Is it possible to save farmers and consumers who die from the rampant use of pesticides?
Every morning, a farmer in his forties named Mohan Ray, starts his day with Ragimudde—also known as Ragi balls, a local delicacy made of boiled ragi and a highly-popular cheap alternative to rice or wheat. Like most farmers, he eats this with rasam or vegetable curry, which gives him energy to bear the scorching sun throughout the day. As a part of his daily morning routine, he draws the drinking water from the open well in his land. Mohan in his two-acre land (which is divided into two sections), grows paddy and other crops like pineapple and areca nuts. He visits his paddy field twice a week and his pineapple farm four times a month in order to control pests and spray pesticides.
A few months ago Mohan was complaining of having chemical belches for quite some time. He was not able to understand the cause behind his peculiar belches. When he explained the situation of his sudden breathing problems to Dr. Radha, an Ayurvedic practitioner in Sagar, Shimoga district, he was horrified to find out that the reason was having inhaled harmful chemicals like pesticides. Mohan says, “Earlier I was not aware of the harmful chemicals that I was using on my farms, now I have stopped using them.” He further asserted “farmers here take the guidance from the other senior farmers regarding the usage of pesticides.”
Like Mohan, there are several other farmers in Sagar, who do not learn about the side effects or take enough precautions before using pesticides, insecticides, weedicides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Not only do farmers suffer due to this unawareness, their family members also suffer because of it. Danamma K. Rajappa, the wife of a farmer in Sagar, who generally goes for a walk on the farms, is suffering from rashes on her legs. Her husband, K. Rajappa says his labour sprays weedicides in his farms and do not take precautions while doing it.” Similarly, another farmer’s wife Sharda who lived in Sagar, used to help her husband on the fields, got a urinal infection and died. She had not taken proper precautions while spraying pesticides or other chemicals.
“Farmers here generally resort to using cloths to cover their mouth while spraying the chemicals on the farms and do not get any protected gears such as masks, boots and gloves from the government,” opined Mohan. He further shared the concern that there is nobody for them to instruct on what kind of solution to use to control pests and weeds.
Recently, The Hindu, in January reported on the SIT (Special Investigative Team) appointed by the Maharashtra government. It probed the death of the farmers in Yavatmal district after spraying pesticides and revealed that the farmers and farm labourers there don’t take necessary precautions. Twenty one farmers and farm labourers had died and close to 1000 were infected between August and November last year following the use of pesticides on the cotton crop.”
A fungal disease called ‘Neck blast’ is contracted by paddy crops. The disease affects the bottom part of the plant leading the plant to produce few to no grains at all. Narayanappa, a farmer in Sagar, complained about this disease to the Agricultural Department of Sagar, as it had affected 50% of his crops due to spraying of fungicides instead of insecticides, after taking advice from a senior neighboring farmer.
Vinayak Rao, Block Technology officer at the Agriculture Department of Sagar echoed the concerns of Mohan Ray, “Farmers here, from generations, have been taking advice from the senior farmers which often leads to problems like what Narayanappa is facing.”
There is a lack of trained professional applicators of chemicals, who are the experts in guiding farmers regarding the application of various pesticides. Also, there is a presence of private retailers of chemicals in the villages, which don’t seem to provide appropriate guidance to the farmers regarding its usage and dangers. Illiteracy and lack of understanding regarding the hazardous implications are also major contributors to it.
There are plenty of hazardous chemicals which are being rampantly used by farmers. Lambdacyhalothrin 5% EC, Monocrotophos, Dichlorovos 76% EC, paraquat Dichoride (Herbicide) and salt of glyphosate are a few names of dangerous chemicals which are used by farmers in Sagar, said Ravi, who runs an agro agency in Sagar. The agricultural department in Sagar said, “Monocrotophos, Glyphosate, Chlorpyrifos, Butachlor and Carbendazim are the mainly used chemicals by the Farmers in Sagar.
Paraquat Dichoride is illegal is the UK. This herbicide is widely used in Asia to kill unwanted plants and weeds in the farms. According to researchers, it can cause Dementia (A combination of symptoms which are associated with the loss of memory). Scientists say this is a toxic chemical that can kill cells and causes brain neurons to stop working. Recently the online news portal ‘The News Minute’ reported that, “In a significant move to prevent the indiscriminate use of herbicides, the Andra Pradesh Government has restricted the use of herbicides, especially Glyphosate, in agriculture. It leads to serious implications in many cultivated crops in Andra Pradesh.”
The Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC), comes under the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare. It provides information regarding the approved uses of pesticides and dosages on its website. In that, it is clearly stated that Monocrotophus is banned for use on vegetables. But, it is still being used in Sagar abundantly and carelessly. Ravi, the owner of Vijay Agro agency in Sagar said, “The production of this has been stopped but it is still being sold in the market.”
He also added that Chlorphyrifos is his most-selling pesticide. This year, on 8th of February, the American state Hawaii imposed a strict ban on the manufacture, sale, use, import and storage of Chlorpyrifos (which posses dangerous implications) and imposed stricter regulations on the usage of Glyphosate herbicides.
Red, Blue, yellow, and Green are the levels of dangers in the pesticides that help the user to identify the danger associated with it. However, the essential warnings in the packages are written in tiny fonts. This makes it difficult for the users to read the warnings. Furthermore, farmers who are illiterate mostly depend upon the retail stores regarding its usage and are often unaware of its hazards. Four out of six farmers in Sagar are illiterate and therefore do not know what kind of pesticides they are using.
A study has been done by the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development (SPWD) on the usage of pesticides by 25 farmers in Bero block in Ranchi district. This study contributes to a larger study which is being conducted by PAN (Pesticide Action Network) in several Indian states. The study claims that farmers do not know the names of the pesticides they use and do not use protective gears like masks and gloves. Also, several farmers accepted that they mix pesticides with their bare hands.
With the perpetual risks that pesticides posses, various farmers in Sagar are opting for sustainable farming methods. A farmers group of 60 strong participants called Charantana Raitha Kuta in Keladi region in Sagar is an organization where farmers discuss various methods of farming and other agriculture-related issues. They meet every first Sunday of the month. Most of the farmers in this group are inspired by the sustainable farming methods. They also encourage other farmers who are not in the group to follow the natural farming practices.
“I’m unlearning all that I’ve learnt about ‘high-input’ agriculture” says Vinayak Rao, block technology officer in the government’s agriculture department in Sagar in central Karnataka, whose views on best practices are echoed by other local farmers. “There should be minimum human intervention in the fields and the rest must be left to nature.”
A post graduate of the prestigious University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, Rao practices ‘zero budget natural farming’ or ZBNY. He farms 2 acres of land in his village, where he grows organic pepper, coffee, and coconut. By using Jeevaamruta, a mixture of cow dung, cow urine and kitchen waste, Rao has increased soil fertility and controlled pests.
Rao encourages farmers to mulch the soil by using areca leaves, husk, coconut fronds and dry leaves to maintain soil moisture and control the spread of weeds. His idea of paper mulching is innovative as newspaper decomposes and becomes food for earthworms. In winter, the mulch keeps the soil temperature relatively warm.
ZBNY has already achieved great success in several parts of south India. Subhash Palekar, a Padma Shree awardee and a farmer from Vidarbha in Maharashtra, pioneered ZBNF. Andhra Pradesh (AP) Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has appointed him as his advisor and has provided Rs. 100 crore to promote his farming philosophy.
Palekar believes that ZBNF is the solution to the agriculture crises in India today. His method involves zero input cost by using natural methods to nurture the soil without using pesticides or chemical fertilizers. In this method, the seeds are locally produced and intercropping plays an important role.
The main nutritive components of ZBNF include Jeevaamruta, Beejamrutha (same as Jeevamruta but used to treat seeds), Acchadana (mulching) and Whapasa (moisture). ZBNF said the plant’s roots need water vapor and not water, thereby reducing the need for deep irrigation.
India faces an unprecedented water crisis. As much as 80% of India’s water is used in agriculture and much of it in a wasteful manner. Crops like red chilies in Rajasthan, sugarcane, and grapes in Maharashtra and rice in many rain-dependent areas across the country are wasteful as they are inappropriate for water-stressed regions. Their export is tantamount to the export of water by a drought-stricken country.
Several parts of India face recurring droughts. Anantpur district in Andhra Pradesh is the country’s second driest district and people there are finding answers in their traditional, natural farming methods. As with Anantpur, natural farming has improved yields in AP’s driest districts of Prakasam, Kadapa, Kurnool, and Chittoor. Already, 140,000 farmers in AP with 60,000 hectares of land under cultivation have shifted to ZBNF. By 2024, the state authorities believe that 6 million farmers across 13 districts in the state will also switch.
In an interview with news website The Wire, Palekar points out that through the high-input Green Revolution model, the highest yields achieved were 61 quintals of paddy, 56 quintals of wheat and 26 quintals of basmati rice per hectare. “In Amritsar, there is a 50-acre farm run by the Pingalwara Charitable Society,” he said. “They practice Zero Budget Natural Farming. From one acre they got 24 quintals of basmati rice. That is 61 quintals per hectare, which is more than double the production from hybrid basmati seeds.”
A team of experts from Shimla visited Guntur district of AP to study the ZBNF model at the insistence of Acharya Devvrat, governor of Himachal Pradesh, who practices ZBNF in his 200 acres farm. Around 30,000 farmers follow his example in Himachal Pradesh. State chief minister Jairam has allotted Rs. 25 crore to promote ZBNF.
Another technique, permaculture is also gaining popularity with Indian farmers. Permaculture encourages farmers to design their farms to allow different plants to complement each other and help sustain each other. It seeks to create an ecosystem like a forest and nurtures the soil. This method of farming has now spread to 140 countries and around three million people are using this. It also restricts the use of chemicals and requires much less water.
Down to Earth magazine profiled a farmer, Narsanna Koppula of Telangana, who has 10 acres of land and has been practicing permaculture for 30 years. He says, “All tall trees in his farm are confined to the western and southern boundaries and the eastern side has been left open. This ensures that the other plants and crops remain protected from the harsh afternoon heat and strong winds while benefitting from the morning sun.”
Prakash Rao Manchale, an organic and biodynamic agriculturist from Sagar Taluk grows medicinal plants to sell. He has his organic certified farm (issued by the government) and also practices biodynamic method of farming. Biodynamic method of farming is similar to organic farming methods. The major difference between the two is the inclusion of cosmos energy in the biodynamic farming. Prakash Rao says, “We use energy from stars to grow crops. This is a form of energy and from this, the cultivation has become easier. People in the villages have now started to follow my farming practices.”
By going into the history of organic farming in Sagar, Prakash Rao explained, “Before 20 years, Purushotha Koa was the first one to start organic practices in his farms. He formed an organization and spread his organic practices. He also explained the benefits of normal organic farming to the villagers and due to this his practices are still being followed.” He believes that “There is no proper system (for example, subsidies) by the government to encourage organic farming among farmers in India.”
“Government is insisting on quantity over quality in agriculture,” said K. Venkatesh, an environmentalist based in Sagar. He added, “Farmers are reluctant to switch to sustainable farming methods because at the beginning the yield is not as good as conventional one, but the heavy usage of pesticides is highly dangerous for mankind.”
“There should be proper guidance to the farmers related to the balanced use of pesticides and bio fertilizers. Government should provide extension workers at the root level.” Venkatesh continued. He firmly believes that the agriculture department should visit the farmers’ field once in a while to instruct them on the usage of various chemicals and fertilizers. He opines that, there is a need for quality seeds at minimum prices and cold storages should be given free of cost to the marginal farmers.
“Monocroyophus, a highly dangerous pesticide is banned, but is sold everywhere. It is being sold even in the agriculture departments,” Venkatesh asserted. He also stressed on regular income of the farmers, “There should be no fixed rates for farmers to sell their produce. Government should pay regular amount irrespective of the climate conditions. And there must be no delay in payments to the farmers as this causes the farmers to sell their produce directly to the dealers.