Two months after 50 pesticide deaths, a rattled Maharashtra govt is still trying to find out what went wrong.

Swapnil Rawal and Pradip Kumar Maitra
Mumbai/Yavatmal (Maharashtra), Hindustan Times
Profex Super – a combination of Profenofos and Cypermethrin – was responsible for six deaths in Yavatmal.
Profex Super – a combination of Profenofos and Cypermethrin – was responsible for six deaths in Yavatmal.(File)

Pramila Pendor, 30, a tribal from Nimni village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, is yet to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death.

“Kailash was perfectly fine on the morning of August 16, when he went to spray pesticides in the fields. By late afternoon, he developed chest pain followed by nausea and vomiting. He came home at 5pm that day, but never recovered. He died at a government civil hospital on September 6,” recalls a tearful Pramila, who now has to manage the family, which includes two young boys and her husband’s parents.

A landless labourer, Kailash was among the fifty people who died after accidentally inhaling toxic pesticides while treating cotton fields in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. The cause of his death was a lethal dose of Profex Super he had sprayed in a BT cotton plantation belonging to Babanrao Vaidya.

Vaidya said he had purchased a two-litre pouch of Profex Super, a pesticide for Bt cotton, from a local Shiv-Kripa Agro Agency at Ghonsa in Yavatmal district on August 12, which was sprayed by Kailash on August 16. The district hospital in Yavatmal registered Kailash’s death as a case of pesticide poisoning. Kailash was not wearing protective gear. Nobody in these parts deemed it necessary until now.

The string of pesticide-related casualties began with the untimely demise of Devidas Ramji Madavi, a worker at a BT cotton field in Kalamb taluka this August. The death of Madavi, who also handled Profex Super, was the first of 24 cases of pesticides poisoning to be reported from Yavatmal.

Unlike Kailash and Madavi, over a 1,000 farm hands across districts of Yavatmal, Buldhana, Amravati, Nagpur, Bhandara, this year faced ill effects of spraying pesticides but survived after being hospitalised.

Profex Super – a combination of Profenofos and Cypermethrin – was responsible for six out of the 11 deaths in Yavatmal district, according to a preliminary survey report of the state agriculture department, undertaken after the pesticide poisoning cases came to light.

The other insecticides in question are Phoskill, Monocil, Rubby, Polo and Police.

Kashinath Milmile of Pandharkawda, a big trader of agro-input products, who received notices from the district administration for selling some of these pesticides admitted that the pesticide, Profex Super, can cause suffocation during spraying.

“There is a need to wear prescribed protection kit, like eye glasses, gloves and masks while spraying these pesticides on the fields, which is often not followed,” he added.

Mahesh Swami, the area manager of Nagarjuna Agrichem that sells Profex Super pesticide told HT that the pesticide can cause suffocation if anyone sprays it without wearing the prescribed protection kit. “Farmers across the country are using our pesticides. But there was no complaint,” he defended, and said such cases may have occurred because of not using the kit.

While none of the pesticides under the scanner are considered lethal enough to be banned, the current crisis arose after farmers mixed the insecticides or used them in higher quantities to increase their potency, said Kavitha Kuruganti, an agriculture activist, who carried out a fact-finding survey in Yavatmal soon after the tragedy.

A senior bureaucrat with the agriculture department also told HT that the tragedy unfolded as pesticides that were not recommended or those not to be used on cotton crop were sold to unsuspecting farmers as effective, besides mixing of insecticides done at the level of individual farmers or dealers.

Making sense of a tragedy

Two months after the pesticide deaths, a rattled Maharashtra government is still trying to figure out what went wrong. Apart from blaming the local administration for such incidents, it has announced a slew of probes – including one by a special investigation team.

The state has temporarily banned the sale of five pesticides in the state — Phoskill, Monocil, Rubby, Polo and Police — and registered case against Gharda Chemicals Ltd, a pesticide-manufacturing company besides five agro-input centres.

The government also decided to hand over the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation after a Central Institute of Cotton Research report said the BT cotton seeds contained herbicide-tolerant genes not permissible in the country.

The row has also brought into the spotlight a network of unlicensed dealers who palm off toxic chemicals and pesticides to farmers outside of government control.

The local administration says there are a variety of reasons for the deaths, ranging from unsupervised mixing of pesticides to “Chinese” products, excessive spraying, climactic conditions and lack of basic protective gear.

Corrective action

Bijay Kumar, principal secretary in the Maharashtra government’s agriculture department, blamed the tragedy on unauthorised dealers selling pesticides in rural areas.

It is mandatory for dealers to possess a so-called “principal certificate” to sell pesticides in villages. As the document is not distributed freely, there’s a parallel (and illegal) market involving licence holders, the sellers, and villagers.

“We are now putting pressure on legitimate dealers to prevent them from selling the pesticides in their possession to third parties (who then sell them onwards),” said Kumar. His department has also decided to give district-level authorities the right to issue dealer licences, instead of zila parishad officials.

Kumar also said that many pesticide brands sell remarketed products. “We are putting an end to such co-marketing licenses. With this order, over 60% of these brands will have to shut shop,” he added.

The probe so far

An initial probe spearheaded by additional chief secretary (home) SK Srivastava found that standard operating procedures were not followed by local administration officials. Consequently, the Yavatmal district agriculture officer was suspended from service.

Acting on another recommendation by Srivastava, the government decided to make farmers accountable for labourers who spray pesticides in their fields by providing safety kits and primary health care.

It also registered a negligence case (under section 304A of the Indian Penal Code) against Gharda Chemicals Ltd for selling pesticides not certified for use in the area.

“We have registered a case against the company for causing death by negligence and for selling products to dealers who do not have licence. We have completed our investigation and have written to the District Magistrate for permission to file the chargesheet,”saidMRajkumar,superintendent of police, Yavatmal. Gharda Chemicals Ltd. manufactures a pesticide with trade name ‘Police’.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson of Gharda Chemicals Ltd blamed the Chinese sprays and the failure of By cotton seeds.

“What is disturbing all of us is that these products are sold all over the country so why these deaths in Yavatmal alone. There is a problem with the seeds they used, because of which the crop height was unusually tall. If they spray the pesticide on a 6-7 feet tall crop creates mist of the pesticide and they walk through it increasing the exposure. Secondly, the sprays they use do not have any force regulation,” said the spokesperson from Gharda.

Kavitha Kuruganti, national convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, believes the manner in which the Maharashtra government allegedly blamed the victims betrays its desperation. “They caught hold of the dealers but failed to nab the big players,” she said.

Kuruganti toured Yavatmal with a fact-finding committee for two days after the tragedy. She said farmers use lethal concoctions of these pesticides to save time, money and crops in the absence of government intervention.

Vijay Jawandhia, an agricultural activist, said there was a lot the government could do to prevent pesticide deaths. “The government neither educates farmers on how to use this hazardous technology nor provides basic healthcare facilities in each village. Primary health centres should be equipped with antidotes and saline, besides doctors and nurses who are trained in tackling cases of the kind,” he said.

Jawandhia also pointed out that labourers spray 15 to 18 tanks of pesticides, when six to 10 would be enough, just because they are paid in accordance with the number of containers used up.