Pesticide poisoning on rise in Karnataka farmers

Capstone Farmers

According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, National Accidental Deaths and Suicides Report 2020, 943 people died due to accidental consumption of pesticides in Karnataka in 2020.

Bengaluru: Bettappa, a 70-year-old farm worker at K Gollahalli, Kumbalgodu has been spraying pesticides on the farmlands for 20 years. He said that he has developed a chronic body pain. “My back pains whole day when I spray pesticides on the field,” he added.

He said that he had visited a doctor several times due to the skin allergy and rashes he developed after spraying pesticides on the fields. He also complained about stinging and burning sensation in the eyes while spraying pesticides on the fields.

Many farmers don’t know when to spray pesticides on the fields. He sprays pesticide on random days, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly for an hour.

He said that he does not have any protective equipment like gloves, masks, etc. or a Protection Protective Equipment (PPE) kit to wear while spraying pesticides on the fields.


Narayanappa, 50, another agriculture worker and his wife Maddeamma, 45, works on a jowar field. Narayanappa said that he is only provided with a pair of gloves by the farmland owner. He said his eyes stings when he sprays the pesticides on fields. He also develops skin allergy from time to time.

The agricultural workers experience illnesses and health effects due to exposure to pesticides. This is called occupational acute pesticide poisoning which is caused due to poorly regulated pesticide use in India. The cases of pesticide poisoning are increasing every year among Indian farmers.

Government’s data is not segregated

According to the NCRB report, National Accidental Deaths and Suicides Report 2020, the number of fatalities from accidental intake of pesticides in India were 6962 in 2019 and 7437 in 2020. About 943 people died due to accidental consumption of pesticides in Karnataka in 2020 and 818 people died in 2019.  However, the report does not mention the occupation of the people who are dying from accidental intake of pesticides.

Murali, an official at State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB) said that the SCRB give this data to NCRB. He said that the police do not state the occupation of the person who died from accidental consumption of pesticide on the report. He mentioned that most of these deaths occur in rural Karnataka.

Karthik Selva, member of Yugma Network, PAN-India based organization that works for agriculture and environment conservation said there are set of people in villages who do the job of spraying pesticides on fields everyday to earn a living. He said these people develop chronic diseases but their symptoms are not recorded as pesticide poisoning in the hospitals.

Venkatramana Reddy Patil, additional director, Agriculture Department of Karnataka said that the department needs to look district-wise deaths occurred due to accidental consumption of pesticide to find out the cause of the deaths.

According to a report, 60 percent of India’s population engages in agriculture. 64.6 percent of the geographical area of Karnataka state is under cultivation and farmers and agricultural laborers account for 56.5 percent of the Karnataka’s workforce (Census 2001).

According to International Labor Organization, 14 percent of all occupational hazards in agricultural workers in India are caused by pesticides exposure.

Symptoms of pesticide poisoning

Pesticide bottles at a farmer’s house

Dr Naveen R, president, Association of Occupational Health Karnataka (AOHK) said that farmers who do not use PPE or do not know how to use a PPE are exposed to pesticides. “These chemicals enter into a person’s body through nose, mouth or skin, and then into the blood stream causing pesticide poisoning. The increase in the level of pesticides in a person’s bloodstream than their body can handle can lead to death,” he said.

He said that in some cases pesticides poisoning occurs over a short period of time whereas in other cases the symptoms are developed over a long period of time, depending on the type and amount of pesticides used.

There are two kinds of symptoms—acute and chronic. He said acute symptoms include tremors, headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, pain and cramps in abdomen, increased sweating, increased salivation and even unconsciousness if the exposure levels are very high. The chronic symptoms include teratogenic effects like change in genes that can result in children born with abnormalities, genetic mutation, reproductive problems, anemia, paralysis, skin rashes, asthma, etc.  He added that these symptoms can occur in short term and long term exposure of pesticides.

No PPE Kits available

A D Dileep Kumar, assistant director, Pesticides Action Network (PAN) said that PPE kits are neither available nor affordable to farmers.

Another research done in Adargunchi and Noolvi by Institute of Medical Sciences, Hubballi states that 93 percent of the farmers were not aware of the harmful effects of pesticide. About 78 percent did not undergo any practical training related to pesticides. About 70 percent did not take any precautions nor use any protective equipment. About 59 percent suffered from one or the other illness due to exposure to pesticides and only five percent have sought medical care.

Narasamma, a farm worker said neither she has a PPE kit nor she knows how to use one.

Usage of PPE can help to reduce the amount of risks while handling the pesticides but 93 percent of farmers in Karnataka do not have access to PPE kits.

According to a recent answer given in parliament, no schemes are made by the government for providing PPE kits to the farmers.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has achieved limited success

Brijesh Kumar Dikshit, commissioner, Department of Agriculture, Karnataka said that accidental pesticides deaths are bound to happen when the farmers are dealing with toxic chemicals. He said some farmers are ignorant and spray pesticides in the fields without PPE while knowing that how harmful it can be for their health, he said.

Another reason of the pesticide poisoning is that the farmers are not using the permitted amount of pesticides, he said. He said that the Central Insecticide Board (CIB) and agricultural universities research and decide the amount and type of pesticide is enough for countering a particular disease.

CIB marks insecticides and pesticides with colours red, yellow, blue and green, where red indicates high toxicity and green indicates low toxicity.

Vegadevi, assistant director, Agriculture Department said that Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach was implemented 10 years ago to educate farmers about the usage of pesticides. She said that officials at Raitha Samparka Kendra are still demonstrating farmers; however, these demonstrations are not done frequently now that farmers are aware.

According to an article, through Strengthening and Modernization of Pest Management Approach (SMPMA) Scheme, Farmers Field Schools (FFSs) are organized to sensitize farmers on IPM approach. However, the IPM has had limited success in India, and pesticides continue to be used indiscriminately, often not at the right time or in the right quantity.

Dikshit said the IPM has not been popularized because the farmers are not interested prioritizing safety measures, they priorities productivity and immediate results. He added that preventative measures taken through IPM are being avoided because of lack of labour. 

Adverse health effects

According to research done in farmers from 10 villages in Karnataka by Department of Pharmacy Practice, Bengaluru, during the use of pesticides farmers reported problems such as eye irritation (32.75 percent), headache (25.15 percent), dizziness (10.53 percent), breathing difficulty (2.34 percent), skin rashes (2.34 percent) and 7.02 percent claimed to have experienced all of these symptoms at least once during their exposure to pesticides.

According to another research on 290 pesticide sprayers by Department of Community Health, St John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, more than half of the study participants 152 (52.4 percent) suffered from at least one musculoskeletal problem.

A research study by Department of Studies in Economics, Davanagere University showed that 73 out of 200 respondents reported health risks from toxic hazards. 

According to research on farmers in South India by International Journal of occupational health and environment, one-fourth of the farmers had chronic diseases. About 13 percent reported reduced vision, 2.2 percent reported asthma, 2.5 percent reported hypertension and 1.5 percent reported diabetes.

Dikshit said that the agriculture department does not conduct a health survey of the farmers to find out the health problems the farmers experience due to the exposure to pesticides.

Health study in other states

The Department of Criminology and Forensic Science, School of Applied Sciences, Madhya Pradesh (M.P.) conducted a detailed health research study on farm workers exposed to pesticides in M.P. The results revealed both physical and mental health effects in farm workers that included tingling (32.3 percent), muscle pain (51.6 percent), headache (56.5 percent), skin disease (19 percent), blurred vision (35.5 percent), tremor (23 percent), stress (24.2 percent), depression (15.3 percent), anxiety (44.7 percent), altered taste (21.4 percent), altered smell (31.4 percent), sleep disorder (39.5 percent), dizziness (66.1 percent), memory problems (29.4 percent), trouble in walking (8 percent), and cardiac problems (16.9 percent) were reported. This kind of detailed health survey needs to be done in Karnataka to find out the effect of pesticide exposure on mental health of farmers.

Impact of pesticides on consumers

Atchuta Rao, member of Estah Society, Electronic City said that he believes in preserving traditional techniques of agriculture like organic and natural farming. He said that pesticides should be banned totally as it not only affecting the health of farmers but the consumers as well. “Pesticides are slowly poisoning our body,” he said.

According to a research by British Medical Journal in 2021, the prevalence of pesticide poisoning in India in the adult population was 65 percent and 22 percent in children.

According to the government report, Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level, 2017-18 revealed that out of the 23,668 samples. The pesticides residues were detected in 4,510 samples (19.1 percent) and 523 samples (2.2 percent) had pesticides residues above Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) as prescribed by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) were detected.

Source: BMC Public Health

Dileep Kumar said that in 2020, the central government was likely to ban 27 pesticides but the decision has not been taken yet. According to the list of banned pesticides as of April, 2022, most of those pesticides are still in use.

He said monocrotophos pesticide is responsible for most of the farmers’ death when its use is restricted in India.

An article states that the State Agriculture Department which grants a license to pesticide sale in the state doesn’t have a system in place to gather information about the quantity and mode of consumption of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides in Karnataka and depends on the data provided by the Karnataka Pesticide Manufacturers Association.

Pesticide Management Bill

The Pesticide Management Bill, 2020 seeks to regulate the manufacturing, import, sale, storage, distribution, use, and disposal of pesticides, in order to ensure the availability of safe pesticides and to minimise the risk to humans, animals, and environment.

According to an article, the bill was approved by Union Cabinet in 2020. In 2021, the bill was referred to Standing Committee on Agriculture for examination. Once passed, the new act will replace the Insecticide Act 1968.

However, Dileep Kumar said that Pesticide Management Bill does not envision to reduce and mitigate risk arising from pesticide usage. He said that the use of PPE kits and safety measures of pesticide usage are not addressed.

He added that the bill has vague provisions for monitoring pesticide poisoning and compensating the heirs of the victims of pesticide poisoning. “There should be more clarity in the provisions of the bill,” he said.

Solutions —Organic and Natural Farming

Karthik said that highly toxic pesticides which are banned in other countries are sold in India. He said that the government and agricultural institutions are encouraging farmers to use these chemicals.

He said that he promotes organic farming and practices paddy farming. Initially, there were around two lakh kinds of paddy seeds available in India but since the introduction of hybrid seeds only two percent of these paddy seeds are now available in India. These two lakh seeds which were naturally available in India were highly nutritious and have different health benefits. He added that hybrid seeds need fertilizers and pesticides to grow whereas these naturally available seeds do not require fertilizers and pesticides.

Sandeep Anirudhan, environmentalist said that both chemical and fertilizers are making the land barren. Therefore, replacing modern farming with natural farming is one of the best solutions. He said, “Natural farming will protect farmers, consumers and environment from toxic chemicals, decrease water pollution, decrease soil erosion, maintains ground level water etc.”

Natural farming can restore the overall nutrients of the soil and increase the productivity and immunity of crops. He said that plants will be able to fight pests and diseases by themselves. He said natural farming will help soil to retain good microbes and earthworms which are killed by chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides.

Natural farming and organic farming both have multiple crop system unlike modern farming which maintains the symbiotic relationship between plants that keeps them healthy. But in organic farming, he said, farmers don’t cover the whole land with plants whereas in natural farmers cover the whole land with plants even with weeds. This is called “mulching”. The whole coverage of the land or mulching helps to protect soil microbes from sunlight from killing them, he added.


He said that the best solution would be natural farming not organic farming because organic farming is a fixture whereas natural farming is a total solution and focuses on restoration of soil’s nutrition.

Modern farming needs a lot of inputs whereas natural farming doesn’t. He said that the chemical fertilizers and pesticides make the land less fertile in five to 10 years. By 10 to 15 years the farmers have to work hard to grow anything in the land even with the help of fertilizers and pesticides.

According to the report, India is losing 5,334 million tonnes of soil every year due to soil erosion because of indiscreet and excess use of fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides over the years.

Andhra Pradesh is shifting to natural farming, and the government is supporting the farmers with schemes and policies.

Until now, under natural farming an area of 4.09 lakh hectares of area have been covered, and a total fund of Rs. 4980.99 lakh has been released to eight states across the country.

Many NGOs are promoting natural and modern farming. Malikarjun H Rao, founder of MHR Foundation, Sunkadakatte said that to save farmers from adverse health effects of pesticides, his foundation train farmers in natural farming.

Government schemes

Vegadevi said that the many schemes like Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojna (PKVY) are some of the schemes which encourage farmers to opt for organic farming and opt for organic fertilizers and pesticides. Other schemes include Savayava Bhagya Yojane (SBY), Karnataka Organic Farming Policy 2017, Organic Certification, etc.

Dikshit said that about 1,74,000 hectares of land in Karnataka have come under organic farming in Karnataka. He said that about one to 1.5 lakh farmers are practicing organic farming in Karnataka. He said in 2022, in the Union Budget document, promotion of natural farming is included, as they now understand that the chemicals used in farming do not lead to sustainability. He said that natural farming is practiced with zero budget, and no chemicals is added to the land except cow urine to provide nutrition to crops.

A millet (ragi) farmer grew bumper crops through natural farming Credit: SPNF/ZBNF

However, this is a small percentage of land under organic farming as the total amount of land under agriculture in Karnataka is 121.62 lakh hectares. Thus, most of the farmers in the state are practicing modern farming, i.e, using chemicals. 


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