Allowed to Breathe Poison in Vidarbha Part 2 of our investigation reveals lacunae in the system that leads to pesticide poisoning deaths

21, Oct 2017 | Sushmita

In our previous story concerning pesticide related deaths in Vidarbha, we illustrated how the deaths were preventable and occurred only due to the apathy and callousness of authorities that should have done a better job regulating the quality and sale of pesticides in the state. We also demonstrated how various authorities washed their hands off any responsibility and squarely blamed the farmers for their own deaths. In this story we will examine international standards and best practices to understand further the lacunae in our system.

We looked into various provisions of the Insecticides Act, 1968 and how these were not being adhered to by small and big players. How dangerous pesticides like Monocrotophos that is sold under the brand name Monocil and that was directly responsible for the deaths of 18 farmers in Yavatmal, are easily available over the counter.

Acts and legal provisions

Though the Insecticides Act was enacted in 1968 to ensure a mechanism to regulate the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides with a view to preventing risk to humans and animals, several lacunae in the Act made the unregulated flow of pesticides possible in the markets. Some of these loopholes include a lack of clarity on qualification for manufacturers, dealers, stockists and commercial pest control operators, larger representation of experts in the Central Pesticides Board and the Registration Committee, fixing tolerance limits of pesticides as a pre-condition of their registration. Also, since the Act was drafted about 5 decades ago, an elaborate description of pesticides to cover any substance of chemical or biological origin intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, mitigating or controlling any pest, including unwanted species of plants or animals, which may enable regulation of existing pesticides as well as new discoveries, is missing.

A new Pesticides Management Bill was tabled in the parliament in 2008. The said bill claims to cover all aspects of development, regulation and quality monitoring, production, management, packaging, labeling, distribution, handling, application, control, including post registration activities and disposal of all types of pesticides. The Bill proposes stringent punishments to check production and sale of misbranded, sub-standard and spurious pesticides, besides, and most importantly, providing for the disposal of expired, sub-standard and spurious pesticides in an environment friendly and safe manner.

The Indian Pesticide Industry and Market

Keeping this regulatory act at the background, it is important to focus our attention to the flourishing pesticides industry in our country. India is the fourth largest global producer of pesticides with an estimated market size of around $4.9 billion in FY17 after United States, Japan and China. This is an improvement of its twelfth rank in global production during the FY 2007-08.  The market comprises of large companies such as UPL, Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science, Insecticides India Limited and others which possess a large product portfolio of pesticides products. Apart from them, there are other fragmented industries with about 30 to 40 large manufacturers and about 400 formulators.

India is the thirteenth largest exporter of pesticides. Key growth drivers include India’s capability in low cost manufacturing, the availability of technically trained resources, seasonal domestic demand, overcapacity, better price realization globally, and a strong presence in generic pesticide manufacturing. Indian agrochemical industry, which is estimated at $ 4.4 billion in FY15, is expected to grow at 7.5 percent annually to reach $ 6.3 billion by FY20, with domestic demand growing at 6.5 percent per annum and export demand at 9 percent per annum, according to a report jointly presented by Tata Strategic Management Group (TSMG) and FICCI at the latter’s sixth National Conference on Agrochemicals 2016 in New Delhi. (  )

The market is largely unregulated and easy to manipulate owing to the loopholes. This is where the trouble lies.

Banning the harmful pesticides

Despite the public knowledge about some of the pesticides causing farmers deaths over the last two months, such as Monocrotophos, Oxydemetonmethyl, Acephate and Profenophos, Indian regulatory authorities have still not banned these. MS Gholap, Director of Agriculture (Input and Quality Control) Pune, claimed that the state agricultural ministry had submitted its list of chemical pesticides to be banned temporarily (for a period of 60 days) to the Maharashtra state government. However, the process of banning is tedious and time consuming and requires approvals at multiple levels. Contrast this to the easy availability of extremely hazardous and harmful substances.

The deprived and the dead

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally three million intentional and unintentional pesticide poisoning episodes occur annually and, of these, a minimum of 300 000 die, with 99% of the cases being from low- and middle- income countries. The fact remains that the pesticides produced and exported in the Global North are exported to the third world countries. Here these are sold to untrained, mostly illiterate farmers, who not only lack appropriate personal equipment, but also fail to comprehend the hazards and toxicity of the chemicals being used. A book, Circle of Poison published in 1981 triggered the activism around these toxic pesticides across the globe.

The Struggle in South Asia

However, more than three decades later farmers in South Asian countries, especially the ones dependent on agriculture, like India, constantly find themselves in a precarious situation. A Pesticides Action Network (PAN) report observed that highly hazardous pesticides were often being used although the ability of workers to protect themselves very limited. Even if the farmers are aware of the protective gear and equipment, spending on these is an additional cost that they are not able to bear. The protective gear that is available is again, not at par with those of industrialised industries.

Over the last couple of years factors like farmers switching to high yielding crops like BT cotton, which in turn require more toxic sprays and monoculture style of farming have necessitated the use of certain pesticides. Farmer Rights Activist, Kishor Tiwari who has closely followed this trend and its impact on people told Indian Express, “These crops have been grown on ten lakh hectares. The pests affecting it, atmospheric changes, excessive use of atropine to treat the affected people, leading to brain, kidney and eyesight damage are some of the contributing factors for the tragedy,”

International Trends and Best Practices

For an insight into how toxic these substances are, and how various countries have dealt with it, one needs to turn to cases of countries like Sri Lanka which have banned toxic pesticides like Monocrotophos, one of the pesticides that caused deaths of farmers in India in last two months. Organophosphate is a component of Monocrotophos and is very toxic, the WHO has put it in 1-B category, which means that the chemical is extremely hazardous and harmful. China has followed a process of gradual phasing out of Monocrotophos with a ban now on sale and use. use of Monocrotophos is further not permitted in Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand and Vietnam. Monocrotophos use in India in vegetables was banned in 2006 due to high residue levels.

Various countries as mentioned in the below table have followed different processes for restricting the use of Monocrotophos.

International Standards for Pesticide Regulation

One only has to wonder, despite this widely available global data experience, what has stopped Indian authorities and regulatory bodies from banning it?

The Larger Picture

However, a ban on the pesticides or legislating acts only, cannot address the larger problems that Indian farmers are facing. Little is done in India to invest in rural infrastructures which would reduce costs. Even in the case of mass poisoning in the last two months, the doctors of Government Medical College (GMC) Hospital, were caught unawares and did not know how to respond or what was causing the deaths. Further, unlike other countries like US, farmers are not compensated for any losses they incur due to weather inconsistencies or any other factor. Moreover, the markets are extremely competitive and stacked against them. The farmers have to compete with global prices depressed by subsidies. This traps them in an ever vicious cycle of wanting more yields, increasing use of pesticides every year, increasing debts but barely any returns.  Either they are forced to commit suicide or die unnaturally in such occupational hazards as the one that took place in Yavatmal and other nearby areas in last two months!


Feature Image by Amir Rizvi: Harmful pesticides like Monocrotophos are easily available over the counter


Part-1: No One Killed Our Farmers

Part-3: Plugging the Loopholes

Other Related Reads:

Reporting from Ground Zero, Yeovatmal: Pesticide Deaths in Kapas (Cotton) Cultivation

Onward March: Struggle of Maharashtra Farmers Continues


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