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Pesticide death probe blames farmers & govt, experts say soft on manufacturers

Report calls for action against farmers not following rules, stricter regulation by govt departments.

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Nagpur |
Updated: January 26, 2018 5:36:08 am
yavatmal, farmers deaths, yavatmal farmer deaths, pesticide death, pesticide use, yavatmal pesticides death, india news, indian express A farmhand sprays pesticide on cotton crops in Yavatmal. Suspected pesticide poisoning killed over 40 in Amravati in 2017, most of them in Yavatmal. (Express Photo: Deepak Daware)

Between July and October last year, over 40 farmers and farm labourers had died in Amravati, most of them in Yavatmal, in what was seen as a result of inhalation of pesticide. Now, a special investigation team that probed the deaths has blamed the administrative machinery across government departments — as also farmers and farm labourers for failing to follow safety measures — in a report that has upset experts and farm activists, who say it has failed to hold manufacturers of illicit pesticides culpable.

To prevent recurrence, the panel has recommended measures including a ban on monocrotophos — a widely used insecticide — and unregistered plant growth regulators, besides dedicated quality control staff to check pesticide quality, dedicated intensive care units at district and rural hospitals, and stringent IPC sections against farm owners and labourers not adhering to stipulations.

The SIT, headed by Amravati divisional commissioner Piyush Singh, was set up in October and was supposed to submit its report in November. The report was delayed; the Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court, hearing a PIL, sought to know from the government its status. It was tabled Monday and submitted to the court Tuesday.

Also Read | Pesticide deaths stalk Yavatmal fields: 18 dead, over 800 farmers in hospital

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“It aims to exonerate manufacturing companies of their responsibilities… and instead threatens farmers and labourers with criminal action,” said Kishor Tiwari, chairman of the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swawlamban Mission, a state government task force. “The report doesn’t deal with the sale of illicit pesticides by manufacturers. The panel has actually conspired to put the state government to disrepute by making such recommendations.”

Farm activist Vijay Jawandhia said, “Putting the onus on farmers for what happened and making fitness certificates mandatory for preventing the recurrence amounts to harassment. Instead, why doesn’t the government ban chemical farming in toto?”

The panel recommends that farmers and farm labourers be registered with the agriculture department through village-level agriculture assistants “as provided by the Insecticide Rules of 1971 under the Insecticides Act of 1968”, and later secure “fitness certificate” from government health centres to undertake the spraying job. This certificate has to be renewed every six months. It says farm owners must check this certificate before giving the work to the labourer and must also provide protective gear. The panel has asked manufacturers to provide protective gear free as part of their corporate social responsibility.

About pesticides, the report calls for a ban on “cheaply available and most poisonous monocrotophos pesticide since it’s difficult to prohibit its indiscriminate use”.

Criticising the report, an agriculture expert said: “The Insecticide Act clearly provides for fixing culpability of the manufacturing companies. If that is not done, it clearly shows how the government has buckled under pressure of companies.”

Besides pesticides, the report blames “non-recommended” use of plant growth regulators (PGRs) in combination with cocktails, which it says could increase toxicity. For PGRs, it recommends action against manufacturers. It calls upon the Central Insecticide Board to regulate manufacture of PGRs. “Unless it is scientifically established that it won’t cause any harm, it should not be sold in the market,” it says. “Manufacturers should be severely punished by treating the spread of such PGRs as a serious crime.”

Apart from excessive use of pesticides, the panel has pointed to extra feet height that cotton crop gain, which forces farmers to spray at head level thereby excessively inhaling pesticide, as well as less spacing between crop rows adding to inhalation. It points to use of fine-holed automatic sprays that created a mist of pesticide fumes instead of droplets, daylong spraying by farmers or labourers for 3-4 days at a stretch instead of at intervals, non-use of protective gear etc as human factors behind the tragedy.

The panel has noted that no monitoring mechanism has been put in place as mandated by the Insecticides Act 1968 to provide for first-aid, protective gear and antidotes.

In another suggestion, the SIT has called for promotion of bio-pesticides and bio-agents as safer alternatives. “For now, the CIB procedure for permission to manufacture such products is tedious. It should be simplified and the state government should send a proposal to the CIB,” the panel has suggested.

It has said the state government should immediately come out with an portal to inform farmers as soon as hotspots of pest attacks are noticed.

The probe panel has also suggested a “gram krishi samiti” that will hold fortnightly meetings to suggest measures to prevent pesticide poisoning.

Reviewing steps taken against farm input shops and manufacturing companies, the SIT has called for trying these cases in fast-track courts. It also called for employing agriculture graduates at shops. “These shop-owners should provide free protective gear provided by the manufacturers and guide farmers on first-aid and antidote,” the report has suggested.

The SIT also has blamed non-implementation of a mandatory provision of the Insecticides Act — filing of reports regarding pesticide poisoning by officers of various departments including health, forest, agriculture and revenue — for the recurring incidents. “No action was taken against sale of non-recommended pesticides in the affected areas by the agriculture department officials. One Quality Control Inspector has to cover 16 tahsils in Yavatmal. That post, too, has been vacant since past two years and the job is left to a tahsil agriculture officer (TAO) as additional charge. Moreover, the department has many posts vacant (only six TAO posts out of 16 filled) in the district,” the SIT notes.

Pointing out deficiencies in treatment, the SIT has observed, “The cholinesterase test required for proper diagnosis of poisoning by organophosphate class of pesticides was unavailable at Yavatmal Government Medical College and Hospital and had to be done at private centres. No independent machinery existed in medical college and health department centres for compilation of records exclusively of pesticide-affected patients. Only symptomatic treatment was given to patients due to lack of proper diagnosis. No treatment facilities are available at rural hospitals and sub-district hospitals. As a result, there was a delay in bringing the patients to Yavatmal.”

Law on manufacturers

Insecticide Act, Rule 41 (1971): “Manufacturers, etc. to keep sufficient quantity of antidotes and first-aid medicines.Manufacturers and distributors of insecticides and persons who undertake to spray insecticide on a commercial basis (hereafter in these rules referred to as operators) shall keep sufficient stock of first-aid tools, equipment, antidotes, injections and medicines as may be required to treat poisoning cases arising from inhalation, skin, contamination, eye contamination and swallowing.”

Rule 42: “Manufacturers and distributors of insecticides and operators shall arrange for suitable training in observing safety precautions and handling safety equipment provided to them.”

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