In 2017, more than 50 farmers in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana died while spraying pesticides in their fields. Most of them were cotton cultivators and many had used monocrotophos-based pesticides.

Monocrotophos is an organophosphate, a class of pesticide composed of organic compounds that contain phosphorus. Classified as highly hazardous by the World Health Organisation, it is banned in several countries. India restricts its use only for food crops.

The use of killer pesticides is just one of the many failures of pesticide regulation in India. In a two-part series, took an indepth look at the abdication of responsibility by the government at every level, from the process of approving pesticides to the lack of periodic review, and even the vacuum at the ground level where farmers are forced to rely on pesticide dealers for usage and safety information since government advisories are missing. The stories are here and here.

Briefly, here is what we found:

1. India is regulating pesticides under a law passed in 1968

The government’s pesticide regulations are opaque and grossly out of date. Pesticides are regulated under the Insecticides Act of 1968. A new Pesticides Management Bill has been drafted to replace this law, but it is largely similar in structure and will not change ground realities, say experts.

2. The government assesses pesticide impact on plants and animals – but not on humans

The United States 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.

In contrast, the Central Insecticides Board, which approves new pesticides in India, asks for a toxicology report detailing the impact of the pesticide only on animals and plants. The government is yet to formulate guidelines on how to assess the risk to humans.

3. One third of pesticides in use in India are banned in other countries

India sanctions the use of at least 99 pesticides that are banned in other countries. Monocrotophos is just one of them. More than a third of all pesticide molecules registered in the country – at least 99 of the 260 molecules – are banned in other countries because they are unsafe either to their direct users or to the larger environment and food chain, an analysis by activists has shown.

Research conducted in India itself shows pesticides such as monocrotophos have a lasting impact on the neurological and respiratory health of people who come in contact with them.

4. The government has no process to review pesticides periodically

India is still using pesticides first registered in the 1970s and 1980s, even though developments in the field of toxicology since then have shown some of them are hazardous. This is because India registers pesticide molecules in perpetuity, without a provision for regular review.

The law does not require the government to conduct regular reviews. On the rare occasion that it has reviewed and banned pesticides, it has not shown the will to implement the bans. In 2015, the Anupam Verma Committee recommended banning 13 pesticides, and asked for a review of 27 others by January 2018. In December 2016, the government even issued a draft notification to ban these 13 pesticides, but months later set up a committee to review the first committee’s decision. The second committee has not yet submitted its report.

For the review of other pesticides, the Anupam Verma committee asked the companies that sold the products to submit safety data for them. As the executive of a pesticide company told, the results of the review are likely to be foretold.

5. States have almost no powers to regulate pesticides

Agriculture is a state subject, but control for pesticides is vested with the Centre. This means that even if the Centre abdicates responsibility for ensuring that only safe pesticides reach users, states cannot step in and ban unsafe pesticides on their own.

After more than 40 deaths in Maharashtra last year were suspected to have been caused by pesticide poisoning, the state banned the sale of five pesticides, but it is legally allowed to do so only for a maximum of 90 days. States can only decide whether to issue licences to companies for sale or manufacture in their territory.

6. Fake and unregistered pesticides account for 25% of the value of pesticides sold in India

This is data from a report prepared by the FICCI-Tata Strategic Management Group in 2015. One of the reasons why the Indian market is flooded with fake pesticides is the sheer number of pesticide products that have been approved by the Centre. India has 260 registered pesticide molecules but 2.5 lakh registered products.

This is far beyond the capacity of Indian states to monitor. The Tamil Nadu government told as much in a reply to a Right to Information request. The agriculture department was unable to provide the names of all the pesticides sold in the state because “the dealers are in high volume”.

7. Instead of taking responsibility for its regulatory failures, the government blames farmers

Even assuming that all pesticide products in the market are safe for use, the Centre and states blame the deaths on the farmers. According to them, farmers do not follow safety instructions. But as found in Tamil Nadu, some of the farmers who had died after spraying pesticides had worn safety gear, indicating either that the product they used was not safe, or that they were not told how to use it correctly.

In fact, as farmers pointed out, the government has made no effort to instruct them on the safe use of pesticides. In the past, government extension workers went to villages to conduct training and demonstration sessions for farmers. But in recent years, subject to funding cuts, the farm extension system has collapsed. Farmers are now forced to rely on private dealers who have an incentive to maximise sales.

8. The government is relying on 35 centres to stop farmer deaths

The government’s stock response to the deaths of farmers from pesticide inhalation has been to talk about Integrated Pest Management. This is a reference to a global strategy that was conceptualised in the 1970s to minimise the use of chemicals in farms. In India, the government set up Integrated Pest Management centres to research best practices for pesticide use. These centres are also supposed to disseminate this knowledge among farmers. But the trouble is that the country has only 35 such centres. In a state like Haryana, for instance, it would take the understaffed Integrated Pest Management Centre 190 years to reach 6,841 villages.