Unsafe practice in spraying pesticide killing farmers

Three deaths trigger panic in Perambalur district which is seeing a sharp increase in cotton cultivation

November 24, 2017 08:18 am | Updated 08:18 am IST - Tiruchi

 Anandhi, wife of Selvam, who died after spraying pesticide, along with her children at Odhiyam village in Perambalur distict.

Anandhi, wife of Selvam, who died after spraying pesticide, along with her children at Odhiyam village in Perambalur distict.

At least three farmers have died over the past one month in Perambalur district, apparently due to exposure to chemicals while spraying pesticides on BT cotton fields, triggering a scare.

The incidents, similar to the recent deaths in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, have come when there is a huge increase in area under cotton cultivation in the district. A leading producer of cotton in the State, Perambalur district has seen a sharp increase in area of coverage under the crop by 13,500 hectares (ha) this year, thanks to the timely monsoon rainfall in August/September.

Against the normal area of 20,000 ha, cotton has been raised in about 33,500 ha across the district and the genetically modified (BT) cotton, which was previously considered to be pest resistant, accounts for almost the entire area.

But the crop has been hit by Pink Bollworm, which could potentially devastate it, sending farmers scurrying to initiate protective measures.

The farmers reportedly use a combination of organophosphate insecticides, such as chlorpyrifos and monocrotophos, sold under different brand names.

Almost every village has a group of labourers to do the job for them for a remuneration of ₹30-40 “a tank” (of about 15 litres).

As several hundreds of acres should be covered, demand is high for them. Many farm hands stretch themselves to spray as many tanks as possible in a day and make a quick buck, unmindful of the exposure to highly toxic pesticides, say officials.

So much so, some have collapsed right in the field just as S. Selvam (27), a farm hand from the Arunthathiar community of Odhiyam village, did on October 25. “Neighbours came running to inform me that he has swooned in the field. We rushed him to the Perambalur government hospital. By afternoon, they referred him to the Tiruchi Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Government Hospital. Though he complained of feeling dizzy, he was speaking to us that evening. But he died the same night,” recounts Anandhi (25), his wife. Though Selvam collapsed while spraying pesticide at a field owned by his family, he had been doing the job for other farmers too.

With three young children, the eldest being a four-year-old daughter, Anandhi still looks dazed and clueless about her future. “He would not even allow me to go to work, saying we can live with his earnings. I do not know what to do now,” she says.

In Sithali village, R. Raja (35) had bought the “tank” (sprayer) only this year investing ₹5,200, hoping to get a good income. “He thought he can earn more with the sprayer. But he ended up losing his life,” laments K. Ramasamy, his father.

With two young children, Raja’s wife, Meenakshi (25), faces an uncertain future. “I do not know how to raise my young kids. It was so sudden,” she says.

“He came home after work in the evening, but started vomiting during the night and we rushed him to the government hospital. But we could not save him,” she recalls. At least half-a-dozen farmers who had sprayed pesticides in the village had developed dizziness and nausea and had to undergo treatment. Some farmers in villages such as Sirukalappur in Tiruchi district were also said to have turned sick after spraying pesticide.

In Pasumbalur, P. Arjunan (54), complained of nausea and dizziness after spraying pesticides at his farm on November 12. He too was admitted to Perambalur GH and died two days later.

As the cotton plants have grown unusually tall this year, more than six feet, farmers are more exposed to toxic chemicals while spraying. Some also blamed the high density of plantation for the problem. Most farmers depend on the village dealer to get pesticides/insecticides over the counter by describing the condition of the crop. Women accompany the farmers to assist in mixing the pesticides.

Sensitisation needed

“Farmers do not take requisite precautions and use the pesticides without any knowledge of how and when to spray them. Agriculture department officials should sensitise them and conduct demonstrations at villages on how to spray pesticides,” says Ramesh Karuppiah, an environmental activist, who also expresses concern over the possible environment impact of the excessive use of pesticides.

R. Raja Chidambaram, State secretary, Tamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam, said farmers were scared following the deaths. But they had no choice as they had to save the crop and their livelihood. He demanded a compensation of at least ₹5 lakh each to the victims' families and also called for intervention of the State government to prevent such incidents.

Collector V. Santha said that farmers were resorting to excessive use of pesticides in their anxiety to control the pest. Besides, they were using a combination of three or more chemical pesticides or insecticides.

“They are not following the safety protocol. A person should spray only four or five tanks a day, but some of them spray up to 50 tanks. The pesticides have to be sprayed only in the morning hours and should be completed by 11 a.m. But they keep spraying right through the day without proper safety gear,” she said.

Ms.Santha said that steps were taken to sensitise farmers and about 100 kits containing safety had been distributed.

“We plan to distribute more and step up awareness measures,” she said. The Collector promised to look into the demand for livelihood support to the wives of the victims.

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