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Odisha farmer suicides: ‘Pesticides failed to kill pests, they killed my father’

Brown planthoppers have been particularly pestilent in the kharif season this year. Distressed farmers from the nine affected districts in Odisha are setting fire to their destroyed crops.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2017 07:28 IST
Debabrata Mohanty
Debabrata Mohanty
Hindustan Times, Bargarh
Odisha,Farmer Suicides,Pesticides
Farmer Brunda Sahoo’s nephew and friend in the field at Kalapani village in Bargarh district where he set his destroyed crop on fire, and committed suicide a day later by drinking poison. (Debabrata Mohanty/Hindustan Times)

Landless farmer Brunda Sahoo’s hopes soared early October when he saw lush green paddy crop standing on 15 acres he cultivated as a sharecropper. He told his family they could repair their house and marry off his daughter after selling the harvest.

But then a swarm of brown planthoppers struck. The green leaves turned orange-yellow. Sahoo, 51, tried fighting the insects, known to feed on rice plants, with pesticides. It didn’t work.

Soon, the leaves were brown and plants bone dry, signalling the onset of hopper burn, a condition that kills the plant as the insect sucks the sap.

Sahoo knew his crop had no chance against the pest and neither did he.

On October 31, he set fire to his wasted crop at Kalapani village in Bargarh district, about 350km northwest of Odisha capital Bhubaneswar.

According to his family, it was a debt-ridden farmer’s desperate bid to catch the government’s attention. The next day, Sahoo drank poison and died while being taken to hospital.

Farmers Alaya Jena of Sanakhemundi block in Ganjam district and P Nabin Kumar of Nuakhairpali village in Bargarh have done the same since then, unable to fend off the brown planthopper that Odisha farmers call Matia Gundi (brown insect that reduces crops to dust).

Jena died on Sunday, the fourth Odisha farmer driven to suicide this year by a pest attack.

On October 25, chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced a drought relief package for farmers in 15 of the state’s 30 districts. There was no mention of crops ravaged by pests.

On Sunday, the government acknowledged pests had hit crops in nearly 1.78 lakh hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acre) across nine districts.

A brown planthopper. ( International Rice Research Institute, Philippines )

State development commissioner and additional chief secretary, R Balakrishnan, reviewed the pest damage with district collectors. “Pest attack is a natural calamity and affected farmers will be compensated as per Odisha relief code,” he told HT.

Odisha farmers are familiar with the brown planthopper but the infestation is severe this season. Reports of farmers setting fire to paddy fields are coming in from the nine affected districts.

Sahoo’s elder brother, Nagat, also a sharecropper, or a tenant farmer who gives a part of the crop as rent, blames pesticides. “We faced the pest onslaught successfully in 2015, but this year pesticides have been ineffective,” he said.

Patnaik and his ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) are facing criticism from farmer bodies and opposition.

The agriculture department was late in sending subsidised pesticides to the state’s 314 blocks this year as discussions dragged on over a notification indicating price list of several farm products.

The notification that helps farmers get pesticides on 50% or even 100% subsidy was issued on November 1, the day Sahoo died.

“The notification is usually ready by August. Even if delayed, we get it by September. But it came in very late this year,” said an agriculture department official who did not want to be named.

Farmer Brunda Sahoo’s daughter, Preeti, outside her home. ( Debabrata Mohanty/Hindustan Times )

Kalapani sarpanch and farmer Bhira Reddy said the pesticide might have been of inferior quality. “The local dealers are stocking sub-standard pesticides manufactured by smaller companies in Chhattisgarh,” he alleged.

The views were echoed by Sahoo’s daughter, Preeti. “The pesticides failed to kill the insects, but killed my father,” said the 18-year-old.

Bijay Sahoo, a pesticide dealer in Bargarh, said he had not compromised on the quality. “I think the humid climate played a role.”

Mayabini Jena, principal scientist and head of crop protection division of National Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, said early action is the best bet against the brown planthopper. “Once humidity and temperature increase, the female moths lay more than 100-150 eggs every day. If there is a delay in spraying of pesticides, it becomes difficult to control,” she said.

To add to the problem, these insects populate the roots and in areas where farmers plant paddy very close to each other. “It is difficult to spot such insects. Most farmers don’t spray on the paddy roots where the insects thrive,” Jena said.

The pest attack has dealt a body blow to farmers battling high input costs. Sharecroppers such as Sahoo often depend on local moneylenders who demand exorbitant rates of interest.

Sahoo’s son, Rajesh, admitted his father, too, was worried about money. “Also, the pesticides and fertilisers were taken on credit from local traders who would have taken a share of the harvest in return,” said Rajesh.

Sahoo would also have to give a bulk of the produce to the land owner as per their contract.

“It is agriculture minister Damodar Rout who is responsible for the death of the farmers. Why were pesticides not supplied on time?” asked Anant Padhi, president of Bargarh district Congress committee.

Odisha BJP chief Basant Panda demanded that Patnaik sack Rout, who faced criticism on Saturday for saying the government would not extend aid to farmers who set fire to their crops.

First Published: Nov 05, 2017 23:27 IST