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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Maharashtra farmer deaths linked to India pesticide mismanagement

India’s abysmal management of pesticides has started taking a deadly toll, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Over 35 farmers have reportedly died and hundreds have become ill due to pesticide poisoning in several districts of Vidharba region in Maharashtra, since July 2017. These incidents have been reported from the districts of Yavatmal, Nagpur, Akola and Amravati where farm workers died due to inhalation of toxic pesticides while spraying it on the fields.

An Indian farmer uses pesticide on his fields in 2015: some 20 farmers have died in Maharashtra from poisonous spray. Photo credit: AFP/NOAH SEELAM

“The death of farmers in Maharashtra due to pesticide poisoning is because of the gross negligence in pesticide management in the country. This negligence has led to pesticide poisoning becoming a chronic problem in the country. Every year, there are about 10,000 reported cases of pesticide poisoning in India. In 2015, about 7,000 people died because of accidental intake of insecticides/pesticides. The Ministry of Agriculture at the Centre and agricultural departments of the states are solely responsible for the unsafe use of pesticides in the country. Deaths and illnesses due to pesticides can be avoided if we can urgently fix some of the crucial gaps in our regulations and improve its enforcement,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE.

In Maharashtra, pesticides such as Monocrotophos, Oxydemeton-methyl, Acephate and Profenophos are believed to be responsible for the deaths and illness. Pesticides like Monocrotophos and Oxydemeton-methyl are considered class I pesticides by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which are further categorised 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 is banned in 49 countries. But India still allows the use of these pesticides.

In fact, there are 18 class I pesticides allowed to be used in the country. In 2015-16, of the 7,717 tonnes of pesticides (technical grade) used in the country, 2,254 tonnes were class I pesticides (about 30 per cent of total pesticides). As per the International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management, jointly released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO), “pesticides whose handling and application require the use of personal protective equipment that is uncomfortable, expensive or not readily available should be avoided, especially in the case of small-scale users and farm workers in hot climates”.

All class I pesticides require the use of personal protective equipment that is impossible to use by small-scale farmers and farm workers in India. On this basis itself, class I pesticides should have been banned in India long ago, say CSE researchers.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare, based on a 2015 review by the Anupam Verma Committee, plans to ban only three out of these 18 pesticides starting 2018. The committee had reviewed only 11 out of the 18 pesticides and had proposed to prohibit use of another four, but only after several years – starting 2021.

“While India urgently needs to address pesticide mismanagement from several aspects, the most urgent step needed is to ban use of class I pesticides. The recommendations of the Verma committee is inadequate and the government actions so far is not in line with the urgency and scale of the problem,” said Amit Khurana, senior programme manager for food safety and toxins, CSE.


Approval and enforcement issues

CSE, over the last several years, has highlighted gaps in pesticide management in the country. There is a major problem with the way pesticides are approved for use in the country. There is even a bigger problem of enforcement. Unapproved off-label use of pesticides continues to be a big problem in India along with unsafe application of pesticide by farmers.

A 2013 CSE review of 11 important crops in India – wheat, paddy, apple, mango, potato, cauliflower, black pepper, cardamom, tea, sugarcane and cotton – showed that the pesticide recommendations made by state agriculture universities, agriculture departments and other boards for a crop do not adhere to the pesticides that the Central Insecticides Board and Registered Committee (CIBRC) has registered for those crops. The agriculture universities, departments and boards have recommended many pesticides that have not been registered for some crops. For example, in case of wheat the states of Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh recommended 11, 5 and 9 pesticides which were not registered by the CIBRC.

“Till we reform our pesticides regulations and regulatory institutions, pesticide poisoning and accidental deaths would continue. A Pesticide Management Bill was introduced in the Parliament in 2008 but it was allowed to be lapsed. We need a new Pesticide Management Bill to address the issues related to unsafe use of pesticides,” said Chandra Bhushan.

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