On August 8, the Centre banned 18 pesticides citing the harmful effects they could cause humans and animals. They do not include monocrotophos and mancozeb, both of which were implicated in the deaths of dozens of cotton farmers in Central India last year. Nor do they include DDT, commonly sprayed by civic administrations as a mosquito repellent and used in farming, even though a committee set up under agricultural scientist Anupam Verma to review toxic pesticides had recommended banning it.

Of the 18 pesticides, the registration, manufacture, import, sale and use of 11 stand banned with immediate effect while six will be phased out by December 2020. One, the herbicide trifularin, has also been immediately banned except for use in wheat. The Verma committee had recommended a complete ban on trifularin.

The ban, however, does not represent a substantive change in the regulation of pesticide use or even a new development. It is merely the delayed outcome of a process that should have been completed years ago.

In 2013, after years of advocacy by activists, the previous Congress-led government set up the Verma committee to review the use of neonicotinoid pesticides registered for agricultural use in India. The committee’s ambit was later expanded to study 66 pesticides banned abroad but still used in India.

Though the Verma committee’s is the largest review of pesticide use in India yet – the country has banned pesticides before but only sporadically – activists estimate that at least 104 pesticides licenced for use here have been banned in other parts of the world. Glyphosate, for one, was not among the pesticides reviewed by the Verma committee even though it is banned in several countries, said Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

The Verma committee submitted its report to the Centre in December 2015, recommending a phased ban on 19 of the 66 pesticides. It also recommended reviewing 27 more pesticides, but with fresh data on toxicity to be provided by their manufacturers. These pesticides include mancozeb and monocrotophos, which state governments have also attempted to ban. The manufacturers had until December 31, 2017 to submit the safety data. Nearly eight months later, the Centre has not released information about whether the deadline was met.

In December 2016, a full year after getting the Verma committee’s report, the Union agriculture ministry issued a draft notification listing pesticides to be banned from January 2018 and invited comments from the public and pesticide manufacturers. The notification did not include DDT or a disclaimer about continuing the use of trifularin in wheat.

A review committee was meant to assess the feedback to the notification within 45 days, but it took until July this year to submit its findings to the agriculture ministry. In between, the committee’s head retired in July 2017, the deadline of January 2018 came and went, and the panel even ignored a Supreme Court order in March to hand over its report within 15 days. The order was passed on a petition filed by Kuruganti to reassess toxic pesticides in the country.

While one part of the review process started in 2013 has been completed with the order of August 8, the safety review of the 27 pesticides for which manufacturers need to submit data remains pending. This is the more critical part of the process, and likely to be more controversial.

Lax regulation

Since it started regulating pesticides under the Insecticides Act of 1968, India has registered around 260 pesticide molecules for sale and manufacture in the country. As Scroll.in reported in April, they are governed by a dizzying maze of rules and regulations that is impenetrable to most outsiders but still fails to adequately safeguard human or environmental health.

Once registered, safety information about pesticide molecules is not legally required to be reviewed periodically to keep pace with toxicological research. Only the Centre can ban pesticide molecules. States can only either refuse licences for their sale and manufacture or impose temporary bans no longer than 90 days. This means Indians are regularly exposed to a deadly cocktail of pesticides, through direct application or in their food chain, with little updated information about the safety of the chemicals to humans or the environment.