Months after more than 40 people in three states were reported to have died in the second half of 2017 after being exposed to spurious pesticides, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has begun consultations on a new Pesticides Management Bill.
The deaths in rural Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana highlighted the fact that the Insecticides Act of 1968 that currently regulates pesticides has grown rusty, 50 years after it was introduced.
Even before these deaths, the need to update the new regulatory framework for pesticides had been noted. The Economic Survey of India of 2015-’16 had observed that indiscriminate pesticide use had resulted in pesticide residues being found in the food Indians are eating. With India’s agrochemical industry expected to grow 14.5% over the next five years, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in 2016 recommended the formation of a Pesticide Development and Regulation Authority to make oversight more effective.
The draft Pesticides Management Bill greatly expands on the Insecticides Act of 1968 in defining usage and registration norms and other regulations. It addresses the manufacturing, field usage and disposal of pesticides. It also codifies harsher punishments for manufacturers of spurious pesticides.
The proposed legislation is identical in structure and largely in detail to the Pesticides Management Bill of 2008 that had been drafted by the United Progressive Alliance. The proposed legislation had been introduced in the Rajya Sabha, but never passed.
On January 11, the first consultation meeting for the new Bill was held with representatives from all states, of pesticide companies and a few farmer groups. Though the Bill was not presented to farmer groups before the consultation, some pesticide industry representatives seemed to have copies and were prepared when asked for their inputs at the meeting, according to people present.
Nonetheless, farmers had some suggestions. “We have asked for some amendments to be made to the bill including harsher punishments for companies,” said Badrinarayan Chaudhary of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, one of the groups invited for the consultation. This includes demands for the Bill to mandate clear usage guidelines in local languages on labels of pesticide boxes and to tighten penalties on manufacturers of spurious or sub-standard pesticides.
The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh pointed out that, in its attempt to tighten regulations, the Bill could end up punishing farmers who use spurious pesticides. The Bill says: “whoever uses or causes to use” a pesticide in contravention of its provisions is liable to be imprisoned or to pay a fine up to Rs 5 lakh. It does not define the term “users”. The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh said the end users of pesticides are most often farmers, who are not responsible for the quality of pesticides and often not well informed about correct usage. The ambiguity in definition has raised fears that farmers and agricultural workers could be prosecuted for no fault of theirs.
Scroll.in’s attempts to contact the official responsible for drafting the Bill to seek a clarification were unsuccessful. This story will be updated if and when he responds.
States still do not get more control
The draft Bill retains for the Central government the powers it already has in the Insecticides Act. This may disappoint states such as Maharashtra and Punjab, which have been asking for greater control over the pesticides sold in their territories.
After the deaths of farmers in eastern Maharashtra between July and September 2017, the state banned five pesticides in October, including an organophosphate chemical called monocrotophos which it held partly responsible for their deaths. But under the Insecticides Act, a state government can ban pesticides only for 60 days, with an extension of 30 days after that. In January, Maharashtra asked the Centre to ban the five pesticides permanently.
The Bill extends the duration of the ban that the states can impose from 90 days to 240 days. But the power to grant or revoke registration of all pesticides sold in India will continue to vest with the Central Insecticide Board and its Registration Committee, which govern the manufacture, sale and use of insecticides across the country.
States can only grant licences for the sale, manufacture, transport and storage of pesticides. They do not have the power to revoke licences for sale. They can only choose not to renew the licences once they expire – which is what the Punjab government decided to do at the end of January, saying that it would not renew the licences of 20 pesticides.
Over the last ten years in Punjab, there have been only about 29 convictions for the sale of spurious or sub-standard pesticides, said Ajay Jakhar, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission. This data, he added, is representative of the trend in the rest of India.
While the draft Bill expands the fines imposed on people who manufacture and sell spurious pesticides, it still leaves room for heads of companies to avoid culpability.
“Those who make money should be prosecuted,” Jakhar said. “The marketing companies which own the brands make the money, the manufacturer is in most cases doing work for them. Therefore it’s essential that marketing companies too get prosecuted for violations for the sale of spurious or substandard pesticides.”
The Bill, however, diversifies representation on the Central Insecticide Board. It proposes to include farmers, state-level directors of agriculture from various agro-climatic zones and members of institutions such as the National Institution of Occupational Health and the Central Groundwater Board.
The board’s powers will be enhanced, according to the draft Bill. Key additions include functions to review the toxicity and safety of pesticides as per the latest global research and development, and to formulate guidelines for the safe disposal of obsolete, expired or banned pesticides.
Definitions have been expanded in the Bill. The Insecticide Act does not specify guidelines for registering chemicals used as fungicides or weedicides. If this Bill is passed, it will apply to any biological and chemical substances used on plants, including fungicides, weedicides, herbicides and biopesticides.
The Bill expands the role of the private sector in testing pesticides before they can be registered. The government can now notify laboratories certified to have “Good Laboratory Practice” or registered under the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration to conduct toxicity tests. They will be permitted to perform “any and all functions” of the Central Pesticides Laboratory in Faridabad, provided they do not have any financial interests in pesticides.