The pesticide industry has frequently used SLAPP—Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation—to browbeat scientists and activists into silence.
As I write this column, I am mindful that I may receive a legal notice from the Centre for Environment and Agrochemicals or the Crop Care Federation of India. These organisations, representing pesticides manufacturers and formulators, have been sending us legal notices for many years. We utter the word pesticides and they send a legal notice or file a case literally. The latest case is a criminal defamation suit against some of us in the Mumbai Sessions Court for a minor typographical error in an article published in Down To Earth magazine in April 2012. In the article on pesticide residues in vegetables, instead of parts per billion, parts per million was printed in one place. An erratum was published, and yet the Crop Care Federation of India went ahead and filed the defamation case against us. The pesticide industry has frequently used SLAPP—Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation—to browbeat scientists and activists into silence. They send legal notices or file cases against people who speak against pesticides. But, this has not deterred some from raising legitimate concerns regarding pesticides.
There are major concerns regarding the draft Pesticides Management Bill, 2017 (PMB-2017), which has recently been released by the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare (MoAFW) for public comments. These have to be discussed in the public forum for an effective resolution, as PMB-2017 intends to replace the 50-year-old Insecticides Act of 1968. Researchers and activists have, for a long time, been demanding a new law to regulate pesticides, as the 1968 law has been found to be ineffective in protecting the health and safety of the people and the environment. An attempt was made in 2008 to replace the Insecticides Act, 1968. But, the Pesticides Management Bill, 2008, failed to get the assent of Parliament (and for the right reasons, as this was a very poor Bill) and lapsed. Now, against the backdrop of deaths of over 45 farmers due to pesticide poisoning in Vidarbha (mostly in Yavatmal) last year, the MoAFW has put out PMB-2017, and has asked for ‘comments of all concerned/stakeholders within fifteen days of hoisting the same on the website’. One wonders why there is such a hurry to get people’s views when normally 60 days are granted to the public to send comments on a new law.
Coming back to the issue of health and environmental impacts of pesticides, and the failure of the Insecticides Act, 1968—every year, thousands of people die due to accidental intake of pesticides. The scale of this problem came to light when the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) started reporting, from 2014 onwards, cases of ‘accidental intake of insecticides/pesticides’ as a separate category. In 2014 and 2015, the latest years for which data is available, 12,975 people died due to accidental intake of pesticides. To put this number in perspective, in 2014 and 2015, a total of 707 people died due to all terrorist attacks in the country. Yet, we learn of pesticides-related deaths only when a major incidence takes place as, for instance, the death of farmers in Yavatmal in 2017 or the death of some 22 children in 2013 due to pesticide poisoning of their midday meal in a school in Bihar. But, the fact is that in 2014 and 2015, one person died every 90 minutes due to accidental intake of pesticides.
Most of these deaths happen because we continue to use highly toxic Class I pesticides. The World Health Organization classifies pesticides, based on acute toxicity, as extremely hazardous (Class Ia) and highly hazardous (Class Ib). Eighteen Class I pesticides are allowed in India. A few of them are used heavily, and account for about 30% of the total pesticides used. Most of these are banned in as many as 40-60 countries. Monocrotophos, which was responsible for the deaths in Yavatmal, is banned in 60 countries. It is still one of the most widely used pesticides in India. The basic question we need to ask is why do we continue to use pesticides that are either too toxic or are found to have major long-term impacts on the environment and people? The answer lies in who regulates the pesticides, and the way pesticides are evaluated and registered for use. On top of this, there is the perpetual problem of enforcement on the ground. Dealers sell and farmers use pesticides as they wish.
The fundamental problem is that the ministry of agriculture, the existing regulator of pesticides in India, also happens to promote pesticides. There is a clear conflict of interest as the promoter cannot be the regulator. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency, with an objective to protect human health and environment, regulates pesticides. In Sweden, the Swedish Chemicals Agency reviews and authorises sale and use of plant protection products with the view to reduce risks to human and environment by chemicals. Until we resolve this conflict of interest, we cannot hope to effectively regulate the use of pesticides. The other problem is the over-the-counter (OTC) sales of pesticides. The current practice of OTC availability and dealer influence on gullible farmers is causing overuse and misuse of pesticides. Pesticides are hazardous chemicals with fatally acute as well as chronic toxic effects.They must be sold and used cautiously under supervision. Many European countries have adopted an authorisation procedure that requires users to have a special permit and training before they use a certain class of pesticides. We will have to adopt a similar authorisation process, and stop OTC sales of certain categories of pesticides.
Last, what should the role of the states be in pesticides management? Despite the fact that ‘agriculture, including agricultural education and research, protection against pests and prevention of plant diseases’ is a state subject as per Schedule VII of the Constitution of India, states have a limited role in pesticide regulation. In fact, under the current law, state governments can prohibit the sale of pesticides for reasons of public safety only for a period no longer than 180 days. After that, it is up to the Centre to decide whether to continue with the ban. But, the fact is that India is too big to have one prescription for pesticide use. The agro-ecological conditions in Kerala are very different from those in Rajasthan. Yet, currently, similar pesticides are registered for the same crops in both states. This is scientifically unsound and ecologically damaging. The state governments should have the power to regulate pesticides, as they have a better idea about agro-ecological aspects, including soil, climate, crops and pests, etc, in their state.
None of the above (or the many other problems) has been addressed in PMB-2017. PMB-2017 is no more than a slightly modified version of the Insecticides Act, 1968. Rather than regulating pesticides to protect the health of farmers, consumers and the environment, the proposed Bill dilutes even the objective of the 1968 law. The draft Bill is a vestige of the 20th century; we need a pesticide law that represents an understanding and reflects the requirements of the 21st century.
Deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment. Views are personal