Though India signed the Stockholm Convention in 2002, new and preemptive regulations banning the manufacture, use and trade of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) were only introduced in March 2018
The Environment Ministry’s notified rules on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) completed two years this month. POPs are used in a wide range of industrial and agricultural applications. Some are pesticides, others are industrial products or unintended by-products resulting from industrial processes or combustion.
They are rapidly becoming a source of concern globally as there is documented evidence of POPs causing damage to human health and the environment. Also termed as the “forever chemicals”, POPs are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through chemical, biological or photolytic processes and it may take them centuries to be degraded. Due to this persistence they tend to bioaccumulate and pose a serious threat to humanity and the ecology.
POPs enter into a cycle in nature, accumulating in the bigger animals as they eat the smaller ones. Immune dysfunction is considered as a plausible cause for increased mortality among marine mammals. It is postulated that the consumption by seals of fish contaminated with POPs may lead to vitamin and thyroid deficiencies and cause increased susceptibility to microbial infections and reproductive disorders.
The Stockholm Convention, 2001, became one of the first major international congregations to discuss the possibilities of radically restricting the use of POPs across the world in order quell their adverse impacts.
Though India signed the convention in 2002 and ratified the same in 2006, new and preemptive regulations banning the manufacture, use, trade and import or export of POPs were only introduced in March 2018 by the Government. Though India has been a party to the Stockholm Convention, its progress has been rather slow, especially when compared to other nations such as China, where the regulations have been tightened to restrict the use of POPs. As a result today, China has less exposure to POPs as compared to India.
Other Stockholm Convention signatory nations have also been able to tighten the noose on the seven most dangerous POPs notified under the Stockholm Convention by banning the same.
POPs have a perilous impact on human health. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), POPs are confirmed Group 1 carcinogens which can also cause allergies, hypersensitivity, damage to the peripheral nervous system, immune system and reproductive system. In spite of the glaring evidence against POPs, India has been conspicuously slow in adopting a proactive and expedited approach towards banning their use.
This can be understood by the fact that it was only in 2018 — a full 12 years after India ratified the Stockholm Convention — that the Government banned 18 pesticides that were harmful to human health and the environment. But even this ban was not complete and comprehensive as many of the actually harmful chemicals, pesticides and mosquito repellents such as DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) which are a part of the POP family have been left out of the ban.
In order to ensure security to both human health and the environment, there is an urgent need to strengthen India’s chemical proliferation and bring the nation at par with international regulations as laid by the conventions of Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata.
The Government’s efforts to rein-in POPs can bear results if the policies and regulations are implemented better. For instance, the compliance report for the regulations introduced in 2018 need to be critically examined in order to understand the gap between policy and implementation and how the suppliers, users and manufacturers are still able to get away by using POPs and disposing the same in an unsafe manner, thereby polluting soil and water-bodies.
Additionally, the Government must also strengthen the capacity and reliability of its offices so that the regulations and policies pertaining to the use and disposal of hazardous chemicals are minutely observed by the related departments and offenders and violators are exemplarily punished.
This will also help the offices to adequately deal with issues of lack of awareness, outdated technologies under use and substandard policy implementation. Moreover, collaboration with international aid organisations and institutions must also be forged to ramp up skill imparting and training, which in turn will stimulate nationwide capacity-building and research. These initiatives will enable enforcement of the conventions to which India is a signatory.
POPs have reigned supreme in every Indian citizen’s life, either in the form of pesticides or countless chemicals that one comes in contact with on a daily basis. Already every human today carries approximately 250 chemicals within his body that did not exist prior to 1945. Therefore, it is imperative for the Government to reduce this chemical load by focussing on those chemicals which have a diabolical history of claiming life and ensure that their manufacture and use is stopped immediately.
However, the critical aspect here is to act expeditiously as more and more humans are exposed to POPs daily, foremost being the Indian farmers who spray a deadly cocktail of pesticides on a regular basis, exposing them to an array of health problems whose treatment they cannot even afford.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)