The death of a farm labourer on January 18 has again put the focus on excessive and unwarranted use of pesticides in Kuttanad region, popularly known as the rice bowl of Kerala.

KK Sanal Kumar, 43, died after spraying, without protective gear, the pesticide Viraat in a paddy field in Peringara gram panchayat of Pathanamthitta. The autopsy report confirmed that he died of poisoning.

Kuttanad’s farmers depend heavily on fertilisers and pesticides to improve the yield of their crops. They often ignore the state agriculture department’s entreaties to use only approved pesticides. Viraat, for one, is not recommended for use on rice. Yet, it is widely sold and used in the region.

Several studies in the past have found that excessive use of pesticides has badly damaged the soil quality of Kuttanad, which is a part of the Vembanad Wetland Ecosystem, a Ramsar Site of international importance.

A 2016 study conducted by the School of Environmental Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, found traces of 16 pesticides – such as BHC, DDT, endosulfan, aldrin, endrin, heptachlor and diedrin in Kuttanad – raising alarm. The study noted that 40% of the chemical pesticides used in the area belonged to the organochlorine category which tend to accumulate in organisms and become more concentrated as they pass up the food chain.

The study confirmed the use of banned organochlorine products such as endosulfan and BHC in Kuttanad’s paddy fields. “Such residues may lead to the contamination of food chain or leaching into the soil, mixing with the runoff water and contaminating the adjacent water bodies or contaminating the ground water,” it noted.

KK Sanal Kumar's widow Lavanya in a paddy field in Peringara. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Professor EV Ramaswamy, head of the School of Environmental Sciences, said they decided to undertake a study after noticing the absence of earthworms in the area. “We unearthed the reason with the soil study,” he added.

He explained how the excessive use of pesticides has harmed Kuttanad’s ecosystem: “Pesticides kill microorganisms in the soil. Many of the pesticides being used are not targeted. They not only kill pests, but whatever comes in the way. Healthy microbes and macroorganisms that keep the soil fertile are killed by the indiscriminate usage of pesticides. We may get a good yield as a result but this is not a sustainable way of farming.”

Falling into a trap

People in Kuttanad blame the overuse of pesticides on “dealers who take advantage of unhealthy competition among farmers”. “Farmers in Kuttanad take pride in their harvest and everybody wants to be second to none. They boast of their harvest at the end of the season,” said Santhamma R Nair, who represents KK Sanal Kumar’s locality in the Peringara gram panchayat. “So they keenly watch the growth of paddy crop elsewhere. Their only aim is to grow a better crop than their neighbours. Pesticide dealers have been capitalising on this aggressive competitive mentality.”

Most of the farmers care only about their yield, Nair complained, and not about environmental damage. “So they have no hesitation using hazardous pesticides.”

Farm labourers tend to a rice field in Kuttanad. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Social workers in Kuttanad claimed that pesticide dealers often employ clever marketing ploys to boost sales. Lending money to farmers is one such tactic. In return, the farmers must buy fertilisers and pesticides from the dealer and repay the money with interest after harvesting their crops.

A 45-year-old Peringara farmer who goes by the single name of Krishnan described himself as “a living victim of this loan system”. He took Rs 40,000 from a pesticide dealer to cultivate rice in 2016. “I bought everything from seeds to pesticides and fertilisers from the dealer,” he said. “But I did not get the yield I hoped for and fell into a debt trap. I am still repaying the loan.”

An unfulfilled dream

Kerala was India’s first state to announce an “organic farming policy” in 2008. The policy, approved in 2010, was aimed at making agriculture completely organic by 2020. As the first step, the state prohibited the sale of 14 pesticides. In 2015, it put eight other chemical pesticides in the “controlled use category”, meaning they would be made available only on a prescription of the agriculture officer. But not much else was done on this front.

As a result, Kerala remains far from achieving its organic farming dream, a year after the deadline passed.

The responsibility for this “failure” lies squarely with the agriculture department, said C Jayakumar, director of the environmental advocacy group Pesticide Action Network India. There is a “huge disconnect between the department’s promises and implementation”, he claimed. “On one hand, Kerala will say we are all for organic farming, but on the other hand we will not act against pesticides,” said Jayakumar. “Kerala hasn’t understood the hazards of the pesticides so far.”

This is the second part of a two-part series on pesticide poisoning in Kerala. Read the first part: Kerala’s farm labourers are paying for excessive pesticide use with their health – and lives

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