Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bihar School Deaths Highlight India’s Struggle With Pesticides

India is still reeling from the deaths of 23 schoolchildren in the village of Dharmasati Gandawa in Bihar on July 17 after they ate a free school lunch that was made with cooking oil tainted with the pesticide monocrotophos. The police say that the cooking oil might have been kept in a container that once held the pesticide.
The devastating event in Bihar reveals a larger problem in India that stems from the wide use of biocides in myriad forms, in cities and villages, in homes and fields. The organophosphate monocrotophos is widely used in India even as other countries, like the United States, have banned the chemical because it has “high acute toxicity,” according to the World Health Organization. In fact, the W.H.O. pressured India to bar the use of the pesticide in 2009.
In 2011, India’s Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar acknowledged that 67 pesticides prohibited in other parts of the world were widely being used in India. If they are cheap and effective, these chemicals often remain legal, though their specific instructions and proper use are often flagrantly disregarded or simply unknown to the users. There is evidence that even pesticides banned in India continue to be used.
Indians are getting sick or dying from the widespread use of these chemicals. From 2004 to 2008, one hospital in Bathinda, Punjab recorded 61 deaths from accidental inhalation of pesticides while spraying crops. Other poisonings are woefully deliberate in the case of widespread farmer suicides, most commonly accomplished by ingesting the chemicals once used on their crops. The northern state of Punjab, which produces nearly a fifth of the nation’s wheat and inhabits merely 1.5 percent of India’s landmass, accounts for 17 percent of the country’s pesticide use. The landscape is as silent as Rachel Carson’s unnamed town in “Silent Spring,” eerily bereft of the mewing calls of peacocks, India’s national bird, or any other of the avian fauna that were once abundant according to locals. In the fields, the nimble fingers of women and children pluck cotton for the equivalent of one U.S. dollar a day while men walk barefoot through the rows with pesticide sprayers lashed to their backs.
Studies have detected known carcinogens such as heptachlor and ethion in the blood of Punjabi citizens and the breast milk of new mothers, as well as in grains, cotton and vegetables harvested from the fields. While productivity soared for several generations with the thick application of pesticides and fertilizers promoted in the Green Revolution, yields have plateaued, as cancer cases soared, surpassing international and national averages.
Meanwhile, the water table is plummeting. The National Geophysical Research Institute has found that every year, the level drops another two feet. Punjab has, in less than 30 years, depleted groundwater reserves that took over a century to accumulate, and the nitrate levels in the water have increased tenfold since the Green Revolution began in 1972. In a proactive measure, The Punjab State Farmers Commission has just released a draft of new agricultural policy that would seek to alleviate the drain on water resources by diversifying crops and reducing the acreage under water-intensive wheat and rice paddy production.
Across India, there is a movement to lighten the heavy use of pesticides and other agrochemicals that began 40 years ago. The Indian states of Sikkim and Kerala are already working toward converting their states completely to organic methods by 2015, and the breadbasket of Punjab is haltingly heading in the same direction. Although certified organic farming still accounts for only one percent of India’s agricultural production, (the US is only .57%), there is a grassroots effort underway to increase the numbers, much of it beyond the realm of certification. In Punjab, many small farmers are transitioning to natural farming on at least some of their acreage with the aid of the nongovernmental organization Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), which has trained hundreds of Punjabi farmers in organic farming methods since its founding in 2005.
Swaram Singh is one such farmer. Singh is beanpole thin, lanky in his white cotton kurta, an emerald green turban atop his head, a symbol of his Sikh faith. He gives two reasons for turning to natural farming in 2002. One was that the pests that the chemical companies promised would disappear were still destroying his crops. The other reason was his mother was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and he suspected that all the chemicals he and other farmers were putting on their fields might have something to do with it.
“I remember the gram sewak, the village officer, coming to the house with a cart full of urea, offering it for free,” Singh recalls of the first time he saw the pure nitrogen fertilizer in the 1970s. “It looked like sugar.” His grandfather was skeptical. “Don’t take anything they give you for free,” Singh’s grandfather warned them. “It’s like the tea that the British gave us and now it’s like a drug.” But Swaram Singh and his brothers were young men, excited about the new chemistry, and it was free. “When grandfather found out, he told us we’d regret it.”
It took 34 years for that regret to set in, and on two of his six acres, Singh switched to natural methods. He says that he would do all six acres if he could find enough labor to work the land. Singh grows a traditional variety of cotton, along with guar, vegetables and fodder for his livestock. Using the leaves from a neem tree, datura, and bitter plants, along with the urine and dung from his cows, he says he’s able to keep his soil healthy and his plants free from pests. He and many other farmers in Punjab recognize that there is a transition period as they rebuild the soil after years of pesticide and fertilizer application, which breaks down natural soil health, an admitted challenge for the small farms that make up the bulk of India’s agricultural landscape.
Some farmers with larger landholdings are also making the switch. Vinod Jyani was a baby when the carts of free petrochemicals and the spray planes began to show up at the family farm just a few miles from the Pakistan border. Growing crops with chemicals was all he knew — until the fall of 2005, when he went to a meeting “to oblige a friend” and heard Umendra Dutt, the founder of KVM, speak about organic farming. His response was akin to a religious conversion.
“That was it,” he says, as doves coo from the eaves of his house, a sprawling complex set amid the 130 acres that has been in his family for seven generations. It was like a “light went off.” A few weeks later, he attended a two-day meeting organized by KVM.
“The very next day, I took all chemicals from my farm. I started with a passion — and a zero budget.” He is smiling as he sits in the center of his now-successful organic farm, but when asked about the transition, he laughs. “It went bad,” he says, shaking his head. “Bad! For three years it was a struggle, but I was committed.” He was in his early forties. There was time to adjust to change and he had the financial resources to cushion the transition.
Back in Bihar, another method is being implemented that also forgoes the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Known as System of Crop Intensification, or S.C.I., farmers carefully cultivate seeds until the plants are established and then transplant them out into the fields to mature. A recent World Bank study found that productivity increased 86 percent in rice production and 72 percent for wheat.
It’s too early to tell if these initial forays into minimizing the rampant presence of pesticides on the Indian landscape, at least in the realm of agriculture, will lead to a new way of growing food that doesn’t impact human and ecological health, but any steps taken toward minimizing the ubiquity of biocides could benefit Indians. A large-scale study commissioned by the Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project of the UK government demonstrated that a move toward agroecology – using integrated pest management in which chemicals are used as a last resort, building soil health, improving crop species, and incorporating diversity through tree planting and animal husbandry – more than doubled crop yields over a 3-10 year period on 35 million acres in Africa. Such tactics, if implemented at a broad scale in India, could produce enough food for a growing nation while simultaneously offering the prospect of lessening toxic exposure for life forms from honeybees to humans, preventing the poisoning of water and land, alleviating farmer debt, and cultivating food free of chemical residues.
It would also mean there would be fewer empty containers of monocrotophos floating around, too easily converted to storage containers for food that might be used to cook a free midday meal for hungry children, hoping for some simple food, as well as a future.

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