Mumbai: The Maharashtra government on Thursday decided to recommend an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the illegal sale of herbicide-tolerant (HT) Bt cotton seeds in the state, linking them to the several pesticide poisoning deaths in Yavatmal district since July.

Curiously, the grounds on which the state government has justified its recommendation for a CBI inquiry—a report by the Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) and a police complaint filed by a Maharashtra agriculture department official with Nagpur rural police—do not directly implicate HT hybrid seeds for these deaths.

Between July and October this year, more than 40 farm labourers and farmers have died in Vidarbha, 21 of them in Yavatmal district alone, due to pesticide inhalation and poisoning.

The only genetically modified varieties of Bt cotton approved for commercial production in India are “cry1Ac" and “cry2Ab". The HT variant has not been approved in India.

On Thursday, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that his government has recommended a CBI probe into the sale of HT seeds. In a series of tweets from his official handle, Fadnavis said:

“After the tragic incident of pesticide poisoning in Yavatmal district, a detailed study was done by CICR and the report has been submitted to the state government. As mentioned in this report, herbicide-tolerant genes are found in the Bt cotton seeds of 5 branded companies and it is not permissible under the provisions of Environment Protection Act, 1986. FIR has been registered against those 5 companies in Nagpur. But it is also found that such type of seeds are being produced in many other states too and due to such seriousness, government of Maharashtra has sent a request to government of India for a detailed CBI inquiry into this."

However, the CICR report on the pesticide deaths in Vidarbha does not mention use or sale of HT hybrids as one of the main causes of the deaths. Nor does the FIR that Fadnavis refers to mention any company by name.

Mint has seen copies of the CICR report and the FIR.

The FIR was filed by the Nagpur rural police on 25 October on a complaint by Abhay Saoji, technical officer, quality control inspector and divisional joint director of agriculture, Nagpur.

The FIR says Saoji was approached by Nagpur resident Amol Pusadkar, who produced samples of Bt cotton seeds planted in Nagpur district, and requested that CICR be asked to study the samples to find out if there were HT genes in the Bt cotton seeds.

Pusadkar is a convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate that has consistently opposed commercial production of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, popularly known as Bt cotton hybrids, and HT technology as well.

A senior official at CICR, who did not wish to be identified, said his institute studied the samples brought by Pusadkar.

“We did find HT genes in the Bt samples he had brought in and submitted the report to the government. But this was in February, much before the pesticide deaths were reported from Yavatmal," said the official.

He said the CICR report the chief minister was referring to was submitted on 20 October after the agency was asked to study the causes of pesticide deaths in Yavatmal and other parts of Vidarbha.

“Even this report does not directly hold HT technology responsible for the deaths. It only mentions suspected planting of HT hybrids and use of excessive spraying of insecticides by farmers," he added.

The CICR official categorically denied that either of the two reports—the one submitted in February and the other on 20 October—specifically linked HT hybrids to the pesticide deaths.

“The first study in February did not even have the mandate to do so because there were no deaths reported then in Yavatmal," he said.

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