Mumbai: The report of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Maharashtra government to investigate the deaths of cotton farmers and farm workers in Vidarbha during July-September will be made public only during the upcoming wintersession of the state legislature beginning 11 December in Nagpur, a senior agriculture department official said.
The report was submitted to the state agriculture department last week.
“Since this is an important issue which mainly concerns cotton farming in Vidarbha, the report deserves to be debated in the House," said the agriculture department official who did not want to be named.
Another government official, one of the seven members of the SIT, who requested anonymity, said the report “did not exonerate the pesticide manufacturing companies and their ground level distributors".
“It would not be proper to reveal more at this stage but we have not certainly given a clean chit to the pesticide manufacturers and their ground level associates. We have heard out all stakeholders including the manufacturers and it is now up to the government to take appropriate action," said the member.
At least 40 cotton farmers and farm labourers died in Vidarbha, 21 of them in Yavatmal district alone which accounts for the largest area, 4.7 lakh hectares, under cotton cultivation in India, during July-September period due to pesticide poisoning.
The SIT headed by Amaravati divisional commissioner Piyush Singh was formed on 13 October and given three weeks to submit its report. It came under intense pressure from farm activists and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) as well as pesticide manufacturers who separately made their submissions.
Farm activists, non-profit organizations, politicians, supporters of organic farming and environmentalists held pesticide companies as well as the genetically modified (GM) Bollgard II cotton seeds and an “illegally sold and planted" variant of GM cotton seeds with herbicide tolerant traits primarily responsible for the deaths. Some, like the Delhi-based non-profit Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), have demanded that the Maharashtra government revoke the licences of all those pesticide manufacturers whose products have been found responsible for the poisoning cases.
But the Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), the apex trade body of the crop protection industry, and some individual pesticide manufacturers also met the SIT and argued against drawing conclusions against the pesticide industry without scientific data that linked all 40 deaths and cases of poisoning to the spraying of pesticides. In fact, the CCFI has ruled out any “causal link between pesticide application and the alleged deaths".
Kishore Tiwari, Vidarbha-based farm activist and chairman of a state government-appointed special task force to address the agrarian crisis, has countered the CCFI argument, saying the trade body was merely protecting the commercial interests of pesticide manufacturers. Tiwari, who made a representation to the SIT, said pesticides, GM cotton and the illegally-sold herbicide tolerant seeds were solely responsible for the deaths and that the CCFI had tried to mislead the investigation by arguing otherwise. When the SIT was formed, activists including Tiwari had objected to its composition saying all the seven members represented various agencies of the government and that there were no farmers’ representatives on it.