Reports indicate that a new Pesticides Management Bill 2020 is ready to be introduced into the Parliament in this session, with the earlier 2008 version proposed to be withdrawn by the government. The current state of regulation of pesticides in India, using the extant law called Insecticides Act 1968, has not caught up with post-modern pest management science nor has taken cognizance of a huge body of scientific evidence on the ill effects of synthetic pesticides. It is high time that new legislation is brought in – however, what is unclear is if the Pesticides Management Bill 2020 has indeed overhauled its approach to regulation as needed.
India is the fourth-largest producer of pesticides in the world, with the market segmentation tilted mainly towards insecticides, with herbicides on the increase in the recent past. It is reported that eight states consume more than 70% of the pesticides used in India. Amongst the crops, paddy accounts for the maximum share of consumption (26-28%), followed by cotton (18-20%), notwithstanding all the hype around Bt technology. There are 292 pesticides registered in the country, and it is estimated that there are around 104 pesticides that are continued to be produced/ used in India that have been banned in two or more countries in the world. The industry has grown to be an INR 20,000 crores business in India, with the top 3 companies having a market share of 57%.
The acute pesticide poisoning deaths and hospitalisations that Indian farmworkers and farmers fall prey to are ignominious by now. It is not just human beings but wildlife and livestock that are poisoned routinely by toxic pesticides as numerous reports indicate.
Against this backdrop, any new Pesticides Management Bill (PMB) should be seen as an opportunity to set right many shortcomings of the existing regulatory regime around pesticides in India and to clean up our food and farming systems as much as we can. Information from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare on its latest draft of the Bill shows some improvements compared to earlier versions. However, many more shortcomings have to be plugged before the statute can be enacted and this article is an effort to enumerate some much-needed amendments.
Firstly, the sole objective of the statute to be stated in the Preamble should be clearly limited to protecting human health and the environment from the risks posed by pesticides. Any ‘clearing house’ or facilitation objectives in regulatory legislation indicate a certain promotional approach that does not bode well. All the regulators would also be clearer about their responsibility with this sole objective of biosafety protection as the reason for the legislation. Promotion does not need regulatory legislation, and is usually done through programs and schemes. In this spirit, there should be no time limit specified for registration of pesticides from the time of receipt of an application. Why should speedy registrations of toxic materials take place at all, when farming can indeed be done without the use of synthetic pesticides and with the use of postmodern pest management science and agro-ecological practices?
Second, all statutory appointments to the Central Pesticides Board and the Registration Committee should clearly specify that members should be independent, completely devoid of any conflict of interest with the pesticide industry.
Third, registration-related provisions should clearly include a Need and Alternatives Assessment before a pesticide registration application is processed. The logic here is why should we have more and more chemicals registered and used when (safer) alternatives exist. This is one clear mechanism by which the objective of the Bill can be fulfilled.
Fourth, registration procedures should lay down some terms and conditions. The applicant has to specify whether a particular pesticide has been banned or severely restricted in two or more countries. If yes, such a pesticide should not be registered in India. WHO Class I and II pesticides should not be registered and the same should apply to known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, teratogens, etc., and those pesticides implicated in most cases of ingestion or inhalation poisonings in the country.
Fifth, every registered pesticide should automatically come up for a review every five years. Reviews can also be triggered by any data captured in new poisoning data systems to be instituted, or regulatory actions in other countries. A separate review committee should be set up under the Act, consisting only of biosafety experts, different from the Registration Committee.
Sixth, all registrations should be based on long term, independent and transparent biosafety assessment, without any conflict of interest. Such an assessment should be of the active ingredient but also of ‘inert substances’ that go into formulating a pesticide, and of breakdown products.
Seventh, state governments should be empowered with the power to prohibit the manufacture or use of a pesticide in their jurisdiction (and not just for one year, pending reviews). After all, India’s Constitution itself empowers the states to have this authority, and they are best suited to figure out which pesticides are to be used and which not, in their respective states.
Eighth, agricultural labourers, farmers and ordinary citizens should not be forced to take recourse to the Consumer Protection Act to seek compensation if “affected” (the PMB proposes this right now). The effects can be on health, or it could be contamination of an organic crop, or the poisoning of livestock etc. Pesticide registrants and manufacturers (this is often outsourced to small units) should be made accountable and liable for any such impacts for compensation and remediation. The proposed Compensation Fund should be created by collecting a cess from the industry and cannot depend only on penalties collected for contraventions of the Act. All other players involved in the production and supply chain of pesticides can be asked to seek their redressal in the Consumer Protection Act.
Ninth, penalties for contraventions of the Act should be deterring enough. Today, even though aerial spraying of pesticides with the use of drones is illegal, it is being done by numerous entities.
Tenth, pesticides industry should be brought under a regulatory regime that makes it accountable for the entire product cycle including disposal. Regulation should also cover advertising and aggressive marketing – pesticides are after all toxic substances!
The fears around productivity dips without synthetic pesticides have been debunked by a large body of scientific evidence and experience of organic/natural farmers around the country.
The Prime Minister had put out a clarion call to farmers in his Independence Day speech in 2019, asking for a reduction in toxic chemicals in farming. This is quite possible, if the Pesticides Management Bill is passed with all the above elements incorporated.