Raja was a woodcutter who leased half an acre of land from a relative to grow cotton in Tamil Nadu’s Perambalur district. He usually sowed groundnut, but in 2017, he decided to grow cotton for the first time.

On the morning of October 24, he went to the field to spray pesticides on the cotton plants which had grown 6-feet tall. He emptied 10-15 tanks of pesticide that morning and came home feeling dizzy and faint, his wife Meenakshi recalled. He vomited and had diarrhoea. At 3.30 the next morning, Raja’s family took him to a government hospital in an autorickshaw. The doctors told them Raja’s condition was extremely precarious since he had sprayed too much of pesticide. “They said it had gone up to his brain,” said Meenakshi. “They said they could not do anything.”

The family then took Raja to a private hospital. He died within minutes of arrival.

Eight other cotton farmers in Tamil Nadu died over the next three months in quite the same way – they accidentally inhaled toxins while spraying pesticides in the fields, their families said. The state agriculture department, however, acknowledged only two deaths in a response to a Right to Information application filed by Scroll.in.

Tamil Nadu is not the only state to have reported such deaths in 2017. Two deaths were aso reported in Telangana.

The highest numbers came from Maharashtra where more than 40 deaths in the eastern region of Vidarbha created an uproar, forcing the state government to establish a special investigation team to examine them. The team reported, among other things, that farmers who died had not taken precautions while spraying pesticides – they had failed to cover their mouths and wear protective suits while spraying cotton that had grown unusually high that year.

In Tamil Nadu, Raja, however, had worn a suit and a mask while spraying the pesticide, his wife said. Despite the precaution, he did not survive.

His case illustrates the multiple failures of the system governing pesticide use in India.

Raja had bought the pesticide from a private dealer, said his wife. Dealers do not offer reliable advice on how best to use pesticides, said farmers in the district. The government’s farm extension system which is meant to offer advisories to farmers barely functions. As a result, farmers often spray in excess.

But the lack of knowledge is not the sole problem. The tank Raja carried on his back that morning was filled with a monocrotophos-based pesticide that is manufactured by an Israeli company. Monocrotophos is an organophosphate, a class of pesticides composed of organic compounds that contain phosphorus and which form about half of the chemical pesticides in use around the world. Monocrotophos is classified as “highly hazardous” by the World Health Organisation and banned in several countries. It is banned for use only on food crops in India.

India sanctions the use of at least 99 pesticides that are banned in other countries, according to activists who filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in November to have them banned. Not only do the pesticides pose a direct risk to farmers who spray them, but their residue enters the food chain, affecting the health of both humans and animals. In 2002, the Ministry of Agriculture cited the “non-availability of safer/cheaper substitutes” to justify their use.

Meenakshi and her two children at a demonstration against pesticide use at Perambalur in December. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Beyond the sale of demonstrably toxic pesticides, however, lies a larger regulatory mess.

The registration, manufacture and sale of pesticides in India takes place under the Insecticides Act of 1968. The registration process under the law encourages the manufacture of multiple versions of the same pesticide molecule. This has resulted in 2.5 lakh pesticide products getting clearances, despite only 280 pesticide molecules being registered, according to figures from a report of a parliamentary standing committee in 2016.

With so many products entering the market, scrutiny is difficult. Spurious, misbranded or unregistered pesticides were estimated to account for 25% of the value of the Rs 27,000-crore agrochemical industry by a report prepared by the FICCI-TATA Strategic Management Group in 2015. The value of these spurious pesticides is estimated to grow to 40% of the industry value by 2019.

To improve the regulatory process, the Centre announced a draft Pesticides Management Bill in December, which will replace the Insecticides Act. Can this Bill prevent the deaths of farmers like Raja?

The first of Scroll.in’s two-part series on seeks to answer this question, while the second part examines the challenges on the ground.

First, a look at the gaps in pesticide regulations.

What is a pesticide?

The law in India defines insecticides vaguely as any substance in the Schedule of the Insecticides Act or any preparation that includes one of these substances.

In contrast, the United States, which is the largest pesticide market, consuming around 18% of the world’s pesticides, has an expansive definition: any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest, or intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant or dessicant, or any nitrogen stabiliser.

The vague definition in India has led to substances such as herbicides and plant growth stimulators going largely unregulated. Companies have exploited the gap in regulation to flood the market with these unregistered products, Maharashtra’s investigation into the farmers’ deaths found.

In Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu, shops selling agricultural products were packed with all kinds of bottles, many of them unregistered products. The shopkeepers claimed they simply responded to consumer demand. “We buy from manufacturers whatever the farmers demand,” said S Prabhu, a shopkeeper.

But farmers said it was the shopkeepers who advised them to use pesticides in combination with other products. Devarajan, a 43-year-old cotton farmer, fell ill in October after he sprayed three acres of crops with 25 tanks of a liquid cocktail. Each tank was filled with 50 ml of monocrotophos, 50 ml of a plant growth tonic and 40 ml of acephate concentrate. “My head was spinning and I was unable to even stand,” he said. “I began vomiting and also had loose motions. After a while, I lost consciousness.”

Devarajan, a farmer in Perambalur, survived pesticide poisoning. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Agricultural researchers say farmers rely heavily on the dealers, who blindly provide a standard set of inputs. “This is not based on the actual need, but is given without even verifying if there is a pest attack, or whether that much of inputs are required,” said R Rengalakshmi, director of the ecotechnology programme at MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Often farmer deaths were caused by the use of pesticides in “wrong combinations”, she added.

What changes under the new Bill: It substantively expands the definition of pesticides and active ingredients, and even defines substandard and spurious pesticides. If passed, the Bill will bring substances like plant hormones and herbicides firmly within the ambit of regulation.

The process of approval

Does the Bill also improve scrutiny at the time of approving new pesticides?

Currently, to introduce a new pesticide into the market, companies have to make several applications, both at the central and state levels. The process starts with the Central Insecticide Board, which approves new pesticides in the country.

For adding a new pesticide molecule to the schedule of the Insecticides Act, a manufacturer needs to submit to the board a dossier containing information on the chemistry of the formulation, a toxicology report detailing the impact of the pesticide on animals and plants, and bioefficacy data showing the effectiveness of the pesticide on crops grown in different agro-climatic regions.

In 2015, the government released a document which streamlined all the changes that had been made to the guidelines thus far for testing the toxicity of pesticides. One of the changes introduced sought to minimise the harm done to animals by testing. But the government was yet to formulate guidelines on how to assess the risk to humans, according to the latest version of the document uploaded in September 2017. This means the government is allowing pesticides to be sold in the market without knowing their impact on the people who use them.

The United States, by contrast, conducts a human health risk assessment that “estimates the nature and probability of harmful effects in people who may be exposed to pesticides”. It can ask for up to 70 toxicology tests, depending on the intended use of the pesticide, which detail the impact of the pesticide molecule on the environment, people and animals.

Even the bioefficacy data collected in India is weak. The tests are conducted at agricultural universities which are overstretched. The land used for the tests in several agricultural universities in Maharashtra has been overexploited for decades, said a person working at a Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Maharashtra, who asked not to be identified.

For the companies, this process is taxing. It can take between three to eight years instead of the one year prescribed by the Insecticides Act, said executives of two different companies that manufacture pesticides in India. According to the FICCI-TATA report, manufacturers keen to avoid the tedious length of the registration process market their insecticides as biopesticides to avoid regulation.

Graphics: Anand Katakam

Another option is to apply for “Me Too” registrations, where applicants apply to manufacture already-registered molecules. Since the chemical formulation has already been approved, the Registration Committee grants “Me Too” registrations within months.

This might explain why India has around 280 registered pesticide molecules but 2.5 lakh registered products.

This creates two problems. One, because of the prohibitive costs of registering an entirely new molecule and the relative ease of manufacturing existing ones, new and potentially safer molecules do not regularly enter the market. Two, Given the volume, state governments are evidently unable to monitor their use.

In response to a Right to Information application filed by Scroll.in in January 2018, the Tamil Nadu agriculture department listed the names of 98 companies that hold licences for the sale of pesticides. However, the department could not provide the names of all the products sold and their chemical formulation. “Each Sale Permission Holder unit gets licence for minimum 150 products,” it said. “Hence, the dealers are in high volume. Hence, we cannot provide all details.”

Across India, according to the FICCI-TATA report, there are “about 125 technical grade manufacturers, including about 10 multinationals, more than 800 formulators and over 145,000 distributors in India.”

What changes under the new Bill: Nothing. It does not specify a time gap between the registration of the molecule and the first “Me Too” registration.

Pesticide shop in Perambalur district. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Getting a licence

After a pesticide is registered, companies need to get a licence to manufacture or sell it. For this, they need to approach state authorities.

Under the Insecticide Act, states are empowered only to accept or reject licence requests, said Subhash Katkar, chief quality control officer of Maharashtra’s agriculture department. They cannot make additions to the Act. This limits their powers in regulating the use of pesticides, said Katkar.

Faced with a profusion of non-registered agricultural products like herbicides and growth hormones, Maharashtra made a rule in 2010 that products not registered under any act must obtain bioefficacy testing reports from State Agriculture Universities for three seasons. In seven years, Maharashtra received applications for 972 products and rejected all but eight. However, an association of organic farmers then took the state to court and had the rule squashed in 2017.

Since then, the state issued a government resolution saying that no unregistered product will be sold in licenced agricultural shops, effectively banning these products altogether.

What changes under the new Bill: Not much. It expands the monitoring duties of states – agricultural officers must regularly collect and furnish information on the infrastructure of pesticide manufacturers and, somewhat baffling, on the performance of pesticides in improving agricultural protection. But it does not allow the states broader control beyond the granting or rejection of licences.

Reviewing pesticides

In the current system, registering a new pesticide takes long but once it is done, the registration is valid for perpetuity, unless the molecule is banned. Such bans are rare because the Ministry of Agriculture does not periodically review the impact of pesticides.

“There is no specific provision for periodic scientific evaluation of impact of insecticides on human and animal health in the Insecticides Act, 1968,” the ministry told the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture in 2015-’16. It added that insecticides are reviewed by an expert committee “as and when the information about toxic effect of any insecticides or the information that particular insecticide is banned/severely restricted in other countries comes to the notice of the Government”.

Despite advances in toxicological research, between 1970 and 2015, the government had banned only 34 insecticides or insecticide formulations, withdrawn seven insecticides and restricted the use of 13 insecticides.

In 2015, the government set up an expert committee headed by Anupam Verma to review 66 of at least 99 pesticides in use in India, which are banned in other countries. It recommended an immediate ban on 13 pesticides. The government initially drafted a ban notification in December 2016 based on the report, but then ended up creating another committee in March 2017 to evaluate the objections and suggestions to it. The first chairman of the committee retired without submitting a report in July 2017, leading the government to reconstitute under another chairman two months later.

As of April 2018, no report has been submitted, according to Kavitha Kuruganti, co-convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture who is the lead petitioner of the public interest litigation seeking the implementation of the Anupam Verma committee report and also the ban of all 99 pesticides banned in other countries.

Meanwhile, all the reviewed pesticides continue to be available in the market.

In addition to banning 13 pesticides, the Anupam Verma committee said it would review 27 others by January 1, 2018. Monocrotophos was one of them. The results of this second review exercise are yet to be declared.

What is noteworthy, however, is that the expert committee asked companies manufacturing the pesticides to supply the data for the review. This is similar to the requirement that companies provide a dossier on toxicity at the time of registering a new molecule. Even the executive of a pesticide company agreed this posed a conflict of interest, with the results likely to be foretold.

The expert committee also recommended a ten-year periodic evaluation of pesticides. But activists say the government simply lacks the capacity to generate independent scientific evidence on pesticides. “The agriculture department is not equipped to take up health studies,” said Kuruganti. “The health department does not have the capability either, because they are focussed on diseases.”

At the state level, agriculture officers are required under the Insecticides Act to periodically collect samples from pesticide retailers. This sample collection is often selective, with dealers being informed in advance of coming inspections, according to one of the company executives.

Significantly, the law limits state powers for prosecution and testing. Laboratories at the state level can only test the label claims of companies – whether the active ingredient is in the correct proportion. “This testing is the kind done in 11th and 12th standard classes,” said Deepak Rengade, supervisor at the Thane Insecticide Testing Laboratory near Mumbai. Only the Central Insecticide Laboratory in Faridabad is empowered to test samples before registration.

This has reduced the scope for review – the Central Insecticide Laboratory has a target of testing only 1,600 samples per year, but state level laboratories across India together have the capacity to test around 68,000 samples each year, according to the FICCI-TATA report. In any legal dispute over the quality of a pesticide, the decision of the Central Insecticide Laboratory is final.

The Central Insecticides Board did not respond to requests for meetings or questions emailed by Scroll.in.

States can ban the use of pesticides only for 90 days. Few spurious pesticide companies have been brought to conviction.

Graphics: Anand Katakam

“In the last ten years in Punjab, there have been less than 30 convictions for the sale of spurious or sub-standard pesticides,” said Ajay Jakhar, Chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission. “This data is representative of rest of India too. Central laws limit states’ ability to act in interest of its people and environment. In a federal structure, where agriculture is a state subject, this is wrong.”

Graphics: Anand Katakam

What changes under the new Bill: It clarifies the rules of collecting samples, specifying their weight and portions, and how soon they should be delivered for testing or analysis. It allows states to ban pesticides up to 180 days but it does not expand their powers of review. The Bill also has a controversial provision that will allow private accredited laboratories to carry out any or all testing functions of the Central Pesticides Laboratory, as long as there are no financial connections between interest between any official in the private laboratory and the pesticide industry.

New bill, old problems

In 2008, an almost identical draft of the Pesticides Management Bill was introduced in Parliament. There was no consultation meeting held at that time with any stakeholders, said D Narasimha Reddy of the Pesticide Action Network, which works closely with farmers. The Bill was not passed.

This time, the Centre held a consultation on the Pesticides Management Bill in January. It formally invited six industry representatives but only one farmer group – the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Later, invitations were extended to a few other farmer groups, two of which are directly linked with the government.

“I don’t think the government was serious about getting inputs from stakeholders even this time,” Reddy said. “Even after this consultation, some of the inputs given by farmer organisations were not included in the updated draft.”

The involvement of farmers is crucial, not only to rethink regulations, but also to find effective ways of communicating safety information. No matter how rigid the regulations become, toxic pesticides will continue to pose a risk to the health of farmers, if they do not know how to use them safely.

The next story in this series examines how the state has ceded this space almost entirely to private players, many of whom have commercial interests in advising farmers to use excessive pesticides.

Cotton farmers spray a mixture of pesticides and plant growth stimulants on their crops. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Also read

Indian farmers spray a deadly cocktail of pesticides because the government lacks staff to guide them