toxic watch

Indian farmers spray a deadly cocktail of pesticides because government lacks staff to guide them

The government’s farm extension system is crumbling. Private companies have stepped into the vacuum but they have commercial interests in overselling pesticides

In 2002, an article in The Times of India reported that 500 farmers had died of pesticide exposure in Andhra Pradesh. When asked by members of Parliament about what steps it was taking to prevent these deaths, the central government said it was “promoting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to reduce consumption of chemical pesticides”.

Fifteen years later, in December 2017, after news reports appeared of farmers dying of pesticide exposure in several states, a group of 20 MPs asked a similar question. Again, the central government said it was “implementing ‘Strengthening and Modernization of Pest Management Approach’ (SMPMA) Scheme, wherein, inter alia, Farmers Field Schools (FFSs) are organized to sensitize farmers on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach”.

Presented as a magic bullet by the Indian government, Integrated Pest Management is a global strategy that agricultural scientists conceptualised in the 1970s to minimise the use of chemicals in farms. It arose in response to concerns that the green revolution, which promoted the use of high-yielding varieties of crops, had led to an indiscriminate use of chemicals making weeds and insects resistant to them.

But Integrated Pest Management has had limited success in India. Even though the per hectare use of pesticides in India remains low compared to the world, pesticides continue to be used indiscriminately, often not at the right time or in the right quantity.

The indiscriminate use of pesticides is largely to be blamed on the collapse of the government’s farm extension system, which is meant to advise farmers. Private pesticide dealers have stepped into this vacuum, but they do not offer reliable advice since they often have to meet sales targets from companies.

The lack of safety information on pesticides has lethal consequences. As reported in the first part of this series, more than 40 cotton farmers died after inhaling chemicals while spraying pesticides in Maharashtra in one agricultural season in 2017. Similar deaths were reported from other states. In Tamil Nadu, nine farmers died, according to farmer groups.

The first part of this Scroll.in series focused on the regulatory framework for pesticides in India. The second part looks at the way they are used in farms and why the Integrated Pest Management approach has failed, despite repeated claims by the government over the decades.

What is Integrated Pest Management?

Under the Integrated Pest Management approach, farmers are advised to use natural methods of controlling pests first, such as pheromone traps that attract male moths, or planting marigolds along the border of fields to control nematodes. Chemical pesticides are the last resort, and to be used only at specific times in the cropping cycle to be effective. Dousing a crop with chemicals beyond a point, might not show adequate results, even if the chemical is of the promised quality.

In India, institutions like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research develop booklets called “Package of Practice” that give instructions on how to prepare fields, treat seeds, how much fertilisers and pesticides to apply and at what time, as well as other solutions for treating crops. The Central Institute for Cotton Research, for instance, issued this document for cotton farmers in Tamil Nadu.

Farmers, however, are unlikely to be able to access such documents on their own. This is where government extension services should step in. One such structure is the central government’s Integrated Pest Management Centre. These centres conduct region-specific research, sharing recommendations with intermediate centres such as Krishi Vigyan Kendras and holding field trainings to educate farmers.

But there are only 35 such centres across India and they are understaffed and underfunded. In 2015-’16, the agriculture ministry’s outlay for all pest-related initiatives, including the Integrated Pest Management Centres, was just Rs 130 crore.

In the latest demand for grants presented in Parliament by the Department of Agricultural Cooperation and Farmer Welfare, the expenditure earmarked for advertising rose from Rs 43 crore in the last financial year to Rs 130 crore in the present one. The budget for staff salaries meanwhile went from Rs 11 crore to Rs 12 crore, barely enough to cover inflation.

The ministry had a target of reaching 21,000 farmers in all through training and demonstration at 710 farmer field schools. India has at least 9.58 crore farmers, according to conservative estimates.

Twenty km from Delhi, only two people were at work at the Central Integrated Pest Management Centre in Faridabad one morning in March. One of them was a field communication officer whose job is to travel to meet farmers and demonstrate to them the latest techniques in Integrated Pest Management. Organising field schools involves convincing farmers first to attend and then to stay through the entire training and demonstration process.

The officer enthusiastically explained how Integrated Pest Management worked and demonstrated affordable pheromone traps that farmers could use to attract pests instead of using chemical pesticides. “It feels good to do this work,” he said. After years of meaningless desk posts, he said, he finally felt he was able to make a change by interacting directly with farmers.

But the Centre is unlikely to make a substantial difference. In Haryana, the officer said that the Centre conducts farmer field schools in 18 villages each agricultural season, contacting around 30 farmers in each village.

“We try not to repeat villages,” the officer said, even as he agreed that at this rate, it would take 190 years to reach all of Haryana’s 6,841 villages.

Depending on dealers

Two thousand, five hundred km away, in Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu, the family of Arjunan, a 54-year-old farm labourer who died after spraying pesticides in November, said they had never seen any workshops being held by the agriculture department regarding pesticide use.

Arjunan, who owned one acre of land, worked in his neighbour’s fields for a daily wage. Spraying ten cans of pesticides would fetch him Rs 300-400 a day.

For the second year in a row, Arjunan had planted his field with Bt cotton, ostensibly an insect-resistant crop variety. “We were told that we need not spray pesticides for growing these,” said his 27-year-old son, Kandasamy who works in a pharmacy. But, to their surprise, they found a larger number of insects invading their crop and ended up spraying pesticides every week as opposed to the usual frequency of three times in the season.

One day in October 2017, Arjunan felt faint after spraying pesticides. “We had thought it was due to Diwali sweets made at home,” said Kandasamy. After a few days of rest, he returned to spray his fields on November 12, only to feel unwell again. “He said he was feeling giddy,” his wife Annabackiyam wrote in the First Information Report submitted to the police. He was taken to the village public health centre where he was given an injection. The next day, he was taken to the district government hospital, but he could not be saved.

Four other farmers died in the same district in 2017.

Annabackiyam lost her husband Arjunan to pesticide poisoning. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan
Annabackiyam lost her husband Arjunan to pesticide poisoning. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

A post mortem report of one of the five farmers, Selvam, 28, revealed an enlarged right lung and bluish discoloration of his toenails. According to Dr. Bhuvaneshwari Devarajan, who runs a private hospital in Perambalur town, the bluish colour of the toenails could have been due to nitrobenzene contamination, which reacts with haemoglobin, turning it into methemoglobin. This impedes the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, leading to respiratory failure, she said.

The district collector of Perambalur, V Santha, admitted that the deaths took place due to pesticide inhalation. But she was quick to deflect blame on the farmers, arguing they needed to learn how to use pesticides safely.

But farmers say they have no access to safety information. Arjunan’s son Kandasamy said that it was the pesticide dealer at the local agriculture shop who had advised them on pesticide use. “We tell the shopkeeper about the kind of pests we are facing in the field. Based on this information, they give us suggestions about which pesticides to buy.” The day Scroll.in visited the village, the pesticide dealer closed his shop and left early.

In November, the district collector held a meeting with the agriculture department and doctors at the government hospital to discuss the farmer deaths. According to one of the doctors present at the meeting, the administration decided to distribute gloves, suits and masks to 500 farmers.

Said Nagarajan, whose brother Raja is among the farmers who died on pesticide inhalation: “Only then they informed us how to mix pesticides and which chemicals should not be mixed.”

The extension system

Given the limited number of Integrated Pest Management Centres in India, a more realistic strategy to educate farmers on pesticide use is to leverage the farm extension system. State governments in India have vast networks of employees who act as advisors to farmers, taking the latest research to the field.

Asan Mohamed joined Tamil Nadu’s rural development department in 1965. For three decades, he travelled to villages across the state. When chemical pesticides were introduced in the 1970s, he recalls standing next to farmers, instructing them on how to spray chemicals such as Benzene Hexachloride and DDT.

“We were like social workers,” said Mohamed, who retired as the Assistant Director of Rural Development in 2006. “We were the people’s people. We would go to villages and speak to people ordinarily, not like authority.”

But over the decades, farm extension has collapsed around the country.

The National Sample Survey Organisation found in 2012 that only around 10% of farmers actually used the government’s farm extension system as a source of information. By contrast, almost a third got their information from progressive farmers and input dealers.

“When the wages of extension workers was low, the government could afford to hire more of them,”said Subhash Ghadge, deputy director of plant protection in Maharashtra’s agricultural department. “Now, with the pay scale much higher, they are cutting positions by 5% to 10% every year because the pay scale is much higher. They also are not replacing those who retire.”

The result is around 30% vacancies in Maharashtra’s sanctioned strength of 10,000 extension workers. With around 41,000 inhabited villages in the state, even if all positions were filled, one worker would have to cover four villages.

Extension workers are overworked. “When extension workers should be going to educate farmers, they are given jobs like election duty and surveys,” said a senior official in the Maharashtra government. “Right now, in cotton areas, extension workers are going around doing panchnamas of cotton damage. Two months will go in that, but this is the time they should actually be educating farmers.”

Women plucking cotton in Perambalur district. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan
Women plucking cotton in Perambalur district. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

The Agriculture Technology Management Agency scheme of the central government was supposed to be a replacement for the crumbling extension worker system. It now is operational in around 200 districts of India.

To reduce government expenditure, ATMA envisions a public-private partnership for extension work. It says it will train input dealers and private companies to fill in the role of extension workers, ignoring the conflict of interest – those who sell pesticides are unlikely to advise farmers to use lesser quantities.

The senior official in the Maharashtra government said that the problem lies in the reluctance of governments to invest in agriculture. “If you take just cotton, 1.6 crore packets of cotton seeds are sold at the rate of Rs 800 per packet every season. That is Rs 12.8 crore. Then there are fertilisers and pesticides. This is a Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 6,000 crore industry, just for one crop for one season in one state.”

If the government can give subsidised water and electricity to industries for creating a few thousand jobs, he added, why was it unwilling to invest in extension services for 1.6 crore farmers?

He also pointed to a problem with involving companies in extension work. “Companies should do agronomic activities, but they should use CSR funding to renowned NGOs or to state agriculture universities to sponsor this education,” he said. “You need one step of separation between companies and extension services.”

Neutral advice

At a meeting held in Delhi in March, however, many advocated the need to look beyond the government system to impart safety information to farmers. “There should be a qualification [for agricultural retailers] because they are the people who are in touch with the farmer and they are the ones who are doing extension work more than what the government is doing,” said Balwinder Sidhu, Commissioner of Agriculture in Punjab, adding that there was a need for a uniform diploma course to be made available to retailers across the country.

India made it mandatory for shopkeepers selling pesticides and fertilisers to hold a certificate or degree in agriculture science in June 2017. “They have to attend a course and take an exam to be able to sell pesticides,” said K Chandrasekhar, the agriculture officer in charge of quality control in Tamil Nadu.

Suresh Babu, a researcher from CGIAR, a global agriculture and food research institute, who published a study on reforms in the agriculture extension system in India, noted that the way farmers access information is likely to change enormously in the next decade as internet connectivity deepens.

As private companies use the internet to promote their products, Babu said farmers were ill-equipped to identify spurious information. The role of public policy in helping farmers sift through multiple information sources was vital. “We need an honest broker who can vouch for the right information,” he said. “Only the public sector can do this and they have the responsibility to provide this public good to the farmers.”

Agricultural labourers being taken for cotton plucking. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan
Agricultural labourers being taken for cotton plucking. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Also read:

Lethal dose: Indian farmers are dying because the government is regulating pesticides poorly

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