Yavatmal farmer deaths: Experts say Insecticides Act 1968 needs overhaul as it is designed to protect pesticides, not farmers

Insecticides Act is highly incapable of addressing the problem of farmer deaths, and Devendra Fadnavis is not the person to bring amendments to it.

Rishiraj Bhagawati October 23, 2017 14:31:50 IST
Yavatmal farmer deaths: Experts say Insecticides Act 1968 needs overhaul as it is designed to protect pesticides, not farmers

Days after the Maharashtra government ordered a probe into the deaths of over 30 farmers due to pesticide poisoning in several districts of the state, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis visited Yavatmal district on Sunday and met with ailing farmers.

The Hindu reported that Fadnavis, whose visit was kept under wraps until Saturday evening, later released a statement saying, "I visited the Yavatmal Government Medical College and met with farmers affected by pesticide poisoning... The Special Investigation Team is inquiring into it. We are also making some structural changes and there is a need to amend the central law as well,” said Fadnavis..

The law that the chief minister mentioned is the Insecticides Act, 1968, according to The Indian ExpressThe report quoted Fadnavis as saying that the state would carry out amendments in the Act "in order to address and prevent the problems arising out of pesticide poisoning".

The report also said that Fadnavis spoke of the lack of antidotes available for treatment of patients suffering from insecticide poisoning. "The government will teach appropriate lesson to anyone taking farmers’ lives for the sole motive of earning profit," he said, according to the report.

However, experts say that the Insecticides Act, 1968, is not only unable to prevent farmer deaths and environmental damage, but also that Fadnavis will not be able to amend it.

Why Fadnavis cannot amend the Insecticides Act, 1968

Although agriculture is a state subject when it comes to produce, education and research, the Insecticides Act, 1968 is a central Act, and hence state governments have no direct role in amending it, experts said.  C Jayakumar, director of the Pesticide Action Network, said, "Even with Fadnavis' best intentions, he cannot really protect the people by amending this Act. One, because it is not in his hands; and two, because this Act was never designed to protect farmers using insecticides."

Yavatmal farmer deaths Experts say Insecticides Act 1968 needs overhaul as it is designed to protect pesticides not farmers

Representational image. Reuters

Under the Act, states can only impose restrictions on the retail and use of pesticides,  Jayakumar said.

On 20 October, the state government issued a ban on five major pesticides for 60 days in Yavatmal. "The reason the pesticides—which are known to be highly hazardous—were only banned for 60 days is that the Insecticides Act, 1968, does not identify the pesticides as being inherently problematic. It suggests that the problem could have arisen because of a spurious or adulterated batch of that pesticide," Jayakumar said.

These batches produced by the particular company are then done away with. The idea is that a temporary ban which can extend to a maximum of 90 days allows the state, manufacturer, seller and buyer to rectify their mistakes, without a blanket ban on the product, he explained.

"In Yavatmal, instead of using the Insecticides Act to issue orders, the government of Maharashtra could have used other legal provisions to bring about change, like the more recent Environment (Protection) Act, 1986," Jayakumar said. "This is how the insecticide Endosulfan was banned in Kerala. In 2003, the Kerala High Court used this Act instead of the Insecticides Act, 1968, to counter the health hazards that Endosulfan posed."

Pesticide Management Bill, 2008

Another reason Fadnavis claiming he will amend the Act seems hollow is that an attempt at such an amendment is already in progress, Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi, also a director at Pesticide Action Network—an international coalition of around 600 NGOs, citizens' groups, and individuals in about 60 countries which is involved in fighting problems caused by pesticide use, and advocates ecologically sound alternatives— said.

For this amendment, which is being called the Pesticide Management Bill, 2008, the committee has sent it for input from political parties, before it gets tabled in Parliament.

"This Bill is in its final stages, and Fadnavis is quite late if he was referring to adding provisions to this Bill," Jayakumar said.

However, the Bill is also unlikely to tackle issues such as health hazards to farmers and others spraying pesticides in the fields. Reddy, who has been studying the Bill since its inceptions, says, "As you can see, it is titled 'Pesticide Management', which shows the intention is to only to ‘manage’ pesticides. Like the Act, there are no provisions for registration, labelling, packaging, risk assessment, contamination, licensing."

Below is a document prepared by Reddy and his team on the problems related to the Pesticide Management Bill, 2008.

'Not designed to protect crops, farmers or the environment'

"The intentions behind formulating a law is the driving force of the law's implementation," Jayakumar said. "And the intention of the Insecticides Act is to protect pesticides. This Act is all about the safe usage, handling and management of pesticides. It is not designed to protect the crop, the farmer or the environment, and hence in its current form cannot be employed to solve issues like the one in Yavatmal."

The only check and balance it has is that a pesticide is misused, the government will temporarily ban it so that the problems can be corrected, he said.

"The intent of the farmer is to protect the crop, while that of the Insecticides Act is to govern the pesticide, and there comes a conflict. Moreover, when it comes to national institutions like the Coffee Board, tea boards and state agricultural universities, each one recommends pesticides on their own whims and fancies, and nobody really follows the Act," Jayakumar said.

"In its design, practice and implementation, the Insecticides Act has become redundant. But it does not mean that it cannot be expanded in the future to cover the spectrum of issues related to insecticides," Jayakumar added.

Steps that must be taken

Following are the broad areas the current legislation fails to address, according to the experts:

  • The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has a set of regulations called the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides, which is a voluntary agreement signed by governments, manufacturing companies and civil society. The FAO Code, as it is called, which is legally in practice worldwide, stipulates a range of conditions for the use of pesticides. The Insecticides Act does not allow for these regulations in the present form.
    For instance, the code lists preventive mechanisms, like protective gear for farmers, a leading cause of their deaths in India. "Also, on a hot Yavatmal day, if the farmer cannot use protective gear to spray the pesticide, the FAO Code says he or she should drop the pesticide and go for alternatives," Jayakumar said.
  • The FAO and the World Health Organisation jointly prepared another document called the The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management,  which shows how harm to environment and people is caused by highly hazardous pesticides. When a pesticide is known to be highly hazardous, like monocrotophos, the document says that the farmer must go for a non-chemical alternative.
    "In Yawatmal, 11 of the 18 pesticides used are highly hazardous. The Insecticides Act does not follow the regulations under this document," Jayakumar said.
  • When there is a non-chemical and successful alternative, which can provide the farmer with equally high yield, there must be a provision in the Act which allows the farmer to opt for that alternative, which is not the case currently, Jayakumar says.
  • The Act must also look into the damage caused to the environment.

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