India is the fourth-largest producer of agrochemicals in the world, declared agricultural minister Narendra Singh Tomar, at a speech in September 2021. Speaking at the 41st annual general meeting of CropLifeIndia, a group of 15 crop science companies in the country, he was quoted in media, saying, “Seeing the potential of this sector, the government has included the agrochemical sector among the 12 champion sectors where India can play an important role in the global supply chain.”

Agrochemicals are chemicals used for industrial agriculture. They can be crop protection chemicals such as pesticides that include insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. They can also be crop nutrient chemicals such as synthetic fertilisers.

A farmer spraying crop protection chemicals in a farm. Agrochemicals are mainly used in industrial agriculture and they include insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Credit: vespertunes/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry report in 2021, on the agrochemical sector, stated that India is one of the most prominent exporters of agrochemicals in the world, exporting to four main countries – USA, Japan, China and Brazil. The most prominent agrochemicals exported include mancozeb, 2,4D, acephate, chlorpyrifos, cypermethrin and profenos.

Market trend reports show that India is being keenly looked at as an ideal hub for export-oriented production of agrochemicals. India is currently the 12th largest exporter of chemicals in the world (excluding pharmaceuticals). They broadly include alkali chemicals, inorganic chemicals, pesticides and dyes and pigments. They form the backbone of the industrial and agricultural sectors and also serve as building blocks of a number of downstream industries such as textiles, paper, paints, soaps etc.

The top five chemical varieties exported from India include herbicides, insecticides, pigment emulsions, fungicides and reactive dyes.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry report, put together by PricewaterhouseCoopers, states that India is well on its way to becoming a global manufacturing hub for agrochemicals. About 50% of the growth witnessed by agrochemical companies in India from about 2015-’16 onwards has been driven by exports, noted the report. Low cost of resources, relatively lesser usage of agrochemicals in the domestic market [India uses 0.6 kg/hectare of agrochemicals while the world average is 2.6 kg/hectare], the Indian government’s ‘Make In India’ and associated initiatives, and the Covid pandemic after which manufacturing companies are contemplating reducing their dependence on China by shifting production to India, are some of the factors that work in favour of India becoming an agrochemical hub, the report highlighted.

Among the chemical manufacturing states, Gujarat leads with the highest number of chemical factories (including agrochemicals) in the country, according to the chemical statistics data provided by the government of India. The 2,757 chemical factories gave an output worth Rs 2.9 trillion in 2017-’18. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh are the other leading states for chemical manufacturing.

While this export-oriented manufacturing hub seems to glow India’s economic growth prospects, there is plenty of evidence pointing to the deadly impact of misuse of these chemicals, particularly crop-protection pesticides which are harmful when used inappropriately or in excess.

In India, crop-protection pesticides are mainly used in cotton, paddy, wheat, sugarcane, lentils and vegetables. A cotton farmer uses about twenty different kinds of pesticides during one growth cycle. “We can’t grow crops without pesticides. Pests and diseases kill our crops. If it weren’t for weedicides, we would have to hire labour to remove unwanted weeds etc. So, it is also cost efficient,” said Manoj Bhai Patel, a 56-year-old cotton farmer in Tralsa, a village in Bharuch district of Gujarat.

A report by Pesticide Action Network India, an independent non-profit organisation, indicates that herbicide use in particular is linked to the perception that it is better and more economically efficient to use the agrochemicals instead of managing workers.

While there is low awareness about the use and impact of agrochemicals, there is also a push from the industries to use more agrochemicals, linking it to better yield.

Deadly impact

Pollution generated by agrochemicals is largely of two types – one is the point pollution generated from the source, where factories manufacture the agrochemicals. The second is diffused pollution, that comes after application of the agrochemicals on crops.

Crop-protection pesticides in India are mainly used in cotton, wheat, paddy and vegetable farms. Credit: Devendra/Pixahive

Narasimha Reddy, public policy expert and strategic advisor with the Pesticide Action Network India, told Mongabay-India that glufosate and paraquat are two extensively used pesticides in the country. Pesticide Action Network India, formed in 2013, is a research and advocacy non-profit working to reduce dependence on toxic chemicals for pest control. “The registration of these chemicals restricts their use to tea-plantation and non-plantation areas. But it is used in other crops as well,” he said.

In 2017, the media reported a wave of pesticide-related deaths in Yavatmal, a cotton producing village in Maharashtra. At least 22 people died and over 180 were seriously injured after spraying a cocktail of toxic pesticides which contained monocrotophos, a chemical which was not approved by authorities and did not come with guidance on dosage and usage. In Odisha, 171 people died of poisoning by paraquat dichloride in 2019.

In May 2020, the government of India released a draft notification, the Banning of Insecticides Order, prohibiting the manufacture and use of 27 insecticides. The order, almost three years later, is still a draft.

Around twenty different kinds of pesticides are used by cotton farmers in one growth cycle to protect the crop from pests and diseases. Credit: Supriya Vohra/Mongabay

In India, before a pesticide is introduced in the market, it has to undergo a series of checks and balances. The Insecticides Act, 1968 and The Insecticide Rules, 1971 were set up to regulate the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides with a view to prevent risk to human beings or animals. The Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee was set up under the insecticides act to advise the central government on the manufacture of insecticides under the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, 1951 (65 of 1951), specify the uses of the classification of insecticides on the basis of their toxicity as well as their being suitable for aerial application and several related functions. One of the functions also includes clearly indicating the dosage and frequency of application, the potential harm caused, and approving the crops where the said pesticides can be applied.

As of October, there are 820 pesticide formulations registered under the act, and 939 molecules in the schedule. At the same time, the government also released a list of pesticides banned and refused registration in the country.

In February 2022, Pesticide Action Network India released a report on their findings about the use of four pesticides – chlorpyrifos, paraquat dichloride, atrazine and fipronil in seven different states in India. The findings – based on primary data gathered from 300 respondents in seven states as well as secondary data – revealed that the agrochemicals were being used indiscriminately, on a number of non-approved crops (crops on which these chemicals have not been approved for usage). The findings also showed that the only point of contact for information about the pesticides for the farmers were the salespersons and retailers selling the pesticides, and that none of the retail points assessed had a stock of recommended personal protective equipment, and about one third had some sort of poor-quality safety gear. The report also said that labelling, recommended use and actual use of these four pesticides (chlorpyrifos, fipronil, atrazine and paraquat dichloride) breached provisions of Insecticide Act, 1968 and Insecticide Rules 1971, as well as the International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management.

Apart from this, there are a few studies in India that show that pesticides, when indiscriminately and inappropriately applied to crops, may leach into the soil and into the groundwater, and run-off in the rain into surface water bodies, contaminating them. Pesticides settling in sediment and soil manage to find their way into water bodies, endangering aquatic life as well. “Apart from chronic poisoning, biomagnification (accumulation of toxic chemicals in organisms) is a major threat of pesticides,” said GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director at The Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad. “You spray the pesticide on the crops, rain washes it and it gets mixed with the soil, and the run-off is mixed in water bodies. Insects eat these plants and get eaten by fish which get eaten by humans. The residue of the chemicals remains and has an effect 20 or 50 years later. It is a cumulative impact,” he explained.

Trucks lineup outside an agrochemical factory in Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation, Dahej, Bharuch. India is one of the most prominent exporters of agrochemicals in the world, with Gujarat having the highest number of chemical factories in the country. Photo by Supriya Vohra/Mongabay.


Gujarat is considered to be the chemical corridor of India. Gujarat is also consistently one of the worst polluters of water bodies. It is among the top five states in the country with polluted rivers, with as many as 20 rivers that are critically polluted. Most of this pollution is untreated effluents, largely agrochemical pollutants, being discharged from industries, especially in the Gulf of Khambhat region.

In May 2022, the Central Pollution Control Board and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board released a joint report on their findings of wastewater management in Dahej Industrial Area in Bharuch district of Gujarat. They examined all the “red” category industries discharging wastewater in the drainage network managed by the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation. Red category industries are those with a pollution index score of over 60. The pollution index is a function of the emissions (air pollutants), effluents (water pollutants), hazardous wastes generated and consumption of resources.

There were 232 red category industries in the area, related to agrochemicals, pigments, dyes, papers etc. Of these, 53 industries were examined, out of which at least 20 were agrochemical companies. All were found to be flouting norms. All were discharging untreated wastewater into the drainage network which was going into the rivers and the intertidal region. The companies were directed to pay an environmental damage compensation cumulative of Rs 61.98 million.

This report came off the back of a National Green Tribunal order of February 2022 [Aryavart Foundation vs Hemani Organics] wherein inspections of the industrial area revealed a tremendous amount of untreated wastewater was being discharged into the drainage network. The water was a cocktail of chemicals in proportions well above the permissible. On reading the joint report, the National Green Tribunal stated that the regulatory authorities have not been enforcing the law by way of closures, prosecution, and recovery of compensation for past violations.

The National Green Tribunal directed the state pollution control board and the state of Gujarat to ensure effective closure of the industries (including a significant chunk of agrochemical industries). The closure process includes disconnecting water and electricity supply and not discharging into the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation effluent conveyance system; not permitting discharging of the effluents in the intertidal zone and ensuring proper mode of disposal of treated effluents as applicable and in case of marine disposal, laying submarine pipeline with diffuser system ensuring the proper dilution and no damage to the marine ecosystem; restoration of the environmental damage caused in terms of soil and groundwater and other components and setting up of proper monitoring mechanisms.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.