Does the Government Really Need a New 'Pesticides Management Bill'?

It is unclear why the Government of India is choosing to put aside “biosafety” as the primary reason for new regulations and instead giving in to objectives suiting the pesticides industry.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare has put out the Centre’s Pesticides Management Bill 2017 (in English) and has sought public feedback on the Bill through a small window of 15 days, ending on March 6, 2018. This Bill beggars a question about the very need for new legislation for regulating pesticides when the Insecticides Act 1968 exists and is in force. It is worth remembering that the Insecticides Act 1968 was enacted in the first instance after a tragic accident in Kerala that claimed 102 lives in 1958, when people died after consuming parathion-contaminated wheat. The need to regulate this technology was born of of safety concerns.

The ostensible reasons cited for bringing in a new Bill now – and not just a set of Amendments to the existing law – are centred around a need to:

  1. Regulate all pesticides, not just those insecticides that appear in the Schedule of the 1968 Act;
  2. Lay down a condition that every pesticide should have its expected performance disclosed and usage instructions included in its application for registration;
  3. Lay down a further condition that no pesticide can be registered without its tolerance limits laid down under another statute on food safety;
  4. Increase penalties for different kinds of offences;
  5. Include a clause on segregation and disposal of pesticides;
  6. Expand the constitution of the Central Insecticides/Pesticides Board to include new departments and farmer representatives

… among others. But it is still not convincing that this requires a new law, and that it can’t be achieved through comprehensive amendments to the existing legislation.

On the other hand, the government can indeed overhaul the pesticides regulatory regime in India by bringing in a new Bill. However, the Pesticides Management Bill 2017 (like the 2008 version brought in by the UPA) fails to do so.

Oriented towards biosafety

The existing Insecticides Act 1968 has as its Objective the following: “to regulate import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution of insecticides with a view to prevent risk to human beings or animals, and for matters connected therewith” (emphasis added). It goes without saying that a statute’s edifice, including institutional structures created for enforcement, will depend a lot on the objectives of the statute. Preventing risk is very different from managing risk, after having allowed it to occur, which in turn is very different from ensuring availability of (good) quality pesticides focusing on quality/efficacy rather than safety.

It is unclear why the Government of India is choosing to put aside “biosafety” as the primary reason for regulating, and giving in to objectives that would suit the pesticides industry, in a year that has seen dozens of deaths and hundreds of hospitalisations of farm workers due to acute pesticide poisoning in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Odisha. Even the fact that industry representatives got to see a draft version of the Bill before state governments and others did points to the fact that the industry lobby continues to be active in the Ministry of Agriculture’s corridors.

It is important that the objective of any regulatory statute related to pesticides is brought back to “bio-safety”, as well as the prevention of risks to human beings or animals. If regulation is about efficacy alone, farmers who purchase pesticides can always resort to the Consumer Protection Act and there is no need for another statute. Even here, quality regulation can’t be about drawing samples after a pesticide is manufactured or stocked but about doing something before.

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If prevention of risks to human beings and environment is the main objective, it automatically follows that some much-needed mechanisms will need to be brought into our regulatory regime. And once the correct objective is (re)installed, several long-pending regulatory improvements can be brought in. For example, institutionalising a precautionary approach that builds in a ‘Needs and Alternatives Assessment’ into the regulatory regime. This means that no pesticide can be registered without first proving that it is needed and that no other alternatives exist.

Registration should take place only after transparent, independent and long-term safety testing. Given that there is emerging scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of so-called “inert” substances, safety testing should cover inert ingredients as well as metabolites. Further, there should be an automatic review of every registered pesticide periodically (say, every five years, as exists in some other countries) or earlier, whenever a pesticide is banned or restricted elsewhere in at least two countries.

When it comes to consumers and food safety related to pesticide residues, it is well known that maximum residue limits (MRLs) that are created from ‘good agricultural practices’ are not a ground for ensuring food safety. Tolerance limits should be fixed based on the theoretical maximum daily intake of multiple pesticides through complete dietary exposure to such toxins.

Doesn’t strengthen the state

The new Bill can be seen as an opportunity to review all registrations thus far in the country and therefore disallow ‘deemed’ and provisional registrations, which are mechanisms that come in the way of ensuring biosafety as a primary raison d’être for the statute.

The Anupam Verma Committee review of 66 pesticides has shown that without independent data generation on the safety of pesticides, reviews are relying on the pesticides industry for the data. This is ridden with conflict of interest. We are proposing that the pesticides industry should be mandated to give a part of their turnover for a fund that will go to state governments, which in turn will generate independent data, and also to set up adequate surveillance and checks that make regulation scientific and effective.

The proposed Bill does not strengthen the hands of the state governments in any significant way. Agriculture is a state subject according to the Constitution. The Bill should empower the state governments not just in terms of licensing of trade but also give them a role in the registration process, an authority to prohibit or place restrictions on the sale of a pesticide, to regulate marketing and advertising and to lay down conditions that sale should be against prescription by specified authorities.

Farmers’ unions have rightly expressed their fears about farmers being criminalised under this Bill through penal clauses related to the “use” of pesticides. There is an exemption clause (Sec.50 (1)(a)) which seems to exempt farmers but not necessarily farm workers from penalties. Farmers and farm workers are actually the victims of an aggressive industry, in fact, and any provisions that seek to penalise them should be removed immediately.

Another feature that reveals farmers’ and affected persons interests are not being protected by this Bill is a clause laying down that they should take resort to the Consumer Protection Act if needed. This ignores the fact that affected persons may not even be ‘consumers’ as defined in the said Act. The Pesticides Management Bill 2017 itself should include a time-bound, simple and accessible mechanism as clauses for compensation, redressal and remediation.

The government should realise that regulation is not just about quality and efficacy based on which pesticide industry’s business is facilitated by framing a statute (the Bill is mainly centred around this) but, more importantly, that regulation should be around safety from the deployment of a toxic technology, in a context when the science of pest management has evolved to show that synthetic pesticides are dispensable.

In either case, the current Bill falls significantly short in protecting the interests of common citizens, including farmers, farm workers and consumers and their environment. It is not out of place to suggest that the Bill should come from the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and not the Ministry of Agriculture, which appears to be promoting the use of pesticides.

Without taking care of the several lacunae in the existing regime as well as in the proposed Bill, the Government of India is doing a disservice to its citizens, especially after the recent deaths and hospitalisations of dozens of citizens due to pesticide poisonings. The Pesticides Management Bill 2017 needs to be recast in significant ways before it can protect citizens from the ill effects of synthetic pesticides.

Kavitha Kuruganti is a national co-convenor of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).

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