India: Pesticide Deaths Prompt New Efforts to Regulate Their Use in India

November 14, 2003 | One Comment

Applying pesticides with no protection; Photo by Sarvodaya Youth Organization

On September 20, 2001, Enakunthala Ravi died at MGM Hospital in Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh, India. He did not die from cancer, old age, or any prolonged sickness. Ravi was a migrant cotton farm worker in the village of Akkampeta, and he died a day after spraying the toxic pesticide methyl parathion, also known as Metacid, for just one hour. Before his death, Ravi suffered tongue thickness, giddiness, shivering, and vomiting. He left behind a wife, a child, and no financial assets.

The tragedy of Enakunthala Ravi is not unique. During the 2001 cotton season in Warangal, from August to December, an estimated 500 farmers and laborers died as a direct result of pesticide use on cotton farms. Nearly 1,000 more have suffered pesticide-related ailments, ranging from relatively minor symptoms, such as burning eyes, nosebleeds, nausea, and chest pain to severe illnesses, such as abdominal ulcers, cancer, endocrine system disruption, miscarriage, and spontaneous abortion.

During the past 10 years cotton cultivation has flourished in Warangal District. Farmers have turned their fields over to cotton because the crop traditionally gives high return on investment, earning it the nickname “white gold.” Throughout the harvest season, however, cotton plants are plagued by a variety of pests, most notably the green and pink bollworm.

The standard practice among cotton farmers in Warangal has been to combat the bollworm through repeated spraying of pesticides such as Metacid, Endosulfan, and Etalux. Many farmers spray up to 35 times in a season, increasing the dosage as pests develop resistance. This escalation far exceeds the standards set by pesticide manufacturers. According to the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur, 5 percent of India’s agricultural land is used for cotton, yet it accounts for 54 percent of the total pesticide use in India. Low literacy among farm workers means that they are rarely able to read package warnings, and safety education is nearly nonexistent.

In January of 2002 several grassroots groups took action. A fact-finding team, funded by Global Greengrants Fund through a recommendation by its India Advisory Board, visited six villages in Warangal District. Under the direction of the Society for Community Health Awareness, Research and Action, the team brought together representatives of Toxics Link, Community Health Cell, Sarvodaya Youth Organization, and Centre for Resource Education.

The team’s report, “The Killing Fields: Farmer Deaths Due to Exposure to Pesticides in Warangal District,” provided graphic detail of the situation. In one photo, a cotton farmer is shown spraying pesticides from a motorized backpack pump, wearing no protective gear or extra clothing as he walks into the spray. Team members observed this farmer and many others spraying at high noon, despite the fact that pesticide use is not recommended between the peak sun hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Women commonly are given the job of refilling the tank while walking behind the sprayer, resulting in continuous exposure to the pesticide chemicals. Women also are exposed while harvesting the cotton buds, sometimes a mere three to four hours after the plants have been sprayed.

Interviews with women in the village of Pattipaaka revealed numerous instances of breast cancer, miscarriage, painful menstruation, and difficulties conceiving. A midwife from the village of Akkampeta told team members that she had seen increasing levels of pain and bleeding during deliveries.

The team also observed empty pesticide cans used as water containers, a common practice throughout the developing world. As an example of the poor state of pesticide awareness, many local people believe containers that have been filled with cow dung for a week can be safely used for drinking and other household uses.

The team’s primary goal in drafting the report was to build public support for improving local pesticide education and developing national pesticide policies. Within four months of publication, the Hindu Business Line picked up the story. The following week, Down to Earth magazine published a story that drew virtually all of its information from the report. Two weeks later an article confirming 500 pesticide-related farmer fatalities in Andhra Pradesh was published in the Times of India. Pesticides had become a national issue.

In August 2002, a follow-up grant from Greengrants to the Sarvodaya Youth Organization funded programs in Warangal District to build awareness of the symptoms of pesticide exposure and to teach health care workers about treating pesticide-related illnesses. SYO had observed that medical treatment for pesticide illnesses in the district was often limited to administering oxygen and glucose drips. Only acute cases were referred to MGM Hospital. SYO recognized that education of health care workers was as vital to the people of Warangal as the education of farm workers.

A third grant the following month allowed Community Awareness Research Education to publish 12 issues of an electronic newsletter dealing with pesticide use, labor issues and human rights. The newsletter circulates to 5,000 groups and individuals throughout the region.

Working on related fronts, several Indian grassroots organizations supported by Greengrants are involved in promoting organic farming (and many more are working on toxics issues in general). Recent grants are helping the Institute of Culture Research and Action in Karnataka, Kheti Virasat in Punjab, and the Natural Way of Farming Movement in Tamil Nadu educate farm communities on organic farming practices, pesticide reduction, and sustainable agriculture.

Many pesticides used in India are banned in other countries, and lack of regulation means that even ìsafeî pesticides are often used incorrectly. Grassroots groups can play a key role in building public awareness and the political will to bring relief to the killing fields of Warangal and beyond.

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