The government in the western state of Maharashtra has ordered a probe after suspected pesticide poisoning killed at least 50 farmers. Journalist Jaideep Hardikar reports from Yavatmal district, one of the worst affected areas.
Pravin Soyam, 23, was in perfect health when he suddenly developed a chest pain, followed by vomiting and nausea. Then, he became completely disoriented. He died a day later, on 27 September, at a government hospital.
Doctors who attended to him suspected that Mr Soyam was yet another victim of pesticide poisoning in Maharashtra. They believe he fell sick after inhaling a deadly cocktail of pesticides that he had sprayed on his family’s cotton field two days earlier.
At least 50 farmers have died from suspected pesticide poisoning in Maharashtra since July, according to officials and media reports. As the death toll continues to rise, the BJP-led state government has ordered an inquiry.
Most of the deaths – 19 – were reported from Yavatmal district, a major cotton-growing area that has often been in the news for farmers’ suicides.
More than 800 farmers in the district were also admitted to hospitals during that time, officials said.
Farmers in Yavatmal, who mainly grow cotton, soybean and lentils, told the BBC that they use a highly potent mix of pesticides, both in powder and liquid form.
They also cultivate a genetically modified variety of cotton, which is supposed to be resistant to bollworms, a pest that attacks cotton crops.
But many farmers have said that bollworms still attacked their crops this year, which led them to increase their use of pesticides.
Nikesh Kathane, 21, said he collapsed after spraying pesticide on his crops for seven days in a row.
“I had a very heavy head and I could not see anything,” he said while recuperating in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the local hospital.
Mr Kathane, who is out of danger now, said he would never use pesticides again.
In fact, many farmers who spoke to the BBC said they had stopped spraying pesticides for fear of falling sick.
“This is a very unusual phenomenon,” Dr Ashok Rathod, dean of the local government hospital told the BBC, adding that the hospital usually treated farmers who deliberately consumed pesticide.
Doctors have said treating accidental poisoning was harder because they can’t wash the stomach to remove traces of poison that have been ingested. Inhaling pesticides also affects the respiratory system.
Doctors in the area have said they first noticed cases of suspected pesticide poisoning in the last week of July. They admitted 41 patients displaying similar symptoms – vomiting, dizziness, respiratory problems, visual impairment and disorientation.
The figure rose to 111 in August, and more than doubled to 300 in September.
At least 10 of the farmers who are currently being treated at the hospital are on life support, while 25 others have suffered visual impairment, hospital authorities said.
In September, district officials asked agriculture scientists to do a field study to investigate the spate of deaths and illnesses.
The resulting report blamed farmers for not taking precautions while spraying the crop. It said they had not used a prescribed protection kit, eye-glasses or gloves.
Mr Soyam’s father, Bhaurao admitted that his son did not follow the safety measures before using the pesticide.
But he said that his son had sprayed pesticides without protective gear in the past as well. So what happened this time?
Had the farmers used a spurious pesticide? Were they using a new formulation they weren’t aware of? Had there been any advisories?
Back in Mr Soyam’s home, his brother, Namdev, pulled out packets of pesticides that they had sprayed.
“It could have easily been me,” he said, staring at a framed photograph of his brother. (Courtesy BBC)