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60 toxic pesticide-related deaths in Vidarbha traced to Gujarat "exporting" illegal cotton seeds: Report

By Our Representative
Amidst an estimate, put out by the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavalamban Mission, that Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra have seen 221 farmers committing suicide between January to March 2018, an investigation published in a top research journal has said that "Vidarbha has another cross to bear" -- deaths due to toxic fumes coming out of pesticides they spray on their Bt cotton crop.
Pointing out that this is happening even as "farmers and labourers have been committing suicide by consuming pesticides and through other means", the probe, carried out by independent journalist Meena Menon, says, "In 2017, the numbers poisoned by the toxic fumes of the organophosphate compounds they sprayed on cotton rose to alarming levels", with as many as 60 persons dying as a result in Vidarbha alone.
According to Menon, things have worsened because "public healthcare services in this area are ill-equipped... and the state is equally apathetic to both kinds of deaths". Tracing the root of the problem to Gujarat, from where "illegal herbicide-tolerant" cotton seeds are "suspected" to have come, she says, these are being sold in "cotton-growing states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana".
Menon quotes Vijay N Waghmare, acting director, Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), as saying that 34 lakh packets were sold this year to cotton growers in 2017, double that of 2016, but regrets, "There is no action to curb this illegal sale or investigate where it is coming from and stop it", adding, in one month this year, the "CICR detected the presence of the herbicide-tolerant gene in the Bt cotton seeds of five companies".
Things worsened also because, says Menon, after once switching over "soya bean, a crop with fewer pest problems but lower prices", in 2017, "nearly 16 lakh to 17 lakh hectares of cotton were planted in Vidarbha alone, after good prices for cotton" a year earlier, and a change in cultivation practice "led to the pink bollworm arriving early."
Pointing out that the problem "exacerbated in irrigated areas", Menon says, "It is unusual for intense spraying for pests to begin in July but in 2017, in Yavatmal, farmers reported that there was an increase in caterpillars and sucking pests. This called for immediate solutions so that the crop was not lost."
This led to a situation where, she says, "The first cases of farmers and labourers being affected came to public hospitals in July and the first deaths began in mid-August and by October this year, over 60 people lost their lives in Vidarbha and over a thousand at least were affected by the adverse effects of pesticide inhalation."
Menon said, "The alarm bells finally rang after a newspaper reported 18 deaths due to pesticide inhalation on September 27, 2017. Under Section 26 of the Insecticide Act, 1968, the state government has to be notified about all occurrences of poisoning through the use of handling of any insecticide. It was only on October 5, that the Maharashtra chief minister ordered an inquiry into the deaths, and a special investigation was formed."
She adds, "In many ways, the events in 2017 in Yavatmal were a tragedy waiting to happen. The excessive spraying of pesticide, the eagerness of farmers to spend less on wages and get labourers to spray as many tanks as they quickly could, the lack of protective gear and steps to wash off the residues after spraying -- all contributed to this situation."
Described an“insecticide resistant monster” by KR Kranthi, former CICR director, Menon says, meanwhile, "Pesticide dealers and companies held sway in a market driven by desperation and the dread of pests. Pesticide dealers are among the most prosperous residents in Vidarbha. They live in large mansions, feeding off the farmers and selling them toxic substances in the name of controlling pests."

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