Will the Pesticide Management Bill address farmers' concerns?

Rajalakshmi Nirmal | Updated on March 22, 2020

The Pesticide Management Bill, 2020, to be tabled in Parliament soon, should ban toxic pesticides and lay down stringent mechanism for registration?

Do you know that pesticides kill many every year in India?

In most cases, the reason for these deaths is poisoning from monocrotophos — a deadly pesticide which is banned in 60 countries but continues to be in use in India.

While deaths due to pesticide poisoning are under-reported, the most recent case was the death of 21 farmers in Yavatmal district of Vidharbha region in Maharashtra in 2017, a major cotton-growing area. They inhaled monocrotophos.

The same chemical was responsible for the death of 23 school children in 2013 in Bihar who had consumed the food prepared using cooking oil stored in an empty can of the insecticide.

Last year, the media reported that 31 were admitted to a government hospital in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, for treatment after they accidentally inhaled a poisonous pesticide while spraying it on crops.

Monocrotophos is classified as a Class I pesticide by the World Health Organization (WHO). Even a few grams of it can prove lethal. It is pertinent to mention that DDT and trifluralin continue to be permitted in the country though the Anupam Verma Committee had recommended a ban on both.

The government is all set to table the Pesticide Management Bill, 2020 in the ongoing Parliament session. None in the corporate sector or in the farming community seems to know about the contours of the Bill as it has been three years since the draft Pesticide Management Bill, 2017, was put in public domain and many changes have been made since then.

Farm activists are eagerly waiting to see if the new Bill will address the gaps in the five-decade-old Insecticides Act, 1968.

Harmful pesticides

There are about 269 different pesticides that have been approved for use in India under the Insecticides Act, 1968, as per data of the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage.

This list includes over 100 pesticides banned in two or more countries, according to Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).

The Anupam Verma Committee, constituted by the Centre in 2013 to review 66 hazardous pesticides, submitted its report in 2015 and recommended a ban on 13 pesticides, including DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane). Besides, it also suggested that 27 pesticides, including monocrotophos, be reviewed in 2018, and six pesticides — alachlor, dichlorvos, phorate, phosphamidon, triazophos and trichlorfon — be phased out by December 2020.

While the government did take some action on the committee report, it did not accept the committee recommendations in full. In 2018, the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare banned 11 pesticides, including benomyl, carbaryl, diazinon, fenarimol, fenthion, MEMC, methyl parathion, linuron and sodium cyanide, but left trifluralin, which is widely used as a herbicide on wheat; the panel remained silent on DDT.

The committee’s recommendation to phase out six pesticides by December 31, 2020, was accepted. The government ordered discontinuation of production and import by January 2019, but these pesticides are available in large quantities with dealers, in States including Tamil Nadu and Haryana, this correspondent has discovered.

Monocrotophos, a Class I pesticide which was among the 27 pesticides to be reviewed in 2018, as recommended by the Anupam Verma Committee, hasn’t seen any evaluation so far.

It is still available across the country and used by farmers.

A ground-level check revealed that monocrotophos is popular among paddy farmers in Haryana as it is the cheapest of the lot (₹400/litre).

Manoj Kumar Munjal, a paddy farmer from Taraori village, Karnal, said, “Earlier I was using endosulfan, then it was banned. For many years now I am using monocrotophos; it keeps pests away for 20 days. I know it is harmful, but what to do? This is the only low-cost option for farmers like me to keep away pests...”

Monocrotophos is sold under different names by 15 manufacturers, as per official data. Many listed big players in the pesticide space are among them.

The Agriculture Ministry’s ban on 11 pesticides in 2018 achieved little. For instance, benomyl and linuron were not consumed at all in 2017-18. Fenarimol and diazinon were used only in very little quantities by farmers.

The consumption of technical-grade pesticides has only been rising — from 0.2 kgs/hectare in 2004-05 to 0.29 kgs/hectare in 2016-17 — according to an ICAR-NIAP study. When seen State-wise, there are many which cross the national average.

In Punjab, the consumption of pesticides is 0.74 kgs/hectare, in Haryana 0.62 kgs/hectare and in Maharashtra 0.57 kgs/hectare.

While pesticide use in India is lower than in other countries, what is of concern is that there are many toxic pesticides in use.

While data from the Centre’s Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level Programme show that in 2017-18 only 2.2 per cent of all samples of commodities contained pesticide residues above the maximum residue limits (MRLs), most studies, including one of the National Institute of Nutrition, show far higher residues.

What should be done?

Farm activists want a ban on all pesticides that stand banned in other countries. The problem with “restrictions” on use on only particular crops is that due to leakages, poor monitoring, and lack of awareness, these pesticides end up on other crops, too, they say. Further, registration procedures should become more stringent.

Kavitha Kuruganti, National Convenor of ASHA, says: “The pesticides industry should not get provisions like ‘deemed to be registered’ and ‘provisional registration’ where pesticides without enough evidence on their safety and those that take longer time to be tested are allowed to be sold in the market.”

She added that the Bill should ensure registration of only those pesticides which are absolutely needed and proven to be safe.

States currently they do not have a significant role in regulation of pesticides, but should be given more powers, says Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

Even if States want to ban a pesticide, they can’t do it for a long time. This was the case of glyphosate where States, including Punjab, Andhar Pradesh and Kerala, wanted to ban it permanently, but couldn’t do so.

Farm activists hope that the Bill will approach matters from a farmer’s and a consumer’s point of view. Ramanjaneyulu added that the Bill should also look at bringing accountability on the regulator for pesticide poisoning and deaths, besides the company or industry, as it is the regulator who approves its manufacture and sale.

Further, the liability and redressal mechanism should be laid down clearly by the Bill, demand experts. Here, liabilities of companies and farmers who use illegal pesticides should be indicated and the possibility of profiteering by fly-by-night operators should be checked, they add.

It is hoped that the India’s Pesticide Management Bill will help put in place restrictions on toxic pesticides, promote alternatives keeping in mind the long-term impact on environment, and impose penalties that are stiff enough to deter violations of the law.

Published on March 22, 2020

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