OPINION

When every breath kills

Deadly incentive:“Farm workers are paid on the basis of the number of times they empty pesticide containers.” A farm labourer sprays pesticide on cotton crop in Manoli village, Yawatmal district, Maharashtra.(Below) Geeta Sonule (in a blue saree), whose husband Bandu Sonule died of pesticide poisoning through inhalation, along with her family.S. Sudarshan

Deadly incentive:“Farm workers are paid on the basis of the number of times they empty pesticide containers.” A farm labourer sprays pesticide on cotton crop in Manoli village, Yawatmal district, Maharashtra.(Below) Geeta Sonule (in a blue saree), whose husband Bandu Sonule died of pesticide poisoning through inhalation, along with her family.S. Sudarshan  

In the cotton belt of Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, pesticide poisoning through inhalation has caused 21 deaths in three months. Serish Nanisetti reports onthe deadly cocktail of absent regulation, government apathy, and farmers’ desperation that continues to claim lives

Geeta Bandu Sonule doesn’t cry any more. Not even when she relives the final moments of her husband Chandrakant Bandu Sonule (40), who died two months ago, after spraying pesticide on a cotton field.

On September 19 this year, it had been raining on and off in the small village of Manoli in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. Bandu, as he was known in the village, had come to the cotton farm of Shankar Ramakrishna Chowdhuri in search of work. That morning, he filled a container with the pesticide handed to him, and pulled a cord to bring the petrol-powered sprayer to life.

Covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief, he began spraying the fine mist on the cotton field. The crop was taller than the five-and-a-half foot labourer, who had taken on the task for a daily wage of Rs. 300. Inhaling the toxic mist was an occupational hazard he didn’t have the luxury of worrying about.

A death foretold

Bandu began spraying at 9 a.m. and did not stop except to indulge his small vice: kharra (an addictive blend of scented tobacco ground with lime). He had bought two packets, costing Rs. 10 each, for the day’s use. His wife hadn’t packed his lunch. “It was pitru paksh amavasya (new moon), so he was fasting. He didn’t take food but told me about the kharra packets. Usually he has jhunka bhakar (a spicy preparation of gram flour eaten with jowar roti) in the morning, and carries the same thing for lunch,” says Geeta.

“It had rained during the day. The sky was cloudy. Bandu returned home just as it was getting dark. He had his bath, and made the ritual offering to his deceased father. After that he started complaining of dizziness and nausea. I told him it must be because of his fasting. He sat down for a dinner of chicken, jowar roti, green chillies, and onions. Then he started throwing up, and said he was unable to see. He kept vomiting, and was tossing and turning all night,” she recalls, surrounded by her father, mother, daughter, nieces and nephews in her parents’ house in Amdi village, 2 km from Manoli.

While Manoli has no hospital, Ghatanji, which is 5 km away, has a rural healthcare centre. The district headquarters of Yavatmal, 42 km from Ghatanji, has the Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College, which is a 584-bed facility. Ghatanji to Yavatmal is a bone-rattling bus ride that takes more than an hour, with a short ghat section that passes through the Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary.

In the morning, Geeta took her husband to the medical centre in Ghatanji. Bandu was given some eye drops and told that he would be alright. “When we got back home, he began to have convulsions. He was sweating profusely, he again started vomiting, and he couldn’t see. We couldn’t take him to a hospital as there was only Rs. 15 in the house,” Geeta says.

An autorickshaw from Manoli to Yavatmal costs Rs. 200. “I borrowed money from my brother, and the next morning, we took him again to the same medical centre in Ghatanji where we had shown him the previous night. After two hours, we got an admission card for the Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College in Yavatmal. We took a bus and by the time we reached the hospital, it was the evening of September 21,” says Geeta. Bandu was rushed to the ICU. He was given some medicines, his eyes were bandaged, and he was put on an intravenous drip. His wife, son, nephew and a nurse tried to hold him down on the bed as he thrashed about in spasmodic violence. On September 23, at 7 a.m., his body went limp. Doctors pronounced him dead. Bandu had joined Yavatmal’s growing list of people who had died of pesticide poisoning through inhalation.

Killer pesticides

Manoli is about 47 km from the district headquarters of Yavatmal. It is a village of a few hundred houses surrounded by endless acres of cotton and green pigeon pea farms. State Highway 237 passes through these fields.

A month before Bandu died, on August 6, a farmer named Dashrath Rama Chavan was brought to Yavatmal’s Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College. The next day, Devidas Ramaji Madavi was brought in by his relatives. By the end of November, 21 people (13 farmers and eight farm workers) had died due to pesticide inhalation in Yavatmal district alone. Activists peg the number of the dead at 50 in the other cotton-growing regions of Maharashtra such as Akola, Amravati, Dhamangaon, Nagpur, and Wardha. Also, 497 instances of temporary blindness caused by pesticide inhalation have been reported. Doctors call it ‘temporary blindness’ as almost all the survivors regained their sight after a few days of treatment.

Agriculture department officials have identified a number of chemicals, including organophosphates, pyrethroids, neonicotinoids, and pyrazoles as responsible for the deaths. As news of Bandu’s death spread, government officials rushed to inspect Shankar Chowdhuri’s farmland. They discovered a number of empty bottles and canisters of pesticides. District officials identified a cocktail of pesticides, including Polo, Steamreach, and Tonic.

Polo, manufactured by the global agribusiness giant Syngenta, has diafenthiuron (which kills by causing paralysis) as the active ingredient. The bottles with the labels of Tonic and Steamreach had no identifiable chemical names on them. But all of them had a blue band, which indicates toxicity and marks them out as dangerous.

As the number of deaths due to pesticide poisoning piled up, activists of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena targeted an official from the agriculture department, demanding that culpable homicide charges be slapped against Maharashtra Agriculture Minister Pandurang Fundkar and the department officials. Following 21 deaths in one district due to pesticide exposure, the Zilla Parishad Agriculture Officer was placed under suspension. The State government has given a compensation of Rs. 2 lakhs to the next of kin of the dead.

“We cannot wish away pesticides,” says a district agriculture department official. “Farm incomes will decline rapidly if we stop using them. This year, the pink bollworm has created panic among farmers, who have ended up using a number of pesticides. The government has constituted a Special Investigative Team with district officials and doctors in its ranks to probe these deaths. I hope it will bring out the truth.”

Now a pamphlet prepared by the agriculture department has been plastered on all the shops selling farm equipment as well in the village community halls. It lists the dos and don’ts and safe practices. But it doesn’t even have a helpline number for farmers to call if they need information or if they experience discomfort due to spraying of pesticides.

Desperate to save crops

Farmers who see their healthy cotton crop grow to a height of six feet are anxious to eliminate any risk of pests. They deploy practically everything they lay their hands on. Farm workers are paid on the basis of the number of times they empty the pesticide containers. Naturally, they stretch themselves to the limit.

“I have my own petrol-driven pump. A month back, I sprayed through the day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A couple of weeks later, I began to lose my sight. I had stomach cramps and pain in the throat. My wife brought me to this hospital after hearing all the stories of people dying due to pesticide exposure,” says Vinod Shirji Dhanke, a farm hand from Dhamangaon.

He had done a simple calculation: With one litre of petrol, he could spray 30 times. On a single day he sprayed the pesticide 50 times and earned Rs. 1,500. “Never again will I spray pesticides. I am selling off my Rs. 5,500 pump for Rs. 2,000,” says Danke, convalescing in Ward No. 18 of the same hospital where Bandu died.

The entire ward has been repurposed for taking care of patients exposed to fatal levels of pesticides. “This has become like a VIP ward, attracting the maximum number of visitors,” says a nurse at the hospital. “Now there are only seven patients. But for three months we struggled with a full ward. Some of the patients were constantly in pain, screaming, complaining of burning eyes. Others writhed and thrashed about. We would ask the relatives to hold them down. Some had to be tied to the beds to keep them from harming themselves.”

Poisoning by organophosphates causes headache, dizziness, weakness, anxiety, tremors of tongue and eyelids, miosis, and impairment of visual acuity. Some lost control of their bowel movement, adds the nurse, who did not want to be identified. Doctors at the hospital refused to speak, citing the ongoing probe by a Special Investigation Team.

Among the survivors of accidental pesticide exposure is Avdhut Laxman Wadgure (48), a farmer from the same village as Bandu. “I sprayed Profex Super on my toor dal (pigeon pea) crop on November 14. I began at 9 a.m. and sprayed using my hand pump till 3.30 p.m. I didn’t take a break as I was fasting that day. Three days later, when I took my mother to hospital, I felt feverish and couldn’t see properly. The doctor asked me to get admitted here,” says Wadgure, who owns 3.5 acres in Manoli.

Profex Super is a combination of two neurotoxins, of which one is an organophosphate, a synthetic chemical that belongs to the same family as the notorious nerve gas Sarin, which kills by disrupting neural pathways. Wadgure is one of the lucky few to have survived an intense exposure to these neurotoxins.

What emerges from conversations with various farm workers and farmers is that the spraying of pesticide is linked not to pest infestation or the health of the crop but to how much of it can be sprayed, and how desperate the farmer is to save the crop.

The amount of pesticides sprayed on cotton has grown exponentially over the years. Nearly 6,863 metric tonnes of pesticides were used on cotton crops by farmers in India in 2002. By 2013, the quantity had risen to 11,598 metric tonnes. This year, on November 13, following a petition by concerned citizens on how pesticides are affecting the right to life, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Central government on the regulation of pesticides. The Centre is yet to reply to the notice.

Colonial greed, indifference now

Yavatmal is the heart of the cotton-producing region in the country, with 43,84,000 hectares under the crop. In the morning hours, the roads in the countryside are full of tinkling ox carts piled high with the white fibre. It was back in 1825 that Parsi bankers and merchants first brought such ox carts loaded with cotton to Bombay, from where it was shipped to the mills of Lancashire and Manchester.

“Soon, 500 ox carts per year were making the trip from the interiors of central India to the dockyards of Bombay. At its peak, three lakh ox carts were used to transport cotton. The area was transformed, as roads, bridges, and bungalows for travellers came up. The Nizam handed over the Aurangabad mint to two brothers, Pestonjee Meherji and Viccajee Meherji. Later they were given permission to mint their own coins, known as Peston Shahi Sikka,” says Captain Kerman. F. Pestonjee, great-great-great grandson of Pestonjee Meherji, who brought the first lot of cotton to the Bombay port.

But this was too good to last. In 1853, the British took over Berar (a province then nominally under the Hyderabad state) from the Nizam. In 1866, the post of Cotton Commissioner for the Central Provinces and Berar was created, and Harry Rivett-Carnac became the first appointee. His job was to collect detailed information about cotton in the region. As a British official wrote to his superiors in 1870: “All the best land in Berar; it is full of that deep rich black alluvial soil called regar, of almost inexhaustible fertility…” The colonial administration nearly 200 years ago tracked the rainfall, moisture, terrain, and fertility of the land. In contrast, the amount of information farmers have in the age of Whatsapp and Facebook is very limited. On its website, the Central Institute for Cotton Research has a link for weekly weather bulletins to help cotton farmers. But the most recent weather bulletin dates back to the first week of August. Not only are there no regular updates, even this bulletin meant to help farmers is not available in Marathi, the local language.

No paperwork, no regulations

Yavatmal is the second largest mart for pesticides and fertilisers in Maharashtra, after Ahmednagar. It has 72 large distributors for the two commodities. “The government has given us a machine to take the fingerprints of those who purchase fertilisers. They should also bring their Aadhaar card,” says Harish Goplani of Pushpak Krishi Kendra, a retailer of farm supplies.

Nonetheless, purchasing pesticide doesn’t require any paperwork. Two of the pesticides, Tonic and Gayathri, which are being blamed for the pesticide exposure fatalities, had no information on them about the ingredients, according to a study by D. Narasimha Reddy of Pesticide Action Network.

The study also found that some pesticides not approved by the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC), the apex body for regulating the use of pesticides in the country, including a fungicide named copper oxychloride and a carcinogenic herbicide, Glyphosate, were being used by farmers.

But these deaths caused by pesticide inhalation are not the first such in India. Sixteen years ago, death stalked the farmers in Warangal the same way.

In 2002, Hukumdeo Yadav, the then Union Minister of State for Agriculture, had told the Lok Sabha, “As per the report from the Government of Andhra Pradesh, 51 cases of pesticide poisoning involving 13 deaths due to exposure to pesticides have been reported during September and October, 2001. Some deaths due to pesticides poisoning have been reported from a few other States also… No in-depth health monitoring study is contemplated in this regard by the Ministry of Agriculture.” Clearly, with no study conducted, no lessons have been learnt.

Three months into the tragedy unfolding in Yavatmal, the pesticide and fertiliser shops in the district wear a deserted look. The shop shelves have been emptied out. “The government has asked us not to sell any pesticides,” says a shop owner. Local activists, led by Dewanand Pawar of the Shetkari Nyay Hakka Andolan Samiti (Committee for Justice to Farmers), claim that traders sold unbranded pesticides and cocktails that they had themselves created, unhindered by regulatory oversight.

No lessons learnt

As this tragedy was unfolding in Yavatmal, the CIBRC met in Delhi on October 11. At its 378th meeting, the panel approved the import of a number of coded samples of pesticides for research, testing, and trial.

In the minutes of the meeting, the word ‘approved’ occurs 28 times in the 33-page document. It approved the indigenous manufacture of fipronil, with a caveat about usage: “Fipronil is highly toxic to bees therefore (sic) should not be applied on blossoming Cotton (B). The product is toxic to aquatic invertebrates and fish therefore (sic) not to be used in and around Aquaculture.”

Incidentally, the European Union has launched an investigation into the presence of fipronil in chicken eggs in multiple countries. How a potent pesticide used to treat fleas, ticks, and bugs on animals ended up in eggs remains a mystery. According to media reports, two directors of a company accused of playing a role in fipronil contamination were arrested by Dutch officials in August this year.

Meanwhile, Bandu’s family struggles to recover from the tragedy. “He fasted to feed his father, now his son will have to do the same thing next year. If I knew something like this would happen, I would have asked him not to fast,” says Bandu’s mother Kausabai Chandrabhan Sonule, remembering the dark night of amavasya that spirited her son away.

I have my own petrol-driven pump. A month back, I sprayed through the day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A couple of weeks later, I began to lose my sight. I had stomach cramps and pain in the throat.

Vinod Shirji Dhanke

Farm hand from Dhamangaon

The government has constituted a Special Investigative Team with district officials and doctors to probe these deaths. I hope it will bring out the truth.

Official

District agriculture department

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