INDIA - 100% Cotton



Indian farmers are killing themselves because the poison doesn’t work on the pests anymore. For cotton -- the white gold from which our textiles are made at rock bottom prices.


Harvesting cotton in southern India. The farmers have specialised in cotton growing; they want a share in the “white gold” business. A good harvest brings in more money than rice, grain or vegetable crops. That’s why most farmers have switched to cotton. A cotton belt is stretching across southern India. The people in this region have become dependent on a good harvest, on the fruits of their labour.


Anand is one of the farmers who switched over. He gave up traditional agriculture and hopes to make a lot of money, fast. Things look good for him. He inherited his farmland from his father, so he doesn’t have to pay fees to a landowner, like so many farmers in the area. Anand remembers how it all started.


Clip: Farmer

I’ve only been growing cotton for 8 years. At the beginning I was sure that the soil on my fields wasn’t good for cotton. But all the other farmers were making a good living from cotton, and they all talked me into doing it too. Now, cotton is almost the only crop I grow.


Day after day, Anand works in his fields, tending to his crop. His most important tool is the canister with the pesticide. Last year, two thirds of the harvest were destroyed by worms. He tried to kill the pests with insecticide, but it didn’t have any effect. The worms were used to the poison and they survived.

The failed harvest was the ruin of many farmers. Anand lives with the fear of meeting the same fate. He couldn’t withstand another crop failure. So he sprays his plants every day and after every rain. The poison doesn’t just land on the plants – it lands on his skin, too. The pesticide is called “Monocrotophos,” a phosphororganic substance that is dangerous for humans.


After spraying for several hours, Anand is dazed. His tongue is numb thick in his mouth, and he feels so sick that he doesn’t feel like eating. Water is a costly commodity, so he washes sparingly in the evening. But cold water can’t wash the poison off. Inevitably, it works its way through the skin into the body. But Anand doesn’t give it much thought.




Pesticides and cotton growing – for me, they simply belong together. We use a lot of pesticide, but Monocrotophos isn’t dangerous. I don’t need to protect myself from it. Cybermetrin and Endosulfan – they’re dangerous.


He lets his wife bring the really dangerous pesticides.


He doesn’t know what’s printed on the containers. He never learned to read. Neither does he know the meaning of the red triangle with the skull.


The American wool worm and other pests have long become resistant to most poison. Many pesticides should actually be taken off the market. Instead, they continue to be sold. Some farmers think that if they use double the amount of pesticide they’ll be able to kill off some of the pests.


The cotton famers rent expensive motorised sprayers to spread pesticide over the fields from morning til evening. They don’t wear face masks or protective clothing. The hum of the spraying machines belongs to the noise of everyday life in India’s cotton belt. The poison also lands on the corn fields, thus working its way into the food chain.


The professional sprayers literally bathe in chemicals. Their clothing is soaked through.

With every breath, the poison is drawn into their lungs. Their tongues become numb. A poisonous cloud of pesticide forms over the entire region.


At the hospital in Warangal. In the intensive care unit, people are dying. They have all poisoned themselves.


Clip Doctor:

“This is today's case. One or two or three cases definitely we are getting every day. The opening poisoning and the conscousness poisoning we are getting.“

„ And is there a peak season?“

“Peak season we will get exposure poisoning, inhalation poisoning, not the suicidal occupational. Without taking the precautional measures they will go to the field and spray. And after spraying they will not wash, they will not take a bath and that will be absorbed from the skin also and they will get symptoms and all this things. There will be brought in seasonally hundreds of cases. Fifty to thirty cases per day we will get.“


This patient was just brought in today.


Every day we get one or two cases. They’re cases of acute poisoning.


And in peak season?


“In der Hauptsaison werden Patienten eingeliefert, die dem Gift ausgesetzt sind und es eingeatmet haben. Keine Selbstmörder, sondern beruflich bedingte Vergiftung. Ohne sich zu schützen gehen sie aufs Feld und sprühen. Und danach waschen sie sich nicht. Über die Haut wird das Gift aufgenommen und sie vergiften sich. In der Saison haben wir Hunderte solcher Fälle zwischen 30 und 50 an einem Tag.“

(This part already in English, see above clip!)


Über die langfristigen Folgen ist wenig bekannt. Die Ärzte beobachten viele Mißbildungen bei Kindern und die Krebsrate steigt - aber es gibt kein Geld für die Forschung.

Häufig retten die Ärzte einem Bauern mehrmals das Leben, den Wenigsten kann überhaupt geholfen werden.

Not much is known about the long term effects. The doctors see lots of birth defects in children and the cancer rate is increasing. But there’s no money for research. Often, doctors save the life of a single farmer several times, but only few people can be helped at all.


Clip Doctor:

“If he is coming before death in peak time we can do some outwash and we can save the patient. But most of the people will be left in time when they are transported from the village to here because of the lack of transport and other things.“



Nowhere else are such quantities of chlor- and phosphor-organic chemicals sprayed as in the cotton belt. Every kind of insecticide is available here. Even highly dangerous products like the cancer inducing “Lindane” are sold over the counter. In Europe, these pesticides have been banned for years because of their deadly effect on humans. But in India, business is booming.


Renowned international chemical companies such as Novartis, Dupont and Bayer have moved their production to India, because here, there’s a market for these chemicals. Bayer’s pesticide sellers in India know about the ban in Europe, but business is business.


Clip Pesticide dealer:

“Pesticides that are banned in Europe and America and selling in India. Yes, certain pesticides are there.“

„ Can you name them?“

„I mean `Monocrotophos EMPORET and ETR`.“


Bayer sells poisons that are used as chemical weapons in warzones. The company sells pesticide produced in India worldwide. The Indian pesticide market is up to 80 % in the hands of the chemical giant from Mohnheim. Pesticides that are harmful to people but ineffective against pests are knowingly sold.

Clip Bayer India:

“This is the demand from the market through our distribute channel. Because of that convert stage we are also supplying this which is Monocrotophos, Finalphos etc.pp.. Because we are not manufacturing this but it is the market demand so, because we have to sell our molecules through the distribution channel.“


That’s why Bayer allows EU-banned pesticides to be produced in the industrial area of Vapi in India. Due to the minimal security standards, there’ve often been chemical spills. Entire regions have been contaminated. A ticking time-bomb.


Ein Drittel der Chemikalien gelten als hoch gefährlich. Die Fabriken leiten die giftigen Abwässer in die kommunale Kläranlage, die auf keine der Industrieabwässer eingestellt ist und von der Weltbank mit finanziert wurde.

A third of the chemicals are classified as highly dangerous. The factories let the poisonous waste water flow into the communal sewage plant. It was never built to handle industrial waste, but was co-financed by the World Bank.


In addition to the sewage plants, the World Bank is also pumping money into road construction. Vapi’s “Giftschleudern” are now part of the global market. Indian environmental protection groups are critical that such a basis has been formed to allow the time bomb that is Vapi to keep on ticking. The safety of the businesses weren’t checked. Often, the “Klitschen” produce for just a few years. When something goes wrong, they just change location.


Clip Environmental group VAPI:

“From my past experience, what I have seen is that the international companies like Bayer or Aventis or others they come here because it is so much cheaper to manufacture here. And it is cheaper because they do not have to treat all their waste, do not have to carefully dump their waste.“


Back to the pesticide market. New products are constantly being stocked. They’re supposed to be highly effective. The pests haven’t become resistant to them yet.


Anand also needs more effective chemicals. The newer they are, the more expensive they are, for example “Avant” from Bayer. For the farmers, it’s just numbers. The harvest is often put up for collateral. Anand has to pay 3500 Rupees (75$) up front for the supposedly most effective pesticide. With his average yearly income of 4800 rupees (100$), he has no choice but to incur more debt. His suppliers are happy for the fat commission they earn from Bayer.


Clip Farmer:


Last year, the green worms ate my harvest. I sprayed Monocrotophos, Endosulfan and a couple of other pesticides. I went to my supplier and got new ones. But they didn’t do anything either. Now I’m using Avant. But it’s expensive, so now I’ve got a lot of debt.


But the supplier wants his money whether or not the pests destroy another crop. When the farmers run out of cash, they can buy pesticide on credit. Their debts grow too large to count, the last bit of land is “verpfandet”… all that remains is doubt. Last year alone, 700 farmers committed suicide. They drank the poison that couldn’t kill the pests.


Clip Male:


I lost my son. He drank insecticide to kill himself. I always warned him about getting into the cotton business.

O-Ton Mutter:


We’re poor now. We’ve lost our land. My son left a wife and children behind. How are we all supposed to go on?


Pesticide, the number one killer in India’s cotton belt.


Anand too has fallen into the vicious Pesticide – Debt cycle. He sprays, even when the threat from pests is long over and the cotton has already been picked.


That’s how pesticide lands directly on the white gold. Mature cotton bolls are not meant to be sprayed, because the fibres suck up the poison. Traces are left, for example, in cloth that becomes underwear. It’s very difficult to wash it out. Farmers here are unaware. Nobody gave them any training when they planted the cotton. And so the women pick the cotton balls – poison for Europe.


When the cotton has finally been harvested, Anand drives, full of hope, to the cotton market in Warangal. This year, he has two sacks to sell freely on the market. The rest of the harvest has been claimed by his lenders. He’s caught in the pesticide cycle – he has to go on. There are many more farmers like him.


His unease grows, the closer he gets to the market. How much will he get this time for his meagre harvest?


The market in Warangal is buzzing with activity. All the farmers from the region bring their cotton here. The traders guarantee no base price. Every morning, the prices are worked out anew, according to fluctuations on the world market, as the cotton here is meant for export in the textile industry.


Cotton as a raw material is worth less and less. The cotton growing area is expanding, and world-wide, competition is increasing. In Africa in particular, cotton can be found at dumping prices. This year in India’s cotton belt, there wasn’t enough rain…meaning the quality is accordingly low.


Anand has found a buyer who’s interested in his wares. He’s nervous as the checks for quality are carried out. Will his hard work pay off?


Gestern gab es noch 2500 (48$) Rupies pro Sack, aber heute ist der Sack gerade mal 2000 Rupies wert und 500 davon kassiert auch noch der Zwischenhändler.


The farmer bargains for every rupee, but the traders have agreed on a price – he doesn’t have a chance.


He has to sell. He pockets only 20 euros. The result of six months of hard work in the fields.


From the cotton market in Warangal, the cotton goes to Tirupur for textile production. The raw cotton has to be deseeded and the fibres smoothed. It’s all still full of pesticide. Traces of the phosphororganic chemicals remain in the fibres for at least two months – the chlororganic traces are there for good.


But no one checks here to see if the cotton is contaminated. With every breath, the workers draw the poison with the cotton particles into their lungs. Fainting spells and dizziness are the result.


An acrid smell fills the air.


Their mouths are completely dry. Their tongues heavy, almost lame. Many women suffer from constant nausea. The same symptoms of poisoning that we saw in the farmers from the cotton belt.


To produce white and coloured T-Shirts, more chemicals have to be used. In small factories, the cotton is bleached. It smells like a chlorine gas factory. Because of pressure from consumers in Europe, expensive, quickly evaporating chemicals have to be used in the bleaching process. But the workers have to keep on standing in this chemical mix. Their life expectancy is 35 years. For European textile traders, it’s important that only few traces of the strong bleach remain in the T-Shirt. The poison should stay in India.


The result of the bleaching and dying process is highly contaminated waste water. Water usage is immense. This factory alone uses 150.000 litres of fresh water per day.

To prevent all of Tirupur being flooded by poisonous water and to allow production to continue, the manufacturers have to process their waste water. The officials only license operations that at least have pools to contain the waste water. A first attempt by Tirupur to sidestep an environmental catastrophe.


Waste processing plants were built with German development money. But they can’t filter out the extreme quantities of poison. Even the processed water is still highly contaminated with 3 grams of chlorine per litre.


Mit bloßen Händen wühlen die Frauen im giftigen Klärschlamm. Die Entsorgung ist nicht gelöst.

With bare hands, the women dig in the poisonous sludge. Nobody knows how to dispose of it properly.


The coming environmental catastrophe in this city of textiles can’t be stopped. Barely any water flows in the rivers, and what is there is contaminated. Tirupur, the center of international textile production, is one huge, stinking sewer. Even the chemical containers are still being washed out in the rivers and used again.


The city’s inhabitants have long grown used to getting their drinking water from water wagons. The groundwater is poisoned. Twice a month they get clean water. It’s become a valuable commodity in short supply, and it’s use is rationed.


Textile production has sapped the city dry. For hours at a time, the textile workers from the slums of Tirupur stand in line to provide their families with water. After a 12 hour workday, hardly an easy task. Savita is 30 years old and cares for her extended family. Twice a day, before and after her shift, she cooks the family’s meals.


Even though she belongs to the group of better paid workers, she has to watch that not a single drop of water is spilled.


Clip Textile woker (female):

The water that comes out of the tap tastes salty. I only use it to wash my clothes. I have to buy the water I use for cooking, and it’s very expensive. We’re already using a third of my wages, just to buy water.


The women work are dayworkers; they earn just 2 euros per shift.

Savita has to work hard for that little bit of money. Ten to 12 hours every day, she inspects textiles for export, checking for quality and mistakes. Contaminated cotton fibres float through the air. There aren’t any face masks, and the workers suffer from the traces of pesticides in the textiles.


Clip Textil worker (female):


I have constant headaches, I can’t breathe properly anymore and I always feel nauseous. I have the worst nausea when I have to use chlorine to spray the textiles with CDC-oil. Then I get really dizzy. But I have to get back to work now.


But no one here demands better protection. The workers don’t have fixed contracts; their work depends on the number of orders. The textile market is competitive. The Indian manufacturers are under pressure. They’re threatened by cheap competition from Bangladesh and China.

The final stage of the process requires the use of notorious formaldehyde. It ensures that the clothes keep their shape and that the colours last through many washes.


Textiles from Tirupur end up all over the world. Since the industry became aware of the health problems from the dangerous chemicals, random checks are being conducted. Every manufacturer is responsible for testing their own wares.


Through quality controls the clothing stores Karstadt and H&M try to filter out the most dangerous chemicals. But a certain level of residues are permitted. With such a variety of pesticides in use, it’s impossible to check cotton products for each and every type of residue. So even if the goods have been tested, that doesn’t mean they’re free of pesticides.

If the pesticides are sprayed directly onto cotton, the chemicals stay remain on T-shirts for moths. Everyone buys goods from Tirupur: Walmart, Eastman, C&A, Metro and H&M, to name but a few companies.

With the amount that is shipped to Europe, it’s impossible to avoid that these pesticides end up on the skin of European consumers. The logistics are all worked out, it takes just a few weeks for Indian textiles to reach our shops.


Even in Europe the effects of poisenous residues in our clothing have not been sufficiently researched. Each substance is only forbidden once it’s danger to humans has been proven. Companies like H&M allow pesticide residues in their products. The poisonous residues aren’t visible in blouses.

The companies are well aware of the health risk.


Clip: Matthias Geduhn H&M:

„It has effects and one must admit that some national legislations aren’t very good, for example in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia. As a company one has to take on the responsibility oneself and one must take the issue very seriously indeed.“


That’s why H&M tests the textiles and takes shirts which contain too many residues off the market.

However, what’s still missing on on the list of dangerous residues is Monocrotophos, the very poison that Anand sprays onto cotton.

The only alternative would be to buy a T-shirt made from organic cotton, but H&M no longer sell them.


O-Ton Matthias Geduhn H&M:

„We had to discontinue this collection, because it no longer made sense economically. We continued it for several years, but there comes a point where as a company you have to decide, is it worth it for us or not.“


It’s a different story at Euope’s largest mailorder company „OTTO“. The company has a special organic cotton collection and even an environmental department. The iniciative is supported by the foreign aid ministry. Longtime suppliers of OTTO are converting their production to organic farming. That means not just working without pesticides but even without formaldehd. So far the organic materials are more expensive for OTTO, but still the collection is growing from year to year.



Clip Dr. Michael Arretz OTTO:

“Otto wants to contribute to sustainable development in countries that grow the cotton. We want to give our customers products where they feel that they are not just buying something that’s good for themselves, but that’s also good for the environment, and I don’t have to pay more for that.“



Organic cotton is also grown in India. But on the world market it only plays a tiny role. Just 4 per cent of the cotton used to make clothing is grown withouth pesticides. The pesticide trade, however, is booming. It leaves ist poisonous traces on farmers and the environment in India and in the T-shirts that Europeans wear on their skin.

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more info see our Cookies Policy