Suicide by pesticide

After the failure of the cotton crop, a large numbers of farmers in Andhra Pradesh are committing suicide by consuming the very pesticide that is the root of their woe

Published: Saturday 31 January 1998

-- (Credit: Sanjay Ghosh)death hovers over Andhra Pradesh ( ap ). More than 150 cotton farmers in the districts of Adilabad, Karimnagar and Warangal in the Telengana region have committed suicide since June 1997, five of them in the first five days of January 1998. All consumed the same pesticide they used 40 times a year to get rid of Spodoptera , supposedly an "insignificant" agricultural pest. The pest is not dying, but the farmers are.

The monsoon failed in 1996, and Spodoptera destroyed the crop in 1997. This has pushed the cotton farmers of this region -- most of whom are poor with little or no land and overdependent on private loans -- to take drastic steps to put an end to their suffering. With the total failure of the cotton crop in 1996, the farmers were left cash-starved. In 1996, six farmers committed suicide. Hoping for a successful monsoon in 1997, most of them had borrowed money at interest rates as high as 50 per cent per annum. In 1997, Spodoptera invaded the cotton crop, wrecking havoc with the farmers' lives. All of the five farmers who committed suicide in January had taken loans from private lenders at heavy interest rates, and faced abject bankruptcy in 1997.

"The large number of suicides by farmers in the Telengana region indicates the lack of proper policy and implementation," says J Chokka Rao, former agriculture minister of ap . "The seed, fertiliser and pesticide industries are taking undue advantage of the situation. They pump in spurious products into the market. It was reported that spurious pesticide played havoc with farmers in Prakasham and Guntur districts in 1994," he adds. "And now, the same is being repeated in Warangal, Adilabad, Karimnagar and Maheboobnagar districts. This is resulting in farmers being led to a state of desperation," Rao comments. "Cotton cultivation is fast spreading to districts where it has not been cultivated traditionally. The pest is fast spreading in these areas and will soon affect traditional cotton cultivation districts," he warns.

Among all the Indian states, the maximum use of pesticides is in ap . A major portion of this is used in cotton and chilli cultivation. Cotton is quite susceptible to a range of pests and diseases. In the 1970s, the problem posed by pests was not serious. But gradually, it has become a major problem, which reduced the cotton yield in the 80s to half of what was it was in the 1970s. The Spodoptera pest, considered to be insignificant, was rampant in 1977-78, when it destroyed half of the cotton crop in the Warangal district.

A preliminary investigation by scientists at the Acharya N G Ranga Agricultural University ( angrau ) claims that the "enormity of the damage due to excessive use of pesticides is serious and calls for urgent corrective action." It adds that Spodoptera is responsible for 50 per cent of crop failure, with rest of the blame going to heavy rain after a prolonged, dry spell. Most of the farmers had either used spurious pesticides or used the right pesticides in excessive amounts or both, according to the study.

What makes the problem acute is the absence of any effective pesticides. Pests have become resistant to most pesticides due to excessive application. "Farmers have been applying several pesticides available in the market repeatedly and ineffectively, finally blaming the pesticides," says Rao. angrau has developed a integrated pest management technology ( ipm ) which was given to the state government. But the state government has not adopted the ipm . It also prepared a fixed schedule for use of pesticides. This, too, was never implemented. According to the schedule, a combination of pesticides comprising Metasystox and Roger is to be used in the first stage of cotton crops. Unaware of this, farmers used other pesticides repeatedly, causing resistance in the pest. Besides Spodoptera , pests such as Bollworm and Heliothis have also become resistant.

As the debate continues, more farmers commit suicide, becoming cold statistics on the government charts. The situation has become the waterloo for ap chief minister Chandra Babu Naidu. His initial reaction to the suicide wave was casual, but he woke up to the reality after the opposition parties started raising the issue on the eve of the forthcoming general elections. He declared an ex gratia of Rs one lakh to the next of the kin of the deceased farmers on December 24. But within a day of his declaration, two farmers in district Warangal committed suicide. Another farmer in district Karimnagar committed suicide on December 30, hardly 22 hours after Naidu decided to provide free education for the deceased farmers' children.

Now, Naidu plans to educate the farmers about evils of pesticides and has requested them to avoid spurious pesticides. The opposition parties have termed this "insensitive" as "farmers are not using the pesticides for cotton crops, but to commit suicide." Panic has gripped the political and the bureaucratic set-up of the state.

The Union cabinet also discussed the crisis in its January 2 meeting, where it was decided that a three-member team, including the agriculture secretary, would be sent immediately to assess the situation. On January 4, the Prime Minister assured a delegation of leaders of the Congress party from ap that the Union government would help the cotton farmers of the state by increasing the procurement of the Cotton Corporation of India, and also by paying a remunerative price for it.

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