Strange is the interplay of money power, business interests and NGO politics. In most cases, farmers turn out to be victims. A recent notification of the Kerala government is a good instance. The State Government recently issued guidelines which render sale of pesticides illegal , unless supported by a prescription from an appropriate agricultural officer.
Behind this apparently innocuous notification lies a complex interplay of various interests. The ostensible object of the notification is to ensure a proactive remedy against health hazards caused by certain pesticides. The real purpose is to effectively proscribe a particular pesticide, viz. endosulfan blamed for certain incidents of congenital abnormalities, cancer and other diseases.
DEBATE OVER ENDOSULFAN
Endosulfan has been the subject of intense debate and controversy. Sixty nations have banned it — 27 belong to the European Union; the 21 African countries that have banned it have substantial trade with Europe known for its reservations against GM foods and pesticides in agricultural produce.
India accounts for about 70 per cent of the world production of this pesticide — about 12 million litres annually, valued at Rs 4,500 crore. The controversy is very similar to that concerning GM foods. European Union countries do not favour GM food items as they harm European pesticide interests. They also oppose pesticides that have ceased to interest them.
On the other hand, endosulfan is used on a very large scale by Indian farmers, particularly in horticulture and pulses. It is considered to be soft on pollinators such as honeybees and other beneficial insects such as ladybird beetles, though effective as a pest killer, acting through the digestive system. It is used for aerial sprays in the cashew plantations in Kasargode district of Kerala.
In the incidents reported from certain villages in Kasargode district , no conclusive evidence has been produced to show that the diseases were linked causally to endosulfan and nothing else. An independent study demonstrates that the symptoms in reported cases correspond to those of handi godu , attributed to chronic inbreeding in the region. Kasargode district represents a peculiar topography that is not ideal for aerial sprays. Endosulfan by itself applied locally might have produced no adverse effects of the alleged type.
The timing of the Kerala notification is ominous. A group of 172 nations is scheduled to meet in April 2011, under the auspices of the Stockholm Convention, to take a final decision on declaring endosulfan as a persistent organic pollutant (POP). India is opposed to such listing. This is for two reasons: First, it does not think that a proper case has been made against the pesticide; and second, Indian farmers have used endosulfan on a massive scale without any noticeable ill-effects.
IMPACT OF KERALA BAN
The notification making it obligatory for the farmer to produce a prescription from an agricultural officer as a precondition for purchase is an attempt by the Kerala government to torpedo the official position of the Government of India on the subject on the eve of the April meeting.
The appropriate organ for taking a decision on the subject of admissibility of any pesticide is the Stockholm Convention. The Kerala Government has rushed in and issued a diktat which will have large-scale ramifications on the existing agricultural system and the interests of farmers.
The present legislation regarding the use of pesticides in India does not have any provision where an agricultural officer is required to prescribe a particular pesticide if it has to be used. The notification does not even specify the grade and qualifications of agricultural officers eligible to issue the prescriptions.
Whatever the legal position, the Indian farmer has always been the sole and final arbiter of what nutrients and pesticides should be used in his farm. The notification is violative of farmers' rights.
In cases where the farmer thinks the application of some pest control method is desirable, he would be required to approach the appropriate agricultural officer and furnish details as to why he considers use of a particular pesticide necessary. Obtaining the prescription may take so long that the control action may come too late to be of any use.
If the system has to make any sense at all, the agricultural officer should be required to visit the farm before writing a prescription, exactly as a medical practitioner does. A self-seeking agricultural officer would find this an excellent opportunity for extra income — asking for voluminous information about the symptoms, soil composition, pesticides used in past, relevance for traceability analysis, and the incidence of pests in the neighbourhood etc.
In the field of health, both human and livestock, a medical practitioner who prescribes medicines or a line of treatment implicitly bears moral and legal responsibility for the effects of his prescriptions. The medical practitioner can be proceeded against under various laws on charges of negligence and malpractice. There is no corresponding legislation that would make the agricultural officers accountable.
The European pesticide industry has had little interest, since 2001, in endosulfan. European civil society abhors pesticides. Indian NGOs campaign against pesticides which do not interest European manufacturers. The vigour of the NGOs' campaign against endosulfan concides with the decline in European interest in the pesticide.
Farmers in India at large have found endosulfan to be a pesticide that does not harm any of the pollinator forms of life. The Kerala government has not been able to link causally the incidence of diseases to the use of endosulfan but is politically committed to banning the pesticide. In this tussle between diverse players, farmers might be faced with yet another difficulty in increasing agricultural production, in addition to the usual woes of power cuts, rising fuel prices, shortage of labour, non-availability of water and quality seeds — and the possibility that land ceiling limits may be lowered.
(The author is Founder, Shetkari Sanghatana, and a former Rajya Sabha MP. >email@example.com