Why is Centre playing into the hands of pesticide manufacturers?

Centre is yet to implement the Verma committe report that banned 18 pesticides

INDIA-ECONOMY-AGRICULTURE Representational image | File

In December 2016, leading dailies in the country reported that the Centre was going to implement the Anupam Verma committee recommendations and will ban 18 pesticides. I was very happy to read this, even though the notification was phasing out only a few of the lethal ones. I felt that this would be a beginning of a dialogue around pesticides and the regulatory mechanism and slowly we would phase out the highly hazardous ones. 

However, more than eighteen months have passed and there has been no action so far from the present government.

I have been trying to get more information from the Ministry of Agriculture on the status of implementation of the notification. Their response to my RTI query says: “Representations have been received by the government against the draft gazette notification.” In other words, the pesticide industry has objected to the ban and phasing out of harmful chemicals. 

Of course, the industry would oppose the ban. What was the ministry expecting? Information obtained also reveals that the Verma committee gave ample opportunities to the Pesticide Manufacturers’ Association, which submitted several rounds of representation. It is only after examining these, that the committee gave its recommendations. Not to forget, Anupam Verma committee was set up by the Ministry of Agriculture to review pesticides and its recommendations were accepted by the ministry. Why is the ministry now bowing down to the powerful pesticide lobby and ignoring the health of farmers and consumers?

If we look at the history of pesticide review in the country, it is a very grim and scary picture. Most developed countries systematically review pesticides and phase out those that have proven to be harmful to human or animal health or ineffective in their function. We have no such mechanism and once a chemical has been approved, the license to manufacture is in perpetuity. The only review that we believe in is setting up committees and setting up more committees to review the recommendations of the previous committees. 

Several such committees have been set up in the past to examine the impact of pesticides—Dr Banerjee Committee (1991), Dr R.B. Singh Committee (1999), Dr Mayee Committee (2006), Dr Anupam Verma Committee (2015) and Dr Sandhu Committee (2018). What is ironical is that all these committees have been requesting similar information from the Pesticide Manufacturers’ Association. Among other things, they have consistently asked for data on 'human toxicity' and 'waiting period'. When I first read these documents, I thought I was reading something wrong.

Can we be so lax with human life that we have allowed these chemicals to be sold when we don’t have any data on the impact of these chemicals on human health? Scary, but it is true. 

The government of India only assesses the impact of pesticides on plants and animals and not on human beings. Countries like the US conduct human risk assessment and can ask for as many as 70 toxicology studies before approving a chemical. Most developed countries also review toxicity data every five years. In India, we don’t even have the baseline data. How then will we conduct any reviews?

Waiting period is another important term. Simply put, this is the minimum time that the farmer should wait after spraying a chemical and before harvest. Waiting time has to be defined for each chemical separately for each of the crops. Even if we were to imagine a perfect world where farmers had all the information, that would not be enough because waiting period for many chemicals has not been defined either by the industry or by the government. And then, we blame the farmers for spraying too many chemicals.

Let us consider Monochrotophos—a highly toxic chemical that was responsible for the mid-day meal death incident in Bihar as well as the ‘litchi deaths’. Monchrotophos is also the most commonly used suicide agent. It was licensed in India in 1972. We don’t have data on its toxicity/residue in vegetables because it is not supposed to be used in vegetables. The reality is that is used indiscriminately across the country on tomatoes, mangoes, grapes, brinjals, etc and studies conducted by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute have found very high residues in vegetables. The Verma Committee report also notes that “it is being misused”. These are not some “activist” reports; these are reports of India’s topmost agriculture institute.

The Mayee Committee set up in 2006, asked for certain health impacts of Monochrotophos. The Verma committee, set up a decade later, asked for the same impact studies. Why were no studies conducted? Meanwhile, several countries including the EU, USA, China and Vietnam have gone ahead and banned the chemical and the WHO has classified it as “highly hazardous”. But we will keep waiting for a few more decades for the industry or the government to study its impact on human health. 

As far as pesticide regulation is concerned, there is a serious lack of political will. In fact, the Verma committee, while submitting its report in December 2015, gave two years to industry to furnish toxicity reports and noted that ‘if the industry does not furnish data by December 2017 then the licence to manufacture that particular pesticide would stand to be cancelled in January 2018’. And even now, we don’t have any toxicity data. 

Also, isn’t there a conflict of interest here that we are asking the pesticide associations for toxicity of products it manufactures? What `evidence’ they will provide is anybody’s guess. 

The latest study by Hyderabad-based National Institute for Nutrition has found that children in Hyderabad are consuming 10 to 40 times more pesticides as compared to children in Europe, the US or Canada. There is enough scientific evidence to prove that pesticide exposure in children can have severe impacts ranging from learning disabilities to autism. I hope now the government would wake up and at least implement the recommendations of its own committee.

(The author is an environment specialist who has worked with several government and non-government organisations including the World Bank)