Cotton cultivation experts and researchers have said the cumulative effect of several factors, such as humidity, spraying of pesticide cocktails and use of a new kind of spraying machine, seem to be behind the deaths of cotton growers in Maharashtra. The number of deaths climbed to 32 on Sunday.
Since July 19, 18 farmers have died in Yavatmal and 14 in surrounding districts in the cotton growing belt of the state. The two fresh deaths have been reported from Nagpur and Akola.
Yavatmal police have initiated criminal action against five pesticide sellers who didn’t have the licence to sell the products. “We have registered FIRs under the Insecticides Act,” Yavatmal Superintendent of Police M Rajkumar said.
But the acting director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Vijay Waghmare, pointed to other factors that could have claimed the lives of farmers and labourers.
“The Bt cotton crop at this time is standing at least one or two feet taller than previous years and with heavy foliage…. So, the farmers sprayed at head level. The area under cotton, too, has grown from about 37 lakh hectares to about 42 lakh hectares in the Maharashtra. Also, from the past 4-5 years, farmers have been extending the crop beyond December right till February-March to get extra quintals,” Waghmare said.
He said extending the crop cultivation time leads to “failure to break the pest cycle” and an “increase in the spread of pests”.
He said if the crop cycle ends in December, the “pest cycle is also broken”, but if cultivation continues till close to the following season, the insects remain and continue to breed.
Waghmare also said that “farmers have been increasingly using cocktails of pesticides, which we strictly recommend against. Also, there was a lot of humidity in September and the farmers probably didn’t cover themselves properly to escape it, letting in a lot of pesticide through their skin and noses. Humidity also multiplies pests.”
Waghmare added: “It has been noticed that farmers are spraying more rounds than advisable.”
CICR scientists, state officials and Krishi Vigyan Kendra scientists have visited the areas of Yavatmal that has reported farmer deaths or illness. They are due to submit their findings to the government.
Keshav Kranthi, a former CICR head who now leads the technical information service of the International Cotton Advisory Committee, said: “This time rains were good so plant growth was good. The more the foliage, the more is the attack by sucking pests. Over the past 4-5 years, pests have developed resistance to cotton, so farmers have been using cocktails of many insecticides.”
Kranthi, who is an entomologist, said: “I have not seen the situation on the ground so I can’t make a definite assessment. But it seems the problem has been caused by the extra height of the plant, mist spraying by a new kind of sprayer and cocktails of insecticides. And September happens to be the month of maximum humidity so farmers tend not to cover their bodies properly.”
Farmers have complained about the attack of pink bollworms which has developed resistance to BT cotton, but Kranthi said: “The pink bollworm… should be very small in September and would actually peak in November. So, such an intensive spraying in September is difficult to understand.”
Subhash Nagre, the joint director (agriculture) in the Amravati division of which Yavatmal district is a part, said: “Farmers have used power pumps more this time. These pumps can spray up to 10 acres per day as against normal sprayers which spray up to two acres a day. For normal sprayers, the farmer needs to fill in the tank every two hours so he gets a break, but with power pumps, he manages to spray in one go. The new kind of pump sprayers have fine holes and spray like mist that easily envelopes the person’s body.
Yavatmal collector Rajendra Deshmukh said: “Our record shows that six persons had died due to the same reason last year too,” indicating that the phenomenon may have started last year and was probably not taken seriously.