The CSE's recent expos has blown the lid off the bottled water industry's tall claims on the purity of its products. Simultaneously, it has brought to the surface a much larger problem: …

-- The Centre for Science and Environment's (cse) recent expos has blown the lid off the industry's tall claims on the purity of bottled water. Simultaneously, it has brought to the surface a much larger problem: contamination of groundwater by pesticides.

On its part, the government seems to be in flip-flop mode. Initially, the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis) announced that it was switching over to the more stringent European Union regulations for packaged water on which cse had benchmarked its study (see: "Bottled Water", February 15, 2003). Later, the bureau seemed to be backtracking reportedly under pressure from the packaged water industry and pesticide lobbies. Last heard, Union health minister Sushma Swaraj had set an April 1, 2003, deadline for enforcing the new, stricter standards.

It is noteworthy that even if the authorities did adopt such measures, they would merely be treating symptoms and not the root cause: the presence of pesticide residues in source water. In fact, pesticides are constantly seeping into groundwater as well as surface water due to the porosity of laws that govern these toxic chemicals.

In India, pesticides are regulated under the Insecticides Act of 1968 and Insecticides Rules of 1971. The Central Insecticides Board (cib) in Faridabad, Haryana, is the nodal regulatory body. The act controls the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides with a view to preventing risk to humans and animals, and for other matters connected therewith. Significantly, the legislation does not explicitly recognise environmental hazards of pesticides or the threat they pose to biodiversity. Neither does it specifically mention how the adverse effects of pesticides can be minimised on water, soil, air and non-target organisms. Apart from such fundamental flaws, there are lacunae at every stage of the law -- right from the registration process to the review procedure.
False start A pesticide can be introduced in the country, subject to clearance by the Registration Committee (rc) of the cib. The panel registers a new molecule under section 9 of the Insecticides Act after it has satisfied itself about the molecule's efficacy and safety.

When the law was enforced in 1968, it included a schedule containing about 434 different pesticides. The number stands at 648 today. Out of these, 180 pesticides are registered for use in India. The pesticide industry comprises 55 basic producers and over 500 formulators who are vying for a share in the Rs 4100-crore market. While producers manufacture technical grade pesticides, formulators convert them into usable forms.

A company seeking to get a new molecule registered has to provide various types of stipulated data. There are essentially two different kinds of data: environment independent (involving chemical characteristics) and environment dependent (pertaining to field data). Information that falls into the former category remains constant, irrespective of the region where the molecule is sought to be registered. But environment dependent data varies according to different agroclimatic zones in the country. It needs to be generated independently by the company which has applied to get the new molecule registered.

Field level data includes details about different crops and pests, dosage of the pesticide, levels of its residues and its persistence. "This kind of information can take years to generate and involves a lot of hard work," points out P D Deshmukh, a former manufacturer of pesticides.

The onus for providing such information is placed on the industry, and the entire process can cost about Rs 50 lakh. "But no one actually follows procedures. Mostly, the industry has its way. Producers can get a molecule registered despite its failing certain tests," says A T Dudani, a Delhi-based pesticides expert.

"To gather data, the industry can either approach government laboratories or private ones which have been approved by the authorities," says N G Waghle, ex-vice-president, Pest Control India Limited.

"There is an unholy nexus between private labs and the industry," Waghle informs Down To Earth . "At times, private laboratories don't even bother to collect samples. They are more than willing to toe the industry's line," he adds. "As a result, data which would normally take 2-3 years to generate can be procured by companies within a month," points out Deshmukh. The modus operandi involves backdating correspondence for ordering data.

"If the law is followed, registration would be possible only after the new molecule has undergone rigorous tests. The truth, however, is that pesticide testing in India is a scientific sham," feels Dudani. "And there are agents who facilitate this dubious activity," he adds. cib officials admit that such a racket is thriving, at the same time denying any irregularity in the registration of pesticides.

Another data-related drawback is that the information furnished by the manufacturer is verified only prior to registration. Once the molecule is introduced into the market, virtually no tabs are kept on it. This leads to its unrestrained use. For example, despite being banned for use in the agriculture sector, ddt (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) is still freely available to farmers.

Wide misuse
On the implementation front, too, follow-up measures leave a lot to be desired. Any case of pesticide poisoning in the country needs to be notified under section 26 of the Insecticides Act. But this is never done. "Our regulatory bodies turn a blind eye to hundreds of reported cases," asserts Dudani. Even in instances like Kerala's endosulfan tragedy, which have hit the headlines, the government has failed to act with conviction.

"It is ironical that though persistence data and residue analysis of pesticides are a part of registration, there is no way of controlling these poisons from entering the food chain," laments Deshmukh. The act does not wholly address the issue of pesticide residues in the environment. Though scientific analyses to ascertain contamination levels are conducted periodically, the law is silent on remedial measures. In this regard a cue can be taken from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (fao), which recently adopted a holistic code of conduct on the use of pesticides. The new code deals with the entire lifecycle of a pesticide -- from development, regulation, production, management, packaging and labelling to distribution, application and disposal.

Surprisingly, in India manufacturers are expected to educate farmers on the use of pesticides. This includes awareness about its dosage, spraying frequency and precautions to be taken. "In the event, a major fraud is perpetrated by the industry," says Waghle. Manufacturers do comply with the law, but as a mere formality. They insert leaflets containing information in pesticide packets. The catch is that these primers are illegible. "Salespersons educate farmers on how much of the pesticide to use. Obviously, they tell them to use more so that they can sell more," he points out.

"Indian farmers are gullible. They spray pesticides, perceive an immediate benefit and resort to indiscriminate use of the chemicals," avers Pradeep Dave, president, Pesticide Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India. "Overuse has another fallout. The more pesticides are used, the more resistant the insects become. The farmer then has to spray even more. It's a vicious circle," says Dudani

From time to time, the Union government sets up its own expert committees to review various pesticides being used in the country. This appears to be an exercise in futility because even when review panels suggest steps to curb the use of dangerous pesticides, their recommendations are not taken seriously. "Regulation is either non-existent or painfully slow," says a scientist with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi.

Dudani highlights the laidback attitude: "India has taken too long to ban molecules which are highly hazardous to human health and the environment. We clamped down on ddt almost 20 years after the us." Despite overwhelming scientific evidence against hundreds of molecules, only 23-odd products have been phased out in India over the past 30 years on grounds of safety and persistence. Even today, more than 32 pesticides currently in use in India are banned in many countries (see table: Perilous persistence). "We should not ban chemicals just because their use has been prohibited in other countries," counters Dave. "This should be done only when the molecule has been phased out universally," he adds.

The pesticide lobby has always had a say in policy matters and so far it has thwarted all moves by the government to make the law more stringent. "The industry can do anything to protect its interests," feels Jayakumar C, coordinator, Thanal, a Thiruvananthapuram-based non-governmental organisation.

In 1996, there was a showdown between the industry and the cib when the latter decided to crack the whip. The board had directed manufacturers to supply data on the chemical composition, waiting period and residue composition of pesticides having 'deemed registration'. These products were in the market before the Insecticide Rules came into force in 1971. The row was never resolved, with the government and industry failing to concur on who should bear the costs of data generation. The list included pesticides such as endosulfan, malathion, parathion and benzene hexachloride.

Similarly, the government's attempt in the year 2000 to add certain clauses to the Insecticides Act, like empowering the rc to renew existing registrations after a review, came a cropper. This time, too, the industry threw a spanner in the works. And now in the packaged drinking water case, it seems that the pesticide manufacturers are up to their nefarious games again -- pressuring the bis to water down its stance.

Perilous persistence
Some potentially lethal pesticides that have not yet been banned in India
Pesticide in use
in India
Countries where
it is banned
Side-effects (acute/chronic exposure)
Chlorpyrifos US, Sweden, Finland Harmful for nervous system. Inhalation or ingestion may result in headaches, blurred vision, seizures, coma and even death
Lindane Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Netherlands Causes damage to the nervous and immune systems. Leads to hormone disruption, birth defects and breast cancer
DDT (Allowed in India only for public health control measures) US, Canada, Chile, South Korea, Singapore, Cuba and most EU countries Causes liver cancer. Affects the central and peripheral nervous systems. Damages reproductive organs
Endosulfan Germany, Denmark, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Norway, Sweden, Colombia, Singapore and the Netherlands Leads to high acute toxicity. Affects kidneys, developing foetus and liver. Causes testicular and breast cancer. Mutagenic and genotoxic
Carbaryl Austria, Germany, Sweden Mutagenic and carcinogenic
Paraquat Denmark, Austria, Sweden Acutely toxic, high risk of exposure when handled

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