Seed And Suicide

Brunda Sahu and Pests

Raman Swamy

Sometimes it seems that tiny tots playing interactive Kindergarten games about Plants, Animals and Insects have a better grasp of Earth Sciences than the gray-haired adults posturing as agricultural experts and farm scientists.

Reports are coming in from several States that insects and pests are destroying crops on the ground. Neither government departments nor field extension officers know how to counter the menace.

Cultivators of paddy and commercial crops like cotton are helpless and forlorn. On the one hand there is a perplexing shortage of pesticides; and on the other there is a rampant trade of spurious herbicides that kill both unvalued weeds and the standing crops they are supposed to protect.

An ominous form of agrarian crisis is looming large—but the concerned authorities are showing no signs of noticing or even caring. To be fair, those occupying ministerial and bureaucratic chairs cannot really be held to account—their schedule is too full of official functions and ribbon-cutting ceremonies for them to find enough time to understand the problems faced by the tillers of the soil who are the backbone of the Indian economy.

Apart from which, politicians care only about the next elections, not about the next harvest. And bureaucrats are worried only about their next transfer or promotion, not about toxic substances ruining livelihoods in the remote countryside.

A stark photograph accompanying a news report from the rice fields of Odisha shows a farmer named Brunda Sahu holding up his paddy crop destroyed by brown plant-hopper pests in Bargarh district. The photograph was clicked on October 31—two days later came news that Brunda Sahu had committed suicide.

Locally, the death was mourned. Ministers and officials in the State capital paused for a moment, shook their heads and went back to sipping their tea. At Krishi Bhavvan in the national capital nobody was interested in reacting to a solitary suicide in a backwater State—officials flatly denied there was any pesticide shortage at all.

The facts on the ground tell a different story. Farmers in over 6,000 villages across 15 districts in Odisha who have struggled to overcome drought-like conditions due to disappointing monsoon rains are now facing the attack by brown plant-hoppers insects that feed on rice saplings. Supply of pesticides is woefully inadequate—an estimated 1.7 lakh hectares have been affected.

So far, according to local newspaper, at least eight small and marginal farmers have taken their own lives, driven to the extreme step by a combination of calamities—pest-infected crops, mounting debt and the lack of support from farm extension field staff.

Belatedly, the State revenue minister announced a package of relief measures including subsidies on the purchase of pesticides, sprayers and pump sets. The agriculture secretary put pen to paper and directed district collectors to "take up pest control measures".

This consisted largely of advertisements in local newspapers to give "wide publicity" about the importance of pest control and management. Such warnings and alerts are however being sent out after the brown plant-hoppers (known as 'chakada') have already done the damage. And, in any case, there is no sign of improved supply of insect repellents and bug killers.

The reasons for the shortage are many. In September itself, there had been early warnings of the severe chakada attack. Agriculture department officials were alerted. Orders were placed with a private firm to procure and distribute pesticides at subsidised rates. However, the firm failed to deliver on time.

Some panic-stricken farmers purchased whatever anti-bug liquids and powders they could get from local shops—much of it was adulterated and toxic material that burnt up the rice plants instead of the rampaging chakada.
As journalist Priyaranjan Sahu has reported, the problem faced by farmers in the region has a bigger back-story. The agri-scientists have been advocating a switch-over to a more "modern" method of farming—based on scientific inputs that would increase yields and earnings. In practice, however, the cost of production has been pushed up and the scientific inputs—chemical fertilisers have robbed the soil of fertility.

Similar mismatch between traditional cultivation and new forms of inorganic and genetic farming have caused confusion and loss in other parts of the country too. In the cotton growing areas of western India, there have been a spate of troubling reports regarding the switch-over to what is known as "Herbicide Resistant varieties of cotton". Or HT Cotton.

In an interview to a leading financial daily in October, the chairperson of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee claimed that information about the illegal side of spurious HT Cotton seeds came to light only recently.

However, a fact-checking website has unearthed the minutes of meetings held several years ago, including as far back as 2009, in which the Genetic engineering Appraisal Committee had discussed the problem of illegal sale of imitation cotton seeds with leading global genetic seed manufacturers like Monsanto.

It has been reported that almost ten lakh cotton farmers have planted the "unapproved" illegal HT cotton during the current 2017-18 season alone. Production has reportedly gone up four-fold over the last two years, encouraging more and more growers to opt for the "miracle" product.

However, the backlash is beginning to be felt. The spurious Herbicide Tolerant products are damaging the crop itself. Supposedly, the "authentic" Monsanto varieties are designed to be immune to the herbicides and pesticides that kill unwanted weeds but do not damage the cotton crop on which the herbicide is sprayed.

Apparently, the imitation seeds contain a chemical called Glyphosate, to which weeds gradually become resistant. Incidentally, Glyphosate has been classified by the World Health Organisation's Agency for Research on Cancer as "probably carcinogenic to humans".

Even worse, some international health experts have warned that "Glyphosate does not only cause cancer. It is also associated with increased birth defects, spontaneous abortions, skin defects, kidney failure and respiratory and neurological disease". It is banned in Sri Lanka. Its use is banned or restricted in some European Union countries like Holland and Denmark.

Such warnings and findings are not new—the hazards have been discussed and acted upon globally for the last several years. But the officials at the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee claim to have come to know about the rampant illegal sale of imitation cotton seeds containing Glyphosate only "very recently".

All of this proves the point that perhaps the tiny tots in Kindergarten schools and primary classes instinctively know more about the co-relationships between soil, water, plants, insects, chemicals and human health than the agro-experts, farm scientists and distinguished political leaders in charge of Indian agriculture.

This is probably one of the underlying causes for farmers all over the country being in such a state of acute distress.

Vol. 50, No.25, Dec 24 - 30, 2017