Yavatmal pesticide poisoning: Farmers’ families battle death and despair
Life has come to a stop for Ranjana Kamble (24), a resident of Andhbori village in Yavatmal district. The eight-month pregnant first-time would-be mother has been waiting for her husband Vinod to respond to treatment for the last one month.
Vinod, a farm labourer, developed respiratory problems on September 17 after he returned from the farm of district BJP leader Raju Dange where he had sprayed pesticide. Admitted to hospital, he has been on life support since.
Bandu Sonule (48) of Monali village was not as lucky. He died two days after being admitted on September 19, leaving his wife Geeta, two children and mother distraught. He too had sprayed pesticide at the farm of Shankarrao Chowdhury.
Around 50 farmers or farm labourers — 22 in Yavatmal — have died and nearly 800 have been hospitalised due to an infection, caused by spraying of a pesticide on cotton crops in Vidarbha region, known for farmer suicides. At least 20 have lost vision too.
While chief minister Devendra Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government has ordered probe by special investigation team and announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the kin of the dead, district collector Rajesh Deshmukh directed free treatment to the affected.
The District Agriculture Development Officer (DOA) Dattatreya Kalsai was suspended on Wednesday for alleged negligence.
The district authorities booked the local agro-input centre, Jalaram Krushi Kendra, for violation of the Insecticides Act 1969.
However, the owner of the agro-input centre, Shantilal Raja claims he is clueless about the cause of the deaths as he has been “selling pesticides to all farmers in the area, and no one was affected”.
Farmers in Yavatmal, who mainly grow cotton, soybean and lentils, say they use a highly potent mix of pesticides, both in powder and liquid form.
They also cultivate a genetically modified variety of cotton, which is supposed to be resistant to bollworms, a pest that attacks cotton crops. But that has not happened this year, farmers say, which led them to increase their use of pesticides.
Chairman of the state-run agriculture mission, Kishore Tiwari highlighted the unregulated sale and use of pesticides/insecticides, failure of Bt cotton in reducing dependence on chemicals, collapse of public health department, lack of alertness on part of agriculture department and wrong agriculture policies implemented in the country in the last 30 years as causes of poisoning.
Dr Vilas Bhale, vice chancellor of Panjabrao Agriculture University, noted that farmers were not following precautions while spraying pesticides like wearing gloves, goggles and special clothes.
He said his university has engaged its teachers and post-graduate students for a public awareness campaign in the region in this regard.
For doctors in the area, the task is an everyday battle as they can’t wash the stomach to remove traces of ingested poison. Inhaling pesticides also affects the respiratory system.
For Geeta, the issue raises several questions. “For how long will the compensation last? Will it bring back the light of our lives? Will lives continue to be lost? Will farmers meet the same end?” she asks.
Sangeeta Fulmali (45), who lost her husband Gajanan (52), to pesticide poisoning on October 1, life has to move on. “Yes. I am afraid of working on the farm. There are risks, but what else can I do to feed my children?”