajesh Deshmukh, Yavatmal District Collector, who toured the district and obtained weekly updates to oversee the initiative.

But workers say many of them are yet to receive the kits from the farm owners and others have not felt any compulsion to use them.

At Dahegaon village in Ghatanji tehsil, farm workers Raghunath Kanake, Nikhil Katane and Gajanan Chikram were admitted to Yavatmal’s government medical college for 15 days last year. And yet, only Chikram is using protection of any kind — a handkerchief tied around his face — while the other two have avoided spraying duty.

“We did receive awareness tips from the government. Also, the crop did not attain the height it usually does this time, so we didn’t have to spray pesticides at the level of our heads,” says Bhimrao Todsam in the tribal-dominated village of Shaari.

Officials, meanwhile, point to two key steps in their campaign: preventing the entry of seeds into the market before May 26, and banning for two peak months pesticides that were part of a “deadly cocktail” used by farmers last year. Besides, 33 police cases were registered against companies, dealers and individuals for violating provisions of the Insecticides Act, compared to just two last year.

“Last year, sowing started early towards the end of May and continued till June-end. This created a cascading pattern of flowering across the cotton belt which helped pests like pink bollworm grow from strength to strength. We blocked the entry of seeds this year, which led to sowing happening more or less simultaneously,” says Katkar from the agriculture department.

“We advised farmers to undertake spraying around the time the insect was found to lay eggs. As a result, compared to last year’s 15-odd spraying sessions through the season, the farmers did only 8-10 sprays this year, reducing their exposure to pesticides,” he says.

Farm activist Vijay Jawandhia, however, says the credit for the transformation goes largely to nature and the farmers. “The credit goes to nature because there were hardly any bollworm attacks this year. Having grown wiser from last year’s experience, the farmers took adequate precautions, too,” says Jawandhia.

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Vijay Kadu, who coordinates with farmers on behalf of Ghatanji-based NGO Dilasa, endorses the government’s efforts — but with a warning. “Manufacturers add to the potency of pesticides to achieve maximum effect. This time, the government regulated many pesticides, reducing their availability. The farmers, too, became more careful. But if the system becomes lax again, we could see the tragedy staging a comeback next year.”