By Hridayesh Joshi*
- India’s pesticide sector is governed by a more than 50-year-old law. A new pesticide management bill is expected to be introduced in the parliament during the ongoing session.
- Many pesticides that are dangerous for human life and the environment, which have been banned across the world, are still sold in India. Thousands of lives are lost every year from lack of awareness about pesticides and their mishandling.
- Activists and experts want the pesticide management bill, details of which are not yet public, to address issues related to pesticides banned in other countries, safety, awareness and stringent penalties in cases of violation of the law or death of farmers.
Mahesh Purushottam Giri, a 35-year-old farmer from Darwha town in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra still remembers the tragedy that happened in 2017. That year, a total of 21 farmers and farm labourers died and more than 1,000 were hospitalised due to pesticide poisoning that occurred while spraying crops.
After the incident, the probe of a Special Investigating Team (SIT), appointed by the then Maharashtra government, blamed the farmers for negligence. It held that farmers and farm labourers failed “to follow the safety measures.”
“Here, the farmers have no awareness and they are not educated about the guidelines for the use of the pesticide,” Giri said. “A strong lobby of agents (of pesticide companies) and retailers forces the farmers to purchase whatever they sell. Local bodies also don’t provide any help to us regarding (the selection and use) of chemicals,” he said.
The unabated and unregulated use of pesticides is killing humans and animals in large numbers every year, as agriculture in India is mainly dependent on highly toxic chemicals that are often used in excessive amounts. For example, 76 percent of the constituents of the pesticides used in India are insecticides, as against 44 percent globally. Similarly, 57 percent of India’s total pesticide consumption is due to just two crops – paddy and cotton. This is posing a grave threat to biodiversity and environment as the random use of pesticides contaminates the soil, water and air.
At present, the issues related to pesticides and insecticides are governed by the 52-year-old Insecticides Act 1968 which is not in line with the present situation of how these chemicals are being used.
The central government is likely to introduce and pass a fresh Pesticide Management Bill (PMB) 2020 in the ongoing session of the parliament.
In 2008, the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led-central government first contemplated over a new law, but then the bill could not be introduced. Another attempt was made in 2017 by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government but again the legislation could not be passed in the parliament.
This time the hopes are high that the bill will be introduced and passed in the current session of the parliament.
The new law is coming but details are not in public domain
Thousands of farmers and farm labourers die every year due to unsafe handling and use of hazardous pesticides. In 2017, the government had put the then proposed bill in the public domain for comments and consultation with the public and stakeholders. But this time, the contours of the bill are not known to the public.
“The essence or the soul of the law has to be that the use of the pesticide should be minimised,”Amit Khurana, programme head of food safety and toxins at New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said. “If that is not there in the preamble or language of the proposed bill, it would mean that pesticide use is fine and sustainable. It will send a message that it (use of pesticides) should be promoted. However, the fact is quite contrary to this because the real sustainable agriculture solution is without the use of chemicals.”
India is today the fourth-largest producer of pesticides in the world after the United States of America, Japan and China. Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the production of key pesticides increased by more than 30,000 metric tons, which is a growth of 16% in four years. Today the overall production of pesticides in India stands at 216,703 metric tons. The most worrying aspect is that scores of deadly Class-1 chemicals figure in the “approved” list of pesticides in India, though the same chemicals are banned elsewhere in the world. Class-1 chemicals are declared extremely hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
For instance, Monocrotophous, which was responsible for the Yavatmal mishap in 2017, is a Class-1 pesticide, still widely used in India though banned in more than 60 nations across the globe.
Experts point out that the new law should firmly deal with the present lax attitude towards the whole life cycle of pesticides, starting from registration, to use, market authorisation, surveillance and monitoring of residue in the crops.
The double bane of chemicals
The toxicity of pesticides is broadly classified into two categories. One is chronic and the other is acute toxicity. The first kind of toxicity manifests as a delayed poisonous effect from exposure to a poisonous substance and affects the general public. Acute toxicity refers to how poisonous a pesticide is to a human, animal, or plant after a single short-term exposure. This kind mainly attacks farmers, agricultural labourers, plants and animals that come into direct contact with the chemicals.
In March 2018, while replying to a query, the then agriculture minister of India Radha Mohan Singh told the parliament that in four years between 2014-15 and 2018-19, a total of 272 people died in just Maharashtra alone. This number does not include the farmer’s suicides by consuming poisons in pesticides.
The central government claimed that it sensitised 59,130 farmers between 2015 and 2018 about the safe use of pesticides through various awareness programmes.
“Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare has established 35 Central Integrated Pest Management Centres (CIPMCs) across the Country. These CIPMCs, inter alia, conduct Farmers Field Schools (FFSs) to sensitise farmers on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach, and safe and judicious use of chemical pesticides as a last resort as per approved labels and leaflets,” the government told parliament.
Expectations from the new bill
Consumption of pesticides is rising steadily in India. In 2018-19, 72,515 metric tons of pesticides were used by farmers all over the country. Data reveals that only eight states consume more than 70 percent of total pesticide. Such a high rate of use of hazardous chemicals is ruining the environment and biodiversity besides killing the people.
Experts in the field of agriculture, environment, health and policymaking demand that the new law should ensure that no pesticide can be registered in India if it is banned in other countries and particularly most hazardous Class-1 pesticide should be banned completely.
According to the 1968 law, anyone found violating the law will be levied with a financial penalty of Rs. 2,000 and up to three years imprisonment. In the bill introduced in 2017, the government had proposed a fine upto Rs. 500,000 and jail upto five years of imprisonment. Activists state that the penalty should be linked to the annual turnover of the pesticide giants. As they earn in millions they should pay accordingly if they cause death or damage to health.
Besides this, the farmers, activists and health workers have been demanding that the companies selling pesticides should be asked to provide protective gears and masks to the farmers. They state that often, the farmers and labourers do not wear any protection while spraying the chemicals and this costs them heavily. They want the government to strengthen its agriculture extension machinery which is responsible for the training and awareness of farmers. In the absence of government’s staff, its inefficiency is exploited by company representatives who themselves advise the farmers about the pesticides – a clear case of conflict of interest.
Also, there is a demand to ensure ‘no pressure’ on government officials to clear any pesticide in a specified time frame. “Why should speedy registrations of toxic materials take place at all, when farming can indeed be done without the use of synthetic pesticides,” questioned Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a nation-wide alliance of organisations working to improve farm livelihoods.
“The main reason why a bill like this is needed is to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of pesticides. The regulators should not assume that their function is to work like a clearing house (just giving clearances). If the objective is clear, progressive provisions will certainly fall into place, to fulfill that objective,” Kuruganti said.