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Was Pesticide the cause of Deaths of Two Farm Labourers in Kerala?

Abha Toppo
Abha Toppo

Two farm labourers lost their lives due to pesticide exposure in Pathanamthitta on 19th January. The deceased were Sanal Kumar, 42 years and Mathai Esho, 68 years, who reportedly collapsed after spraying pesticides in the paddy fields at Alamthuruthi in Peringara, near Thiruvalla. Though the cause of death is yet to be declared, agricultural experts deem that this is a case of poisoning due to harmful pesticide.

The two farm labourers were spraying pesticides on 18th January when suddenly they started vomiting and showed diarrhea-like symptoms. They were then rushed to a Government hospital Changanassery. It is believed that the two of them had sprayed excess of an insecticide known as ‘Virat’, possibly ingesting or inhaling some in the process, which eventually proved fatal.

In the meantime, three other farm labourers, who also felt uneasy after spraying the pesticide, were admitted at a Government hospital in Changanassery.

The death of Sanal and Mathai shows how susceptible farm labourers are when they engage in spraying the pesticide and reflects the need for authorities to examine the risks and unadvisable use of pesticides.

Assistant  Director of Agriculture, Joyce K Koshi told media that the agriculture labourers used ‘Virat’, a pesticide used for vegetables and cotton and not one suggested for paddy. The workers who survived it say that they mixed a powder with Virat before spraying but didn’t disclose what the powder was. It is possible that the farmers and not the farm labourers, bought the powder from an unauthorised shop, making the mix poisonous”.

Joyce added “Also, the recommended ratio of the pesticide is 2 ml in a 5 to 6 ml of water as the pesticide is very strong. It is also learnt that the deceased were drunk while spraying it. If that was the case, they might have sprayed a higher dose of pesticide in that condition”.

The official also told that there are at least 3,000 paddy fields in the panchayat, some farmers’ follow the limits on pesticide usage set by the Agriculture Department while others really don’t.

Joyce explained “Farmers tend to use more pesticides thinking that it will kill the insects quickly. The workers are hired on a contract and are remunerated according to the area of crop they have sprayed pesticide in and even by the numbers of plants they have sprayed.  But pesticides should not be sprayed constantly from morning till evening as it can prove harmful for workers”.

An environmentalist and farmer, Usha Soolapani mentioned that farmers are in the routine of using chemical pesticides though there are other alternatives to it. Soolapani said, “There are outlets for selling chemical pesticides in every panchayats. And it is compulsory that the pesticides be sold with the prescription of agricultural officials, I am not sure how well this is followed and implemented. Cultivators are addicted for pesticide use.”

Soolapani added that the Agriculture Department should step up and contribute in promoting organic pesticides. She said, “Agriculture department along with universities must make equal efforts in campaigning for organic alternatives and teach farmers how to use them. At present, if 100 farmers are taught about organic pesticide usage, only two amongst them implement it. Thus there is a need for the department to be consistent, comprehensive and effective in their efforts to tackle this”.  

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