Untold Realities of Pesticide Poisonings in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra

PAN India Releases Assessment Report on Yavatmal Poisonings and Deaths

-Various pesticides used by a cotton farmer in Yavatmal

Pesticide Action Network (PAN India) today released its assessment report on the unfortunate  incident of deaths and poisoings of small scale farmers and farm workers happened in Yavathmal due to inhalational and contact exposures to pesticides. This report shows ground reality of multitude of issues related to cotton farming right from seed to pesticide application practices, farming and working conditions, lack of proper access to information, etc. that have brought in the pathetic situation. The ground reality shows that national laws and International code of conduct on pesticide management among others are  grossly violated in Yavatmal.

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Major findings

1.Every year, hundreds of farmers and farm workers access quacks, clinics, individual Doctors, private and public hospitals for pesticide poisoning in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra and Adilabad district in Telangana.

2.There is no rational, scientific and informed medical treatment of affected farmers and farm workers admitted in various hospitals.

3.Farmers and farm workers, who have chronic, persistent health problems due to pesticides exposure and are in need to get medical attention, are being ignored.

4.Medical fraternity in India considers atropine as a universal antidote, with possible serious implications on treatment methods and patient recovery.

5.Relief for families wherein deaths have been reported were the target of government compensation which is a welcome measure. However, families wherein individuals exposed to hazardous pesticides and are suffering from various ailments including nausea, hyperactivity disorder, loose motion, eye burns, etc., did not get any relief.

6.There seems to be no assessment of why cotton plants randomly have grown beyond the average height. Farmers have reported plants growing to six or seven feet. There seems to be a link between genetically modified seed, impact of hazardous pesticides and the presence of foreign genes in cottonseed DNA.

7.Dense planting of cotton and presence of unauthorized ‘Roundup Ready Flex’ Seeds in Yavatmal district needs to be assessed.

8.There is a huge neglect, bordering on disdain, towards the misery faced by the farmers among medical fraternity, regulatory agency officials and agricultural department. There seems to be no rule of law.

9. No efforts can be seen to fix corporate accountability, of agrochemical companies and private medical practitioners.

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Executive Summary

Yavatmal is a pre-dominantly cotton growing area for decades. However, recent deaths and illness-induced hospitalisation due to toxic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides has caught the farmers and farm workers unawares. Even the most sleepy officials and imbecile pesticide marketing network had to notice this genocide, as someone put it.

This year, unfortunate series of deaths and poisonings among farming community due to pesticide exposures very intensively in Yavatmal, and in other districts once again brought this region into limelight. Several deaths and hundreds of poisonings of farmers and farm workers has been reported from Yavatmal, Nagpur, Chandrapur, Amravati, Buldana, Bhandara and Akola districts, with highest number from Yavatmal. Since July this year, in 2017, small-scale farmers and farm workers were getting hospitalized regularly every day due to various debilitating ailments caused by exposure to pesticides. Reports show that farmers and farm workers who have been spraying pesticides in cotton fields have developed problems such as nausea, vomiting, irritation, eye burns, etc. and were taken to hospitals for treatment.

Reports on these unfortunate incidents of deaths and hospitalisation due to exposure pesticides in the cotton fields spurred us to do a field assessment visit to Yavatmal. This team found that farmers visit hospitals on either side, whenever they get exposed to pesticide sprays, both private and public hospitals.

Organophosphate poisoning results from exposure to organophosphates - chemical compounds found in insecticides and nerve agents. According to the latest report as on 15th October 2017, more than 450 poisoning cases and 23 deaths have reported from Yavatmal Medical College Hospital (YMCH) in the past three months. When we visited the hospital, several patients who suffered pesticide poisoning were admitted in the general ward and four were in ICCU. Most of the farmers suffering from pesticide poisonings are small-scale farmers and farm labor working on daily wages or hired sprayers, who mostly belong to downtrodden, neglected adivasi communities.

Inhalational poisoning cases reach their peak during August and September. An analysis revealed that between July 6th and October 11th, 2017, 450 cases of inhalational poisonings due to exposure to pesticides are reported (by the time we prepare the report, more cases have come in). A junior doctor in the hospital said nausea, vomiting, head ache, sweating, restlessness, loose motions, fasciculation (muscle twitch), respiratory distress, pupil constriction, shivering, etc., were commonly noted among the pesticide poisoning cases.

Despite widespread incidence of pesticide poisoning, there is no standard protocol for best, appropriate and real time treatment. India-wise, referral hospitals in districts where pesticide usage is rampant are inadequately equipped in terms of specialized toxicology services, beds, antidote stocks and other necessary equipment and medicines. Number of pesticide poisoned farmers and farm workers were turned out of the public and private hospitals, without proper, adequate and full care, for lack of beds, antidote stocks, low payment capacities and sheer negligence of medical teams.

While medical personnel are unanimous in claiming that all pesticide poisoning cases are treated symptomatically, no diagnostic tests have been done on any of the poisoning cases. There is no information available on the dosage administered to each of the pesticide poisoning patients.

Vasantrao Naik Government Medical College (VNGMC), at Yavatmal, has bed strength of 584. This is a referral hospital with inadequate, and improper facilities, and responsiveness towards pesticide poisoning cases in the district. Conditions with regard to 12 rural hospitals and 61 primary health centres, in this district, most possibly much worse.

Interestingly, all pesticide poisonings are considered as Medico- legal cases (MLCs). If the procedure of MLC is followed fully, every ‘inhalational poisoning’ should have to be investigated by the police. This is not happening here. Yavatmal hospital categorises all accidental poisoning cases as ‘inhalational poisoning’ cases. This team felt that this could be the first step in administering incorrect therapy to agro-chemical poisoning cases. Our assessment shows that use of different pesticides together and pesticide cocktails are generally not factored in diagnosis and treatment decisions.

Medical fraternity in India considers atropine as a universal antidote, with possible serious implications on treatment methods and patient recovery.

Best treatment for poisoning depends on the availability of appropriate antidote in adequate quantity and at the appropriate time after poisoning. Depending on the poison, delayed use or unavailability of an antidote may lead to severe problems. In some poison cases antidote should be administered within 30 minutes of poison ingestion.

Importantly, there is no rational, scientific and informed medical treatment of affected farmers and farm workers admitted in various hospitals. Farmers and farm workers, who have chronic, persistent health problems due to pesticides exposure and are in need to get medical attention, are being ignored.

Approved pesticides (Insecticides, fungicides and Herbicides) and not approved for cotton have been sold and used in Yavatmal. Names of 16 agro-chemicals have emerged, from our assessment and media reports. A thorough study should be able to link particular pesticides with particular problems of exposure. However, attribution of current widespread poisonings to one or two pesticides is being attempted by regulatory agencies, primarily to channelize discontentment over regulatory performance.

A total of 16 brands of various pesticides are used on cotton. An analysis shows eight insecticides including three combination products, a fungicide and two herbicides belonging to eleven technical grade pesticides are used for cotton. We did not get pesticide consumption data in Yavatmal. Yet, it is evident that farmers are using several brands of different pesticides to manage the pest menace in cotton. Farmers and the victims, the team has interacted, said that often they mix chemicals. Interestingly, Maharashtra also approves mixing of pesticides, as per guideline on a website. Scientific explanation of such recommendation is lacking. It needs to be examined further. Be that as it may, in this instance, farmers alone cannot be blamed for mixing pesticides since there is a policy guideline to mix and use. It is another matter whether farmers are following this guideline. The principle of mixing has been endorsed, which to our knowledge is not supported by research or regulation.

It has been noted that farmers / farm workers use several different variants of spraying equipments. It includes hand-operated pumps, battery-linked motor sprayers (locally called as Chinese sprayers) and petrol-fuelled motor sprayers. Faulty sprayers have been blamed. However, how exactly they are faulty is not being explained.

It is a reality that farmers and workers handling with pesticides do not use personal protective equipment. The Insecticides Rules has clearly put forth the required protective clothing including respiratory devices to be used while working with pesticides (Rules 39 and 40). Awareness on the use of pesticides, precautionary measures, safety aspects, etc., are not given to workers who work with pesticides. As a result, they are vulnerable to spillage, exposure, misuse, etc.. While spraying, workers can be exposed to pesticides variously; through direct exposure to spillage, spray drift though inhalation and/ or contact via skin. Continuous absorption of pesticides or cocktail of pesticides, through the skin of the worker, results in higher health risk. We were told that often workers get drenched under the motor-operated sprayers, when their concentration is on avoiding snake bites, wading through the thick cotton crop foliage and in other incidental conditions.

Usually cotton is sown during June and application of pesticides including insecticides and weedicides begins after nearly a month. These days farmers start with herbicides. Farmers report varying spraying schedule, some report once in 10 days while some others reports once in 15 days. They are addicted to usage of pesticides, based on crop growth, rather than on observation of pests and assessment of pest levels.

Farmers and farm workers continue to pay, unnecessarily and exorbitantly for various activities in agriculture. Pesticides, insecticides and fungicides are the usual burdensome cost factors. A rough calculation shows that per 1,000 farmers cost of agro-chemicals, including the health costs, is Rs.4.54 crores per season.

In response to this episode, Maharashtra Government has announced financial support of Rs.2 lakhs to kin of the farmers and farm labour who died due to pesticide exposure. It has also issued guidelines on ‘do’s and don’ts while spraying pesticides, which were in any case available on their website. No effort has been made to bring this information nearer to the farmers and farm workers, even in this crisis period. Yet, most officials, including medical doctors and pesticide marketing network find it easy to blame farmers for not using PPE, consumption of alcohol and indiscriminate spraying practices.

There is a need to appoint a panel of medical specialists, including neurosurgeons, to examine medical treatment given to current pesticide poisoning patients and develop an appropriate treatment procedure for farmers and farm workers admitted in private and public hospitals across Yavatmal district.

Maharashtra should train anganwadi workers and other volunteers in each of the villages in giving first aid to victims of pesticide poisoning. Under Insecticide Act, 1968, specific provision should be brought for compulsory mention of antidote for each licensed pesticide by the manufacturer. No pesticide should be registered without information and commitment by the applicant about the antidote to the particular pesticide.

Pesticide poisoning should be declared as a national tragedy and should be included in the disaster list maintained by the National Disaster Management Authority. A standard medical treatment protocol should be developed at the national level.

The ground reality of multitude of issues related to cotton farming right from seed to pesticide application practices, farming and working conditions, lack of proper access to information, etc., reminds us of the fact that safe use of pesticides is not possible in the given scenario. Though pesticide poisoning was reported in previous years, no sustainable measures have been taken to stop poisonings. It is really a worrisome situation as innocent farmers and farm workers are getting poisoned and dying. It is high time that toxic pesticides are to be banned, at the same time farming communities are to be provided with adequate support both technically and financially to do farming without using chemical pesticides and agrochemical inputs for which several successful model are available in India. Agro-ecological practices have to be encouraged.

In India, pesticides are regulated by various government agencies. The Central Agriculture Ministry regulates manufacture, sales, transport and distribution, export, import and use of pesticides through the Insecticides Act, 1968 and the Insecticides Rules 1971. The Central Insecticides Board is responsible for advising the Central and State governments on technical issues related to manufacture, use and safety of pesticides. Its response to this episode is mute and invisible.

In conclusion, attribution of this genocide to one single causal reason is impossible. It is the circumstances, and the combination of different factors that led to these deaths and poisonings. Importantly, harmful pesticides constitute the core cause that lies at centre of these unfortunate series of human loss, along with apathy, disdain, profiteering motives and corruption. Agro-chemicals, with toxic contents, need to be restricted, and ultimately banned.

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