Salim Patel is a 43-year old cotton farmer based in Tralsa, a village in Vagra taluka of Gujarat’s Bharuch district. Patel has been farming for over sixteen years. He owns 22 acres of land, more than half of which is devoted to cotton farming. Lying near the lower plains of the Narmada basin, irrigated by a number of canals, the fertile black soil of Bharuch is ideal for cotton cultivation.

Around two years ago, between July 12 and July 15, 2021, about 55 days after planting his cotton crop for the season, Patel noticed that something was wrong. “The leaves of the plant were not growing the right way. From the top the plant started showing a deformity. The leaves folded, making a bowl shape,” he told Mongabay-India. “I waited, but there was no change in the crop for 40-45 days. It stopped growing completely. I had to remove the whole crop,” he said.

“The leaf normally grows like paan (betel leaf),” explained Manoj Patel, another farmer whose cotton crops were also damaged in the same year. “But these leaves were distorted. They shrunk inwards, furling, and grew long, and then shriveled and died,” he said, explaining through hand gestures at his farm in Tralsa.

Like Patel, over 18,000 farmers from five different talukas (administrative divisions) of Bharuch district – Vagra, Amodh, Bharuch, Jambusar, and Karjan talukas – covering 280 villages, were affected, a survey in 2021 by the district administration discovered. Nearly thousands of acres of cotton crop were ‘deformed and distorted.’ “It was a 100% crop failure for most of the farmers. We lost crore of rupees that season. And it was not just cotton. Several pigeon pea crops, and trees such as almond, neem in the vicinity were also drying up and dying,” said Mahender Singh Karmariya, farmer and president of Bharuch’s section of Khedut Samaj, a 50-year-old non-profit representing farmers of Gujarat.

“It felt like something had slapped our crops and injured them badly,” said Akil Collector, a 27-year-old cotton farmer, based in Kothi, an affected village in Vagra taluka.

Later that year, on December 16, 2021, at the high court of Gujarat, Khedut Samaj and Centre for Brackish Water Research, a non-profit that works on environmental issues related to farming and fisheries in south Gujarat, filed a writ petition (public interest litigation) against nine state bodies, including Gujarat Pollution Control Board, its senior officials, the Central Pollution Control Board, and one private agro-chemical manufacturing company, Meghmani Organics Limited. The petition, accessed by Mongabay-India, states that the Gujarat Pollution Control Board is protecting the private company, that the “pollution has been completely neglected by the respondents and a premium is paid to the respondent private unit by allowing it to expand and enhance its production”.

The petition says that though Gujarat Pollution Control Board has sent several show cause notices to the polluting company in the past, the emissions have continued, affecting the crops, and the extent of damage seen in 2021 was unlike any other. The petition states that the intervention of the High Court is needed to prevent pollution and to protect the livelihood of thousands of farmers of Bharuch.

Now around a year later, the case is still ongoing. The petitioners continue to demand compensation for their losses and strong remedial action against the wrong-doers. The farmers, still waiting for their compensation, want an assurance that such a thing would not happen again. Even though the particular unit that was causing damage is believed to have been shut down, the farmers have no faith in the authorities to follow through.

After the 2021 incident, the farmers said they are not seeing deformities at the moment and the yield has come back to normal. They attribute it to the closing of the unit after Gujarat Pollution Control Board sent a show cause notice in August 2021.

But going by the track record of Gujarat Pollution Control Board, and also the annual reports of Meghmani (where they show that they have increased production of 2,4D + are setting up a new plant in the same area) the farmers do not believe that this will last.

Lying near the lower plains of the Narmada basin, irrigated by a number of canals, the fertile black soil of Bharuch is ideal for cotton cultivation. The Dahej Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region of Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation, which lies around 50 km away from the Kanam belt, is home to various industries.

A deformed growth

It was a series of events that led to the 2021 petition. In July of that year, after the farmers filed a complaint to the district administration regarding deformities in their cotton crop, the District Collector and the District Agricultural officer of Bharuch organised an expert diagnosis committee to figure out what was causing the crop damage. The 17-member committee consisted of agricultural scientists from the state’s Cotton Research Centre of Navsari Agricultural University, engineers from Gujarat Pollution Control Board and members of the district administration. The team visited the affected sites and submitted a report on July 22, 2021, which was accessed by Mongabay-India. The report has two parts – observations and opinion. The report categorically states that the damage to the crops is not caused by any insect, bacteria or virus. It states that the distortions and deformities in the crops are seen only in specific areas, not all cotton producing areas of the region. It also stated that though the majority of crop damage is seen in cotton, other plants such as pigeon pea and wild okra, and also trees like almond, neem, khijdo, dhatura were dried up and dead in parts. Crops like jowar showed no damage. Based on similar crop damage findings in the nearby industrial region of Vagra taluka from 2012-2020, the report opined that a phenoxy compound in the air is most likely causing distortions and deformities in the crops, and that Gujarat Pollution Control Board should regularly analyse the air for phenoxy compounds. Representatives of Gujarat Pollution Control Board did not sign the opinion report.

The report recommended that detailed technical studies needed to be carried out to understand the distance to which pollutants could be carried by air from the nearby industrial units of Dahej and further studies were needed on the affected crops themselves.

A farmer showing his deformed crops in a village in Bharuch during a field visit in August 2021. Credit: MSH Sheikh/Centre for Brackish Water Research

A month after expert committee diagnosis, on August 4, 2021, the member of legislative assembly of Vagra taluka, Arunsingh Ajitsingh Rana wrote a letter to the chief minister of Gujarat, stating that farmers of his constituency were suffering crop damage and incurring massive losses due to air pollution caused by the industries of Dahej, and that the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, despite repeated requests, was not doing anything about it.

On August 10, the food quality testing laboratory of Navsari Agricultural University released an analysis of all the affected crops from different regions – cotton, pigeon pea, and wild okra. All crops had residues of a chemical called 2,4-D, exceeding the limits they were allowed to be present in. For example, the sample of cotton from Kalandara, an affected village had 0.219 mg/kg of 2,4-D, when the permissible limit is 0.001mg/kg.

About 50 km away from the affected region lies Dahej Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region of Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation. The region is dedicated to industries that manufacture pesticides, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, metals, dyes and pigments, and petrochemicals of all kinds. Closeby is the Dahej port, a deep water multi-cargo port located in the Gulf of Khambhat, with one of the largest liquid cargo terminals in the country. Rows upon rows of tankers containing chemicals in liquid and gaseous form are a common sight on the highway. The air is always thick with a pungent smell of chemicals, and shrubs and trees in the vicinity are green in parts, and shriveled and dried in parts.

What is 2,4-D?

2,4-D or 2,4 Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid is a herbicide and a plant growth regulator. Its formulations include esters, acids and salts which vary in chemical properties, environmental behavior and toxicity. 2,4-D is a member of the phenoxy family of herbicides. It is registered for use in terrestrial and aquatic environments. It is a plant growth regulator, and mimics auxin, the natural plant growth hormone. Unlike auxin, which regulates, 2,4-D stays within plant tissues in high quantities and does not fluctuate. As a result, it causes rapid cell growth and plants die when their transport system is blocked and destroyed by abnormally fast growth. It is applied as a spray on plant leaves in liquid form.

Some studies show that 2,4-D is possibly a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor in humans. On May 14 2020, the government of India had released a draft order prohibiting the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of 27 insecticides. 2,4-D was in the list. The order however till date, is a draft notification and the use of 2,4-D continues.

India’s pesticide data shows that 2,4D production and export in the country has gone up in the last five years. From exporting 24,212 MT with CIF (cost, insurance freight) value Rs 36,847 lakh in 2017-2018, it went up to 33,070 MT with CIF value Rs. 80,574 lakh in 2021-2022. Its production went up from 25,830 MT in 2017-18 to 39,996 MT in 2021-22.

Studies have shown that 2,4-D can have a significant impact on non-targeted dicotyledon crops, through a phenomenon known as the drift effect. The chemical molecules of 2,4-D when sprayed, mix with dust particles and get carried to wider distances, in the direction of the wind, settling on crops and impacting their growth. A 1948 study by Louisiana State University’s Agriculture Centre examined the injuries caused by 2,4-D to cotton. It concluded that the chemical, used as a spray on other crops drifted to cotton and caused maximum harm to cotton cultivations. The extent of damage depended on the stage of growth of the cotton crop. Maximum, irrecoverable deformities are seen during the flowering stage. The leaves curl inwards, wither, yellow and die. Another, more recent study by Indian Council of Agricultural Research- Central Institute of Cotton Research, Regional Station, Coimbatore in 2019 showed that vapour drift is caused by the volatilisation of ester containing formulation of 2,4-D. High temperatures, high soil moisture and temperature inversions increases the vapour drift and affects the cotton crop from a larger distance. The study also reiterates that the impact of 2,4-D depends on the stage in which the cotton plant gets affected. A plant affected at squaring stage will significantly delay the fruiting giving lesser time for the maturation of set bolls thus reducing yield. Significant loss in yield is also seen when they are exposed to 2,4-D at an early squaring stage. In Bharuch, the crops were exposed during the squaring stage.

In a good season, one acre of land can yield 10 quintals-12 quintals of cotton. In the season of 2021, an acre barely gave 3-4 quintals of cotton to the farmers in Bharuch. For many there was no yield. “India is the world’s largest producer of cotton. Gujarat is India’s largest producer of cotton. And within Gujarat, this belt, rich in black soil, called the Kanam belt is one of the best for cotton production,” Karmariya told Mongabay-India. “And what a significant loss we have had to suffer,” he said.

Farmers protesting outside the district collectorate office of Bharuch in September 2021. Credit: Khedut Samaj

“I have been a cotton farmer for over twenty years, and never in my life have I seen damage of this scale,” said Rafik Patel of Kothi, another affected farmer.

“We have been seeing the impact of this 2,4-D for many years now, but in much smaller areas,” said MSH Sheikh of Centre for Brackish Water Research, a non-profit that takes on issues of farmers and fishers of south Gujarat.

On August 13, 2021, the district collector of Bharuch called a meeting of the members of the district panchayat, district administration and agriculture office, Navsari University and GBCP scientists. The petition gives the minutes of the meeting, according to which they discussed that similar crop damage was seen in 2015-2016, 2017 in Vagra. Gujarat Pollution Control Board had filed an inspection report in June 2016 stating that, “the amount of particles emitted from the stack of spin flash dryers of 2-4 D plant of M/S Meghmani Organics Limited (Unit-3) was found to be more than 104 mg / cubic meter, which is higher than the consent norms of 20 mg/cubic meter given by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board.”

According to the petition, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board did an inspection of the Meghmani plant and released a show cause notice to the company in August 2021.

Meanwhile, the farmers began to quickly organise to protest. “Throughout September and October 2021 we held protests in front of the collectorate office in Bharuch. We also met the chief minister of that time,” said Karmariya. “We wanted compensation for our losses and an assurance that such a thing will not happen to our crops again,” he told Mongabay-India.

In cross hairs

Meghmani Organics Limited is a part of Meghmani Group, a set of companies that specialises in manufacturing chemicals [pigments and dyes, agro-chemicals and intermediates, chemical formulations, pharmaceticules etc] both for the domestic and international market. Its agro-chemical unit located in Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation Dahej, in Bharuch district is one of the major producers of 2,4D in the country. In November 2020, it announced the commencement of operations of a new production plant in Dahej Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation area to increase the production capacity of 2,4-D from 10,000 metric tonnes per annum to 21,600 metric tonnes per annum, also stating that the expected turnover for the new operation would be Rs 200 crore. [nearly 55 percent of the country’s total production of 2,4D, according to pesticide production data mentioned earlier]

In June 2016, Gujarat Pollution Control Board had passed a closure order to Meghmani Organic Limited, calling the company to stop the production of 2,4D esters, acid and its derivatives on account of the emissions of the phenoxy acid being disproportionately (104mg/NM cubic meter) higher than permitted (20mg/NM cubic meter). But according to the petition, the company did not shut down the production of 2,4D because an inspection carried out by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board around four months later showed that the units were functioning.

According to the Khedut Samaj and Centre for Brackish Water Research petition of 2021, the unit head of Bharuch Gujarat Pollution Control Board sent a letter to the district collector on October 16 2021, saying that the deformities are not because of industrial pollution but because of inadequate rain and the farmers’ own application of 2,4D.

“The Gujarat Pollution Control Board is hand-in-glove with the private industries. Despite sending so many show-cause notices, why is this company still functioning as if nothing has happened? If norms are in place, then why is proper action not taken against those who don’t follow them? The livelihood and health of farmers is at stake here. This is after all the chemical state of India, and this was no less than the Bhopal Gas Tragedy for agriculture. We do not want to breathe, eat and drink harmful chemicals. We will not back down till our demands are met,” Sheikh of Centre for Brackish Water Research, told Mongabay-India.

Farmers whose cotton crops were damaged stand in front of their fields in Tralsa, an affected village in Vagra taluka of Bharuch district. Credit: Supriya Vohra/Mongabay

Recently, in May 2022, a joint committee of Central Pollution Control Board and Gujarat Pollution Control Board released a report of inspection of “red category” industries in Dahej Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation discharging wastewater in the drainage network maintained by Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation. The report was created after a National Green Tribunal order in [Aryavart Foundation vs Hemani Industries] February 2022 directed the Central Pollution Control Board and Gujarat Pollution Control Board to do the same, and hold the polluting industries accountable. Meghmani Organics Limited was one of them. The report stated that “the concentrations of nitrates, sulphides, nitrogen, BOD, TSS and phenolic compounds exceeded the discharge norms,” and that leakage and spillage from drums containing “phenol based wastewater/chemicals and haphazard storage of hazardous waste has potential to contaminate soil and groundwater with very high concentration of phenol on open land.”

The joint committee report also mentions that Gujarat Pollution Control Board, after inspection, has calculated the magnitude of the damage, and directed the company to pay environment damage compensation of 88,33,46,029 [over Rs 88 crore].

While the petition is still ongoing in court, Meghmani Organic Limited, in November have signed a $100 million supply agreement with a “leading global agrochemical company for supply of specific agrochemical products for a period of five years” and have also, in their financial report 2021-’22, announced the commissioning of a new multipurpose facility at Dahej with a capital outlay of Rs 350 crore, and projected to contribute a total revenue of Rs 600 crore.

An email with queries was sent to Meghmani Organics and Gujarat Pollution Control Board at the end of January. No response has been received so far.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.