In the face of serious concerns over increasing suicides by paraquat dichloride consumption in Odisha, the state government has finally acted and announced restrictions on the highly toxic herbicide. The government has decided to increase awareness among farmers on safe use of the dangerous herbicide. It has also been moved from the subsidised sales list while farm-level officials have been told not to encourage the herbicide’s use in best-practice demonstrations. While the steps make for a welcome start, the lack of a clear stance on at least regulating the sale of the compound—if not banning it completely—will not yield the desired results, particularly in curbing deaths.
Paraquat poisoning, specifically suicide attempts by consuming the fatal chemical, has emerged as a social tragedy in Odisha. Western Odisha districts have recorded more than 170 paraquat poisoning deaths in the last two years. The premier government hospital of the region, VIMSAR, alone has registered nearly 150 deaths between September 2017 and August 2019.
The medical fraternity led a movement, even resorting to a hunger strike, demanding a complete ban on paraquat dichloride. The issue at hand is saving lives from paraquat poisoning, as unlike other pesticides, insecticides or herbicides, there is no antidote to this compound. And this knowledge is driving more and more people who are suicidal to consume it. Open availability of this lethal compound in the market has only precipitated the grievous social problem. There is global recognition of the dangers posed by paraquat dichloride and 38 countries have already banned it. Even Kerala has imposed a ban on it.
There are reasons the government has not imposed an outright ban on the herbicide. It has its benefits, like saving farmers money and time as it is cheap and effectively kills weeds quicker than manual de-weeding. Yet, the government could have done more by imposing strict regulations on stock and sale of the herbicide. Unless open availability is curbed, no exercise will be successful in preventing deaths.