The Union Government has reversed its earlier decision on 27 pesticides, which were banned in May 2020
The manufacturing, import, sale, distribution and use of pesticides are regulated under the Insecticides Act (1968) with a view to preventing risk to human beings or animals and for matters connected therewith. The Registration Committee (RC) - set up under the Act - registers every pesticide after scrutinising the formula, verifying claims of efficacy and safety to human beings and animals and specifying the precautions against poisoning and any other functions. It is empowered to refuse registration of any pesticide if issues pertaining to safety have not been satisfactorily adhered to.
From time to time, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (MoA&FW) — the nodal Ministry for the regulation of pesticides — orders a review of the registered pesticides with particular reference to the risk these pose to human beings, animals and the environment. Based on examination by a committee of experts, it arrives at an appropriate decision on “whether to allow their continued usage (with additional precautions, if any) or prohibit their use completely.”
In July 2013, the MoA&FW set up an expert committee under Anupam Verma to study the continued use or otherwise of a total of 66 pesticides, which are banned in two or more other countries, but continue to be registered for use in India. The committee submitted its report in November 2015.
In December 2015, the Government accepted the report and based on its recommendations, ordered a review of 27 pesticides (including 12 insecticides, eight fungicides and seven herbicides, comprising almost 130 formulations) to be completed by 2018. Till the completion of recommended studies and the review, it allowed continued usage of the 27 pesticides.
In December 2016, it issued a draft ban order on 27 pesticides seeking public feedback. During 2017-18, it constituted two more committees to look at public feedback on the draft order. Meanwhile, in December 2019, the RC set up another committee (this was a ‘sub-committee’) to review the proposed ban on 27 pesticides. In May 2020, the RC accepted the recommendations of this sub-committee and sent it to the MoA&FW for taking a final decision.
In a gazette notification issued on May 14, 2020, the MoA&FW issued a draft order intended to ban the manufacture, usage and storage of these 27 pesticides and sought comments or suggestions from stakeholders over 45 days.
The notification said: “Sixty-six insecticides, which are banned or restricted or withdrawn in other countries but continue to be registered for domestic use in India, were reviewed by an expert committee set up by the MoA&FW. The Ministry considered recommendations of this committee and recognised that use of 27 insecticides is likely to involve risk to human beings and animals as to render it expedient or necessary to take immediate action”. It also mentioned the names of the pesticides proposed to be banned.
At the same time, the ministry also set up another panel under the chairmanship of TP Rajendran, former assistant director general of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), and a well-known expert in the field. Based on the recommendations of this panel, on February 15, 2023, the Union Government came out with a Draft notification seeking to lift the ban on 24 out of the 27 pesticides which were banned as per its earlier order.
The February 15, 2023 order was challenged by Civil society groups in the Supreme Court (SC) which will take up the matter after the summer vacation. Meanwhile, the Centre has submitted an affidavit saying this was "merely a proposal and has not attained finality”. A spate of committees to deliberate on a given subject matter by itself looks weird. Apart, a number of anomalies can be seen in the manner it was handled.
First, as per the decision on the Anupam Verma committee report taken in December 2015, the government needed to wait for the ‘completion of recommended studies and the review’ by 2018. Only thereafter, it could decide what to do with the 27 pesticides. Then, how come it issued a draft ban order before that i.e. in December 2016? It was seeking public comments and set up committees (albeit two) to examine those comments on something it couldn’t have made up its mind as the study reports weren’t available.
Second, instead of taking the Anupam Verma committee report to its logical end, in December 2019, another sub-committee was set up (this time by the RC) and based on its recommendation, the government issued a draft order on May 14, 2020, banning all the 27 pesticides. If, the intention was to go by the latter then why did it spend so much time and energy on the former?
Third, the government had no intention of even staying with this decision as alongside it set up another committee (read: TP Rajendran). Based on its recommendations, on February 15, 2023, it has come up with another draft notification that reverses its May 14, 2020. ALAS! even this is not final.
Going by what it has stated in the affidavit submitted to the SC it is just a proposal on which feedback from all stakeholders concerned has been taken; that is “to be reviewed by the central government in consultation with the RC, considering all aspects related to technical and scientific requirements, substitutes available, farmer's interest, safety of the pesticides, toxicity and efficacy concerns, updated status of required study and submission of data in compliance to recommendations of the various expert committees, etc.”, and a final decision will be taken accordingly.
Pesticides are hazardous substances with the potential of damaging impact on human health and the environment. If, following a review based on scientific studies, it is concluded that any pesticide is harmful then the government must not delay a decision on its withdrawal. The RC sub-committee had indeed found some of the above pesticides have severe health effects viz. hormonal changes, neuro-toxic effects, reproductive and developmental health effects, carcinogenic effects as well as environmental impacts such as toxicity for bees.
For others, adequate data needed for regulatory purposes are not available. There are 17 pesticides in this category also referred to as “deemed to be registered pesticides” in the country. These were in use before the Insecticides Act (1968) came into force. The concerned companies were required to generate the required data to convincingly demonstrate their safety and efficacy to the regulator. But, that hasn’t been done to date. Thus, there was a strong case for banning all 27 pesticides. This is precisely what May 14, 2020, did.
The volte-face now to let 24 remain in use (the decision to ban the other three pesticides is inconsequential as the manufacturers are no longer making them) is untenable. Dr Rajendran’s argument that “all chemicals and pesticides including the toothpaste we use is harmful for human health. What matters is the dosage, the formulation composition and the way humans have been asked to use the product” is generic; it can’t be a credible basis for arriving at the decision.
(The Writer is a Policy Analyst)