A generic ignorance of the hazards involved in pesticide inhalation and lack of awareness about safety still prevails among the third-generation of post-independence farmers. Skin burns, nausea, headache and dizziness were found to be the most common impacts.
By Taru Jain
Over the last few decades, post the Green Revolution in 1970s, farmers across the country began to rely heavily on pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Health impacts due to pesticide exposure became a significant problem in India.
Bijapur district, northern Karnataka, is an area of intensive agricultural production. Jowar, bajra, maize, wheat and pulses are some of the major crops grown here.
In Basavana Bagewadi taluk within the district, as per the 2011 census, there are 123 villages which include 38 Panchayat villages. Across the Taluk, 41,440 are cultivators and 48,090 are agricultural labourers which constitutes a large part of the population. With farming as their main occupation in the taluk, the problem is widespread.
The problem came under the lens when 50 farmers died and more than 800 were hospitalised after spraying pesticides in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra last year.
The situation in Basavana Bagewadi
Many farmers risk their lives not knowing the harmful effects of pesticide inhalation. While spraying the chemicals on their crops, they either inadvertently inhale the pesticide fumes or the particles permeate through their skin if they are not wearing protective gear. Most of such absorption occurs through uncovered skin such as the face, hands, forearms, neck, and chest.
Jaitanbi, 56, is a farmer in Basavana Bagewadi town. She grows onion, wheat, sugarcane and sorghum (jowar) in the five acres of land she has. She explained how her hands and eyes burn whenever she sprays pesticides which are almost always accompanied by dizziness and an urge to vomit.
She does not wear the safety gear and was unaware if it is even available. She wears her usual attire of a ‘sari’ during spraying and uses the ends of the garment as a mask to cover her mouth. She doesn’t wear goggles. Sprayed particles stick to her face and hands when the wind blows in her direction.
‘Do you know how to read the instructions on the container?’ I ask.
”No”, she says.
Even if she knows how to read Kannada the instructions are in English and Hindi and are in such microscopic fonts that she might need a magnifying glass.
She said, “We reuse empty pesticides bottles as kitchen containers after rinsing with water and ‘nirma’ (detergent) powder.”
She was visiting the taluk hospital for an eye check-up as she has been facing trouble seeing. Naturally, she cannot read the ‘directions of use’ printed in small fonts on the bottle and relies on her husband’s experience and instructions for the amount to be sprayed.
Her account on the use of pesticides without safety gear was found as a trend across the taluk.
In villages such as Hoovina Hipparagi, Kudari Salawadagi, Ingleshwar, Nidalgundi and Almatti, most farmers had a similar tale to tell.
Rich farmers circumvent the problem by designating the field work to their hired agricultural labourers.
Basu Sendyad, 47, from Kudari Salawadgi, has sugarcane and rice fields. He claimed to have experienced skin allergies; hence he assigned the work to his labourers.
Ravi Chandra, 32, a farm labourer in Nidalgundi, stretched his hand out to indicate the boils due to the spray.
Use of toxic pesticides
Farmers in the taluk use pesticides which have been classified under red (extremely toxic) and yellow (highly toxic) labels. The labels were attributed to certain chemicals as per guidelines laid down in Insecticides Rules, 1971.
These pesticides have interesting names like “Killer Hungry”, “Super Hit” and “Prosper” with skulls and crossbones on them!
Adveappa, 44, a farmer in Almatti, claims to having used Dichlorvos (yellow label) and Monocrotophos (red label) for growing corn.
He said, “When you’re out in the field and these crops don’t seem to be growing the way they should, you expect these medicines to come to rescue, hence you begin to splurge them.”
“Are they medicines or ‘poisons’?” I ask.
Notably, India banned Monocrotophos for use on vegetables in 2005. But the pesticide played a key role in the deaths of farmers in Yavatmal. Farmers in Basavana Bagewadi still continue to use it on edible crops.
M S Patil, 53, a farmer in Ingleshwar village, explained how he uses pesticides extensively in the hope of better yield. Among the many pesticides he uses, Indoxacarb, Chlorpyriphos, Monocrotophos and Profenophos are some of them.
Both Chlorpyriphos and Profenophos are considered deadly. While Profenophos is banned in Kerala, a ban against Chlorpyriphos has been advocated by United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Lack of awareness in farmers
Absence of protective gear is a key reason for the health impacts. In many cases, farmers are not even aware of the measures they should take. Even if they are, they state the equipments are expensive to buy.
Raman Gowda, farmer who grows wheat, Kudagi, said, “I hardly make Rs. 250 a day from my land which is not sufficient for me to run my family. I cannot afford the gear.”
Adveappa said, “I had a mask but it broke into pieces. I didn’t buy another one. Now I continue spraying without it.”
Many farmers look up to the government for such expenses.
Arvind Baikwad, farmer, Hoovina Hipparagi, said, “I expect the government to cover the cost of buying protective kit for me as I am debt-ridden.”
Gurunath, farmer, Basavana Bagewadi, is semi-literate in Kannada. He mentioned he asks the pesticide dealer to explain to him the correct methods of mixing chemicals, since most pesticides bottle do not have instructions in Kannada. He then relies on his memory.
Swabhiram, who runs a pesticide shop in Ingleshwar, said he maintains a stock of 10-20 litres of Monocrotophos since the farmers continue its usage.
Shivanand S. Sajjan, Shri Mahalaxmi Agro Agencies, Basavana Bagewadi, said “I am not aware if farmers face any issues. But only 10 per cent purchase masks.”
He added, “Only 50 per cent can read the warnings and directions. But for those who can’t, I explain it to them because I have knowledge and experience. But I explain only when the farmer asks for help.” Shivanand has a diploma in agriculture studies which he claims helps him run the shop.
As per the government’s mandate, all pesticide shops should be run by degree-holders in any of the relevant subjects — Agriculture, Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Chemistry, Botany or Zoology. The step was taken by the government to resolve issues related to farming community on ground level. But it remains largely ignored.
He further stated he was not aware of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and its regulations.
Mahantesh K. Banigol, Someshwar Agro Kendra, Nidagundi, said, “You can’t understand the effects. They (farmers) don’t use safety measures. The companies which manufacture poisonous pesticides don’t provide safety equipment.”
He was not selling safety gear in his shop. I asked, “Why not?” The question was met with silence.
“Do you know the regulating body for pesticides in India?” I asked.
He said, “I know of a certain ‘Insecticide India Limited Board’ but don’t what it does.”
He meant Central Insecticides Board but was unclear about what its functions are and how it is relevant to his business.
Mahantesh never attended college and should not be running the shop, if the rules are to be followed.
Medical management of such health impacts is difficult because there is little evidence with which to determine the best strategies for treatment. Moreover, hospitals do not maintain any records of such instances.
Manoj Zingade, nursing staff, Basavana Bagewadi taluk hospital, said, “We don’t record cases with specificity. We just treat. There is no data available. We do not ask the patient his occupation or where he got the symptoms from.”
He added, “General treatment in case of Organophosphate poisoning (OP) constitutes of atropine injection, antacid injection and stomach wash. If the case is severe, we refer it to Bijapur.”
Notably, stomach wash or ‘gastric lavage’ in medical terms does not help remove traces of poison ingested through lungs, skin and eyes. This makes the treatment of accidental poisoning harder.
What about the government?
Basavana Bagewadi Municipal Corporation did not have Agriculture and Information and Public Relations departments. The information department is supposed to provide information to the farmers through posters, booklets, videos and even podcasts.
Agricultural issues are dealt with directly at the state level where the government believes that the onus really is on the pesticide companies.
Manjunath, Joint Director (Bijapur), Karnataka Agriculture Department, said, “It is the manufacturer who should provide safety measures. Companies who manufacture pesticides should share the responsibility.”
He added, “But, annually, twice or thrice, we hold awareness programmes regarding safety measure. Also, lot of equipments have come into force like boom sprayer which has been covered under a subsidised programme. A boom sprayer covers huge which helps in the effective management of the disease or pest.”
“How successful has the implementation of the programme been?” I asked.
His instant response was, “It has been successful.” Then, the answer came, “Actually, It will take some time.”
The protective kit consists of coats, helmets, shoes and goggles amounting to Rs. 3,000 which makes it unaffordable for farmers. Farmers have families to run and debts to pay. The cost is just another burden on them.
No instant and pre-fabricated answers to this problem have emerged. But, experts have suggestions.
Dr. Amarinder Singh Bawa, an agricultural scientist and Fellow of National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said, “On the packet, there should be proper instructions. Proper training should be given to the farmers at the village-level about how they should take notice of the wind velocity, direction of the wind and cover their bodies while spraying. Krishi Vigyan Kendra should give proper training and directions to these farmers so they don’t suffer later on. “
He continued, “Enforcement agencies should come forth and penalize those companies that are manufacturing banned pesticides. DDT, which was banned long back, is still found in the market and farmers are using it because they don’t know how toxic it is.”
Dr. Dinesh Chauhan, Chief Executive Officer, International Agriculture Consulting Group, explained, “Most of the companies have got the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds which can be partially allocated to awareness programme and distribute protective gear. The gear should come free along with the pesticide packet. “
He mentioned how newer technologies which are currently not accessible to farmers because of lack of funds can be used on a pilot basis. For example, agricultural drones can be used to effectively spray pesticides; it can reduce water utilisation as well as harmful effects and wastage of pesticides. This will also help lower the levels of toxicity.
The long and short of it
Farmers do not use essential safety gear while spraying pesticides which has led to health problems as they are largely unaware of the hazards involved.
There is no attempt to inform the farmers by those who make profit out of farm economy such as companies, dealers and retailers. Even the government machineries such as agricultural officials, health and information departments have failed to create awareness.
As a result, ignorance prevails causing serious consequences.