Inadequate information about pesticides, incorrect application, and farmers left largely to their own devices are behind an agricultural crisis in Odisha, with kharif crop in nearly 1.28 lakh hectares, spanning roughly 24 of Odisha’s 30 districts, affected. Bargarh, known as Odisha’s rice bowl, is among the worst-hit, by a pest that strikes annually and is easily controlled, according to officials.

At least six farmers have committed suicide, allegedly due to crop loss, while there are reports of many setting fire to their crops. Last week, the Special Relief Commissioner’s office said that the affected farmers would receive Rs 137.5 crore relief in the form of input subsidies. Deputy Director, Agriculture, Pramod Mohanty, who was part of a three-member team dispatched by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to the affected areas, told The Indian Express that brown planthopper (BPH) pest had affected the crops.

Officials of the Revenue and Disaster Management, Agriculture, and Home are tightlipped on the suicides and their numbers. “The government has not formally accepted the unnatural deaths as suicides, or that they are related to the pest attack,” said an officer with the Special Relief Commissioner.

Senior Agriculture Department officials, who too refused to come on record, blamed incorrect application of pesticides and fertilisers. “In my experience, years of neglect towards scientific field-management practices by some farmers have led to resistant pesticides,” said a Bhubaneswar-based official.

Principal Scientist (Entomology) of Bhubaneswar’s National Rice Research Institute (NRRI) Dr Shyamaranjan Das Mohapatra said precision was crucial for pesticides and fertilisers to remain effective. “Pesticides for BPH should be sprayed at the base of the crop. BPH rests in the basal portion, as it prefers darkness and humidity. If excess urea is applied,” he said, “the plant becomes succulent, or ‘fleshy’… Then BPH can easily drain the cell sap.”

Similarly, pesticides applied incorrectly, he said, may diminish to a “sub-lethal dose”. “Assuming there are 10 planthoppers, eight may die. The two that remain may develop resistance, and produce a generation not as affected by that pesticide… Moreover, farmers sometimes use ‘quick-fix’ pesticides that also end up killing BPH’s natural predators such as spiders, leading to greater pesticide usage.”

An agriculture officer in Dhenkanal said that while some farmers may be illiterate and hence unable to follow instructions on the fertiliser pack, others were just “careless”. “Even big farmers, who outsource cultivation to sharecroppers, do not supervise planting, protection, or nourishment of crops.”

Saroj Pradhan of Gaisima village in Bargarh has been growing rice in over 20 acres for 12 years. “We are well aware that pesticides and fertilisers are to be applied carefully. But we are not sure about the nuances of application. Who is supposed to tell us?” he asked. “The grama sebakas or krusaka sathis do not come to villages… forget demonstrating how pesticides and fertilisers are to be applied. We have not seen our own Village Agriculture Worker (VAW) for weeks… Some of us see him cycling between villages or drinking tea at a shop. That is where he gives casual answers to our questions.”

VAWs, gram sebaks and krusaka sathis are the state government’s ground-level officers, who are supposed to advise farmers.

Dhanapati Sahu, 43, who has been farming for over 20 years in Gaisima village, said it is not enough to grasp the usage of one pesticide. “Every year or so, the (pesticide) brands keep changing. Different brands recommend different procedures, dosages. We are forced to rely on marketing agents of pesticide companies. Is it not the state government’s responsibility to send its agriculture officials?”

Linagaraj, a prominent agricultural activist of Bargarh district and farmer leader, said there is a shortage of local-level agriculture officials. “Also, those present do not bother making field visits… It is not possible for farmers to chase officials. Farmers usually reach out to the State when nothing works. Then they get blamed for not asking for timely help.”

“There ought to be roughly one VAW per gram panchayat,” said Manoranjan Mallick, Deputy Director of Agriculture (DDA) at Boudh district.

Debesh Acharya, one of the BJD’s Bargarh MLAs, admitted shortage of VAWs, while commenting on their lack of responsibility. “Why are VAWs drawing their salary? I also hold respective DDAs responsible,” he said. Acharya said he had recently raised these issues with his party, and was promised action.

However, the state government has been aware of the problem of poor communication with farmers at least since 2013. An agricultural policy document of that year, uploaded on the department website, says, “the gap between scientific ‘know-how’ and field level ‘do-how’ has been widening”.

An official at the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology pointed out that even local-level officials are not well-versed with the required know-how. “We are struggling. This problem is both recurrent and increasing every year.”

A senior agriculture officer at Dhenkanal said the problem has been compounded by the introduction of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) for agriculture inputs, from this year. “Earlier, Odisha Agro Industry Corporation procured pesticides and distributed them to government sale centres, where an overseer would explain to farmers the nuances of application. The overseers received information from government-backed institutions. Information was relatively less market-share driven”.

Since DBT has been implemented, he said, “farmers purchase inputs from government-recognised outlets called Suravi, or from private dealers at market prices. On presenting official receipts of payment, farmers receive subsidies in their bank accounts. While this may reduce corruption, it has removed us from the picture. Instead of a government-appointed overseer, farmers ask dealers… people who are untrained.”

Lingaraj agreed that government-backed institutions are “on the retreat” following DBT, but added, “Even in the pre-DBT era, farmers relied on private dealers. Now, a bad situation has become worse… This is an agricultural crisis in Odisha, and across the nation.”

When pesticides become ineffective, farmers tend to assume they are fake — speculation that is picked up and amplified by opposition parties. Subash Dharai of Tora village, whose father Akshay Dharai was among the farmers who allegedly killed themselves after crop loss, said, “He had problems with the pesticide, but he did not share all the details.” Subash, who works for a private company, is also unsure how much land his father owned.

In Kalapani village, the family of Brunda Sahu, a sharecropper who committed suicide, said they hold Agriculture Minister Damodar Rout responsible, along with “the collector and tehsildar”. Sahu’s daughter Preeti, 18, added, “We don’t own land… Father realised that sharecroppers will receive no compensation. What is the share of sharecroppers (from compensation)? They also work hard.”

The state government has been contemplating a Bill to include a compensation mechanism for sharecroppers in the event of crop loss, but it is pending since May.

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