The Cotton Farmers Of Maharashtra Are Being Poisoned, Many Dead

Published: October 30, 2017 16:25 IST
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India owes a lot to the cotton farmers of Maharashtra. Mumbai was made by cotton. Mighty business empires rose to the top on bales of cotton. Our status as being the world's most prosperous nation prior to the industrial revolution was built on cotton.

Today, the same cotton farmers of Maharashtra are dying, either by their own hand or by state inaction, like recently in Yavatmal and surrounding areas.

The recent deaths of at least 20 farmers and agricultural labourers due to pesticide poisoning in this cotton-growing district has shocked the country and earned the government the wrath of the country's top human rights body, the NHRC.

The total number of deaths in all of Vidarbha over the period of July - October could be close to 50 and 1,000 other farmers are in hospital after inhaling the poisonous spray and falling ill. The incidents started being reported in July, but the government sat on its hands for weeks till the media picked up the news and deaths started making national headlines. Chief Minister Fadnavis finally found time to visit hospitals only in October.

This is a case that has shocked the nation, since a central team reviewed the pesticides available in 2015 and, in their report submitted last December, allowed the continued use of some which caused this latest outrage. Chairman of the state task force on farm distress, Kishore Tiwari, who heads the Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swavalamban Mission said pesticides such as Monocrotophos, Oxydemeton-methyl, Acephate and Profenofos are believed to be responsible for the deaths and illness. These are classified as Class I pesticides by the World Health Organization (WHO) which are further categorized into extremely hazardous (Class Ia) and highly hazardous (Class Ib).

The classification is based on acute toxicity of pesticide-active ingredient and since class I pesticides can be fatal at a very low dose, many of these are banned in several countries. Monocrotophos is banned in 60 countries, Phorate in 37, Triazophos in 40 and Phosphamidon in 49. "But India still allows the use of these pesticides," he wrote. Back in 2016, the chief of the central review team actually said as reported then, "There are no instances to directly link health hazards to the use of these pesticides in the field but they might be causing long-term health impacts. We recommended continuing pesticides which are extremely crucial for good production of crops. Where enough data is not available, we recommended further studies and review."

This is not the only instance of government apathy. With worms developing resistance to many pesticides, farmers were brewing cocktails of pesticides, spraying them, without taking any precautions. The packaging and usage precautions in English were ignored since there was nobody to tell them what they meant. While the government remained happily unaware, companies and shops stopped providing protective gear for the farmers. The question then is will anybody at the centre or the state, both ruled by the BJP and both making pious commitments daily to improving the plight of the farmers, take any responsibility?

One shouldn't set ones hopes too high on a government which spent almost a crore on its grand swearing-in at the height of the drought in 2014!

Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar was right in pointing out recently that such incidents did not happen during the UPA era. He said: "Uncertified pesticides are available in the market and the ministry concerned is 100 per cent responsible for this the deaths." Coming from an Agriculture Minister in a number of Congress governments, it is a statement that those in power should take very seriously.

Too busy determining whether the Taj was built by Indians or not, the centre's culpability also lies in its inability to revamp the Insecticides Act of 1968. Since the Act only allows states to impose restrictions on the retail and use of pesticides, the Maharashtra government has washed its hands off by ordering a 60-day ban on five pesticides. Will the state government keep the pressure on its own government at the centre to amend the law?

There are many questions, but very few answers. Bandu Chandrabhan Sonule, a farm labourer from Manoli village in Yavatmal district, was reported as saying that he went to spray pesticides at the nearby village of Aamdi on September 19. He fell ill after the spraying and was admitted to the taluka-level government hospital. The doctor there said that the poison was spreading in his body and asked him to go to a district-level hospital. On September 23, he died. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter. "My father used to pay our school fees by working as a labourer. Now I don't know whether I will be able to go to school," his daughter Geeta is reported to have said.

In a desperate situation like this, timely availability of compensation is paramount. But for most of these farm labourers the inadequate farm compensation of Rs 2 lakh has not come through.

A central team finds nothing wrong in farmers continuing to use pesticides that are banned across the world. Companies stop handing out free masks and gloves and officials remain mute spectators. And the NHRC has to tell the government to arrange free treatment for the farmers who have been hospitalised by its own apathy.

In this backdrop, the centre harping about doubling farmers' income by 2022 sounds like a cruel joke. For the moment, proper compensation and compassion will do. And a proper review of the Insecticides Act should happen as soon as the SIT's report into the current tragedy is delivered. That's the very minimum expected of this government if it does not want a repeat of the same crisis all over again.

(Congress leader Dhiraj Vilasrao Deshmukh is an entrepreneur and an elected member of the Latur Zila Parishad in Maharashtra.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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