Yavatmal farmers fight losing battle against pesticide poisoning; pin hopes on Swiss court hearing

There has been an inordinate delay in enacting the Pesticides Management Bill to replace the Insecticides Act of 1968

By Shagun
Published: Thursday 26 October 2023
Photo: iStock__

Geeta Agalave’s life changed forever on September 24, 2017. On the fateful day, her husband Shankar Nago Agalave stepped out of the house during the day to spray pesticide on their 1.6 hectare BT cotton crop that was under a severe pest attack.

The pesticide he used is called ‘Polo’, manufactured by the Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta. Polo’s active ingredient is diafenthiuron, which has been banned in Switzerland and by the European Union because of its harmful effects on health and the environment but the company exports and distributes it in India. 

During the spraying exercise, Shankar, from Maharashtra’s Tisgaon village in Yavatmal, suddenly started feeling nauseated and heavy-headed. He came back to his home and complained of not being able to see properly. 

The family took him to a district hospital in Yavatmal town, which referred him to a private hospital in Nagpur, where he died after five days. The doctors told the family that it was a case of pesticide poisoning. 

In 2017-18, Maharashtra witnessed a spate of pesticide poisoning cases and Shankar was one of the 21 farmers who died in Yavatmal district that year, the highest number recorded in any district in that period; a total of 63 farmers died due to pesticides poisoning across 15 districts in Maharashtra.

According to a report by a Special Investigation Team (SIT), which was constituted in the wake of the poisoning deaths, 886 patients were hospitalised in 2017-18 in Yavatmal due to pesticide poisoning.

Other districts included Akola, Nagpur, Chandrapur, Nanded, Amravati, Dhule, Jalgaon, Nandurbar, among others. Besides, hundreds of farmers and agricultural workers across districts fell ill after spraying pesticide on cotton fields and were hospitalised. 

Down To Earth (DTE) spoke to farmers from the district and found that the health effects of the poisoning on those who survived were still present even after six years and, in fact, were on a far larger scale than previously imagined. 

India is one of the largest producers and consumers of pesticides in the world, with Maharashtra occupying the top spot in pesticide consumption in the country, according to the Department of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare.

Cotton is grown predominantly in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region (11 districts including Yavatmal). The crop is highly prone to sap-sucking pests and accounts for 50 per cent of total pesticide use in India. 

In these districts, farmers routinely complain of health issues due to pesticide use. According to media reports, Yavatmal saw two deaths, suspected due to poisoning, in early August 2023. 

Geeta’s family got Rs 1 lakh compensation from the state government after her husband’s death but the matter of deadly pesticides being sold in the market was not addressed. That is when Geeta, along with the wife of another deceased farmer and a survivor of a severe case of pesticide poisoning, filed a civil lawsuit under the product liability law at the civil court of Basel, Switzerland. 

Syngenta introduced the product in the Indian market in 2008 through Syngenta India Ltd. 

Official police records from Yavatmal showed that 96 of those documented as suffering pesticide poisoning in 2017 used a pesticide called ‘Polo’ —  60 used Polo along with other pesticides, while 36 used only Polo. 

As a reactive measure, the state government, in 2017, banned products which used diafenthiuron, among others, as a measure to avoid further poisonings. However, the SIT report doesn’t mention anything about ‘polo’ but instead mentions spraying of ‘monocrotophos’. 

The prohibition only lasted two months. “State governments can only prohibit the use temporarily. The Maharashtra government, during that time, wrote a letter to the Centre asking for a permanent ban but got no response,” said Narasimha Reddy, public policy expert. 

Jo hamare saath hua vo aur kisi ke saath nahi hona chahiye (What happened to our family should not happen to anyone else). To fight in Switzerland is a huge thing for us. This highly toxic pesticide should not exist in the market,” said Geeta. 

The petitioners are claiming damages from Syngenta and their lawsuit is being supported by non-profits Pesticide Action Network India (PAN India) and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).

In a hearing in August 2022, the court sanctioned legal aid for the three petitioners. Meanwhile, Syngenta has responded that it does not manufacture ‘Polo’. 

Reddy added:

In India, companies have created an intricate network to escape the law. There is limited understanding about who is holding the patent, who is manufacturing, who is distributing, etc. The Swiss case is a test case in that sense as well.

In an email response to DTE queries, Syngenta India said the company “was not involved in any civil or criminal proceedings on the ground in connection with the tragic events in Yavatmal and that neither Syngenta nor any Syngenta product was deemed responsible for these events.”

In the proceedings before the Civil Court of Basel-Stadt, which are still ongoing, we will be able to clearly demonstrate that the NGOs’ allegations are baseless; reinforcing the findings of the independent Special Investigation Team that was established in 2017,” said Tehseen Zaidi, head, communications, Syngenta India Pvt Ltd.

Meanwhile, the NGOs have also made a complaint before the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), seeking remedy for violation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, on behalf of 51 farmers. 

Survivors face drastic, lingering health effects  

For many farmers, while the poisoning did not take their life, it made it impossible for them to return to their previous one. The poisoning was so toxic that they lost the stamina to carry out even routine activities or any kind of work that requires physical labour even after six years, took away their sight and caused them severe photo-sensitivity. 

40-year-old Vivek Ade said:

Can you believe that I can’t even lift a chair or walk for more than a few minutes at this young age or I can’t step out in the sun?

It has been six years since that fateful day in August 2017 when Ade went to his cotton field to spray pesticides to protect his crop from an aggressive pest attack. Around 30 per cent of his crop was already destroyed and he was desperate to save the rest. But within two hours of the spraying exercise, he complained of a burning sensation in his eyes, headaches and dizziness. 

He was admitted for three days in a government hospital in Yavatmal district, which referred him to a private hospital, where he was treated for 10 days in the intensive care unit. 

His life took a drastic turn since that evening. Vivek has lost 25 per cent vision, has severe photosensitivity, not much stamina and has trouble doing any kind of manual labour or, many times, even walking. 

Many farmers in the region complain of the same symptoms, which has not only made their life unliveable but also pushed them into poverty. 

Kavita and Manish Bhoyar’s family income has come down from Rs 13,000-15,000 per month to Rs 3,000-5,000. Manish, who was an agricultural worker in Rohatek village in Yavatmal, was working in a farm in the autumn of 2017 when the farm owner asked him to spray two different pesticides, including ‘Polo’, on the crop. Soon after he complained of vomiting and headaches. 

Even after visiting three hospitals over 14 days and spending Rs 80,000 on the treatment, he still falls ill very frequently, has breathing trouble and visits the local hospital every fortnight.

With Manish unable to work, Kavita works as an agricultural labourer and is able to find an assignment only thrice a week, at Rs 200 per day.

Considering that women get lower wages than men for the same kind of work, the family income is meagre. Sometimes the amount is even lower because she refuses to do any pesticide spraying work.

The couple has two girls and is worried about continuing their education and paying their school fee.

The aftermath of the poisoning has been devastating for these families but in the name of compensation, they only got a one-time payment of Rs 5,000 from the state government. 

Pesticides are the leading cause of poisoning in India, with two in every three cases of poisoning happening because of pesticide consumption either intentionally or unintentionally, according to a 2021 research on the prevalence of various types of poisoning in India. 

The research, published in the British Medical Journal, involved analysing 134 research studies done between January 2010 and May 2020, including more than 50,000 participants. It revealed that pesticides were the main case of poisoning, with an overall prevalence of 63 per cent due to widespread use of pesticides for agricultural and household activities.

Pesticides can enter the human body by three common ways: Through the skin (contact), the mouth (ingestion) and the lungs (inhalation). Pesticides may cause serious illness, severe injury or sometimes even death. 

“Eyes are particularly sensitive to absorption, and therefore any contact of pesticides with the eye presents an immediate threat of injury, blindness or sometimes even death,” noted a 2016 paper on farmers’ exposure to pesticides. 

Poor pesticide regulations in India

The hazardous effects of pesticide usage is not limited to one pesticide or one company. 

There has been an inordinate delay in enacting the Pesticides Management Bill to replace the Insecticides Act of 1968. While there are concerns about the bill in its present form, the Bill is meant to ensure more effective regulation of the sector, minimise risks to human beings, animals, living organisms other than pests and the environment, with an endeavour to promote pesticides that are biological and based on traditional knowledge. 

A draft bill was earlier released for comments in February 2018, following which it was tabled in the Parliament in 2020. It was then sent to a parliamentary panel. A similar bill was in discussion in 2008, without any break-through.

There are at least 116 pesticides like ‘Polo’ that are banned internationally but are being allowed to be used in India and pose serious health hazards to farmers. A decade ago, in July 2013, the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation started reviewing a list of 66 pesticides through an expert committee. 

On May 14, 2020, the Centre came out with a draft order banning 27 pesticides, out of the 66. However, in a u-turn, a draft notification by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare published on February 16 went back on the proposal, claiming just three of the 27 were “fit to be banned”. This happened after the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers had opposed the proposed ban. 

KV Biju, All India organising secretary, Swadeshi Andolan, said that the move was to protect the pesticide companies. He had filed two pleas to ban a total of 84 pesticides in 2017 and 2018 in the Supreme Court, which merged these along with a third one filed by activist Kavitha Kuruganti, for banning 106 pesticides. Of them, some were already included in the first two petitions and hearings took place for a total of 116 pesticides. 

The next hearing in the case was in November. But the government has been slow to progress on the matter. On September 29, it issued an order to ban four hazardous pesticidesDicofol, Dinocap, Methomyl and ‘Monocrotophos’. 

Reddy points out that the government has reformulated and reduced the number of pesticides to be banned to three, qualified ban on one and allowed restricted usage of another seven pesticides. 

Earlier in July, the Supreme Court also had made observations that the Centre has been constituting committee after committee to review the proposal of banning 27 pesticides in 2020, so as to get a favourable response. And there is confusion even on the ones that have been named. 

‘Monocrotophos’ has been named in several pesticide poisoning cases across India, including in the 2017 cases, after which, the Maharashtra government wrote to the Union government to ban this and four other ‘highly hazardous pesticides’ (HHP) but there was no response from the Centre, according to PAN India. 

But even the latest order has not banned this HHP outright, but qualified the ban with conditions. The order stated: “Sale, distribution or use of Monocrotophos 36 per cent SL shall be allowed only for clearance of existing stock till its expiry period.”

“The government has given a window period of one year for farmers to move towards alternatives. There is ambiguity in the language and this can be used to build stocks in this window period of one year, enabling the continued use of ‘Monocrotophos’ beyond the one year period and until the stocks are cleared. A specific line banning manufacture of Monocrotophos (all its formulations) is required,” said Reddy. 

Further, the September 29 order mentioned another pesticide ‘carbofuran’ and restricted its use but in vain. The order stated: “All other formulations of carbofuran, except carbofuran three per cent encapsulated granule (CG), along with the crop labels, may be stopped from use.”

“This is interesting, puzzling and a cause of consternation. This means carbofuran three per cent CG is not banned. Interestingly, carbofuran three per cent CG formulation is the only formulation registered in India. No other formulation is registered in India. We need the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee to clarify this,” read a statement by PAN India. 

No protective gear

The SIT, which was probing the circumstances of the poisoning deaths, recommended that the agriculture department must make personal protective equipment (gloves, mask, cap, shoes and glasses) available to all farmers and farm labourers through ‘krishi seva kendras’But the reality of pesticide use in India is entirely different. 

Eye protection is the most basic form of protection and always a prerequisite when measuring or mixing concentrated and toxic pesticides. But farmers said that even after so many years, these are never available and nothing has changed since the 2017 incident.

Dewanand Pawar, representative of Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons, said:

Pesticide boxes sold at the local shops should carry instruction pamphlets on how to handle the chemicals but the instructions are written in very small fonts and mostly in English, and thus difficult for farmers to understand.

A 2016 Food and Agriculture Organization document on pesticide management stated that personal protective equipment (PPE) for highly hazardous pesticides, as prescribed on the label or by training programmes, is often not available or not used in low- and middle-income countries because it is too expensive or too uncomfortable to wear in hot, humid climates. 

Strict regulations and ensuring that protective gears are available are even more important in the time of climate change when pest attacks have become more frequent and aggressive. 

Reddy remembers that in 2017, the humidity levels in Yavatmal were unusually high which led to the toxic chemicals entering the body faster through sweat. 

“In the meantime, it is equally important that strong pesticides regulation is in place both in countries from where pesticides are exported such as in Europe, where export bans are being discussed as well as in countries were poisonings are happening too often, such as in India, where the current review of the most hazardous pesticides needs to be sped up and products implicated in recurring poisonings should be more strongly regulated,” Christian Schliemann-Radbruch, co-director, business and human rights, ECCHR, told DTE.

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