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Yavatmal Deaths: Beyond Mere State Regulation, the Bt Cotton and Pesticide Lobby Need to Answer


The tragedy of toxic pesticide poisoning in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, leading to the death of 36 farmers and leaving about 1800 others in the ICU in just one month, has ended in a political slugfest. The political discourse in India remains warped, and that goes a long way in explaining why the half-awake Opposition is trying to derive vote-bank leverage out of this tragedy, instead of targeting the deeply-entrenched commercial lobbies who mislead the farmers. The increasing tendency of the Opposition, in all such tragedies, has been to monetize and commercialize the issue – inevitably stopping only at demanding money and compensation in order to grab attention, rather than targeting the decades-old real, deeply institutionalized causes of the problems.

The deaths and affections supposedly arose as a result of the farmers inhaling the toxic pesticides while spraying them on genetically modified cotton. The cornered government, in haste to show actions performed, booked Krishi Seva Kendras for not selling protective headgear along with the pesticides and targeted a few unlicensed pesticide sellers in Yavatmal. But deaths have occurred in surrounding areas of the cotton belt also, in Marathwada and Vidarbha regions and even in Telangana. So, indicting the isolated individuals won’t wish away the systemic problem. For either the government or the Opposition to actually flag the real issues would mean targeting the powerful GM and the pesticide interests.

Besides the obvious ills of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, of more immediate concern are the mysteries surrounding the nature of GM cotton, which the present crisis highlights. The most popular proffered explanation is that the rising heights, of more than six feet, of the GM cotton crops (because of which farmers have had to perilously spray above their heights, making them susceptible to inhaling the toxic chemicals) and the bad quality of the pesticides used are leading to deaths.

But this raises more issues than it resolves.

First, the GM cotton crops were supposedly considered profitable because of promises of increased productivity and higher profits, but now they are demanding more and more doses of pesticides due to their decreased immunity and lower productivity.

Second, as the perplexed farmers have themselves pointed out, they have been spraying pesticides above their height for years now – especially in pulses such as ‘tur’, which are over six feet tall – but so many sudden deaths in one go are uncommon. And they are no novices, having been spraying with their faces uncovered, for years now. This puts the spotlight of suspicion back on the nature of the GM cotton crop itself.

Even if we assume that the deaths are only because of poor pesticides – mostly China imported – and because of below-average rainfall leading to humidity or because of flawed spraying pumps ejecting larger doses of pesticides, it still doesn’t explain why only GM cotton cases are leading to the deaths in question. GM cotton is itself changing. As recent investigations show, it is getting attacked by pests like pink worms and bollworms to which it was supposed to be immune. The crop is also demanding a variety of pesticides to sustain itself, instead of the one or two standard ones that were needed earlier. As its area under cultivation increases dramatically and the harvest period is extended by farmers, the resistance of the crop is failing and a dangerous mix of pesticides is being tried to sustain it.

These changes and the rising heights of the Bt cotton – due to erratic monsoons – demand investigation into the changes in GM cotton itself, besides the obvious culpability of the pesticides, which cease to be effective on pests after some time.

This has led to a vicious circle – where seductive promises of high yields and pest-resistance trapped the farmers into a vortex of rising input costs due to expenditure on ineffective fertilizers and pesticides and due to the failure of Bt Cotton. But far from questioning the culpability of Bt Cotton, the latest BG-III variety of Bt Cotton is being illegally sold in Yavatmal – despite the ground level failure of BG-II variety.

Current diagnoses, hinting towards solutions, can only go so far. It is being suggested that Bt cotton was planted as a monocrop this year, instead of the inter-crop pattern of being interspersed with pulses, jowar etc. Such advocacies, in the name of sustainability, still leave the door open for GM crops to have a future, despite their dangers.

Similarly, the government is in two minds about banning certain brands of pesticides which have been widely used by the affected farmers, debating whether the fault is with the pesticides or only with their misguided use or by using a concoction of pesticides. This is despite the fact that the police already filed cases against some suspected. These are baffling justifications and expose how the nexus of local-level bureaucratic and corporate interests prevent the government from functioning.

They often end up arguing for the reform of regulations governing pesticides and GM cotton – which, though necessary, cannot be ends in themselves – and overlook, despite ample proof, the double-edged nature of the technology itself. It is a classic case of how the quest for higher productivity and better technology has led to the environmental and human devastation. Technology cannot operate in a vacuum and will always be tampered by inherent human greed. Unless this lesson is learned, dangers galore await us.

This write-up has been taken with some revisions from The Pioneer 27th October 2017.

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