Pesticide Management Bill 2020: What could have made it better

The bill was introduced after much delay

By Amit Khurana, Vineet Kumar
Published: Tuesday 31 March 2020
A farmer with pesticide near a field Photo: Meeta Ahlawat/CSE
A farmer with pesticide near a field Photo: Meeta Ahlawat/CSE A farmer with pesticide near a field Photo: Meeta Ahlawat/CSE

The Pesticide Management Bill, 2020 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha by Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar on March 23 and will be discussed when the upper house of Parliament reconvenes.

The bill will repeal the Insecticide Act, 1968 that currently regulates pesticide use in the country. It was approved by the Union cabinet in February 2020.

A draft Pesticide Management Bill, 2017 was earlier released for comments in February 2018.

A similar bill was in discussion in 2008, without any break-through.

The reason cited by the government for introducing this new bill was the inadequacy of the 50-year-old insecticide law to meet the needs of multi-dimensional management and administration of pesticides.

This included a lack of sufficient deterrence against violation, no stricter penalty to safeguard farmer interests and no mechanism to regulate pricing and disposal in an environmentally sound manner.

Mechanisms to regulate pesticides were, however, mentioned in the bill.

These included manufacture, import, packaging, labelling, pricing, storage, advertisement, sale, transport, distribution, use and disposal in order to ensure availability of safe and effective pesticides.

The purpose of the bill is to minimise risk to human beings, animals, living organisms other than pests and the environment, with an endeavour to promote pesticides that are biological and based on traditional knowledge.

A look at the specifics mentioned, however, suggest otherwise.

First, it conveniently ignores critical areas that, if not factored-in, will make the bill a weak and inadequate law to manage pesticides — hazardous chemicals linked to poor health and death for many decades.

Second, some aspects mentioned in the bill need to be strengthened before it becomes a law.

Regulation of advertisement and promotion

Pesticides continue to be advertised and promoted like consumer products, despite being deadly chemicals. They are advertised through multiple media and targeted at farmers who are often unaware of marketing tactics.

The bill does not mention this. Another strategy pesticide companies use is to aggressively promote their products through representatives or dealers.

They are often the last point of contact with farmers and are known to heavily influence pesticide use. The bill is surprisingly silent on this too.

It briefly mentions these two related issues at the beginning, whereas this important aspect deserves a separate chapter, just like it is being done for the registration of pesticides.

Advertisement and promotion, if well-regulated, can limit pesticide misuse. Pesticides should not be allowed to be sold or promoted directly to the consumer since they are deadly chemicals and not consumer products.

This is more because of the fact that the agriculture extension machinery — an important stakeholder group with supposedly no conflict of interest — is either missing or failing to perform its role effectively.

Pesticides should therefore be regulated more like drugs, which are not advertised and cannot be promoted directly to the consumer.

This also means that the bill should have provisions to ensure that the last point of contact to farmers can never be a company representative.

The income of a pesticide company representative should be delinked from its sale. Companies should be told to follow a code of conduct, a report of which should be considered to be available for audit.

Agriculture extension system

There is huge gap in the dissemination of correct information to the farmer and there is no reliable stakeholder at the local level to guide farmers about the use of pesticides.

This gap is often exploited by pesticide companies through the extensive presence of a sales force and dealers at a local level.

This leads to excessive and unwanted use of pesticides and irreversible harm to the ecosystem, natural resources, biodiversity, human health and animal health.

This is not sustainable and therefore unacceptable. The agriculture extension system is a key stakeholder in limiting pesticide misuse, but the bill does not give due attention to this system.

If the bill is about managing pesticides, this aspect deserves a separate section in the bill.

Necessary provisions should be mentioned to ensure the agriculture extension system plays a very active role in prescribing, advising and creating awareness about pesticide use.

Enabling provisions should be introduced to help revive the extension system, if required.

The provisions should also direct how the extension system should be strengthened with support from multiple modalities, including the Krishi Vigyan Kendra, agricultural universities, Indian Council of Agricultural Research institutions, and toll-free helpline systems.

Labelling and packaging

Labelling and packaging of pesticides is important to guide the end user — usually a farmer in this case — about what lies in the package and instructions on how to use, handle and safely dispose the contents and the package.

This is a critical aspect that the bill has failed to give necessary attention to.

The bill should include provisions that provide necessary directions to ensure labelling and packaging is well regulated through the bill in line with the best global practices.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Deaths from application of pesticides is a known issue in India.

One solution is to ensure farmers wear PPE while spraying.

This is an important aspect to limit deaths and severe illness from acute toxicity. The bill should, therefore, have necessary provisions in it.

It should aim to ensure that companies selling pesticides provide safety gear of appropriate quality along with pesticides.

The agriculture extension machinery should be accountable for creating awareness and overseeing the proper usage of PPEs by farmers while applying pesticides, particularly those that are hazardous because of acute toxicity in them.

Pesticides whose application warrants the use of uncomfortable, expensive or not readily available PPEs, should be avoided, according to the international code of conduct on pesticide management, released by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.

This holds true especially in the case of small-scale users and farm workers in hot climates.

Governance mechanism

The governance mechanisms proposed to execute the provisions of the bill must be more inclusive and the relationships among them must be clearly defined.

First, there needs to be adequate representation of stakeholders and experts from agro-ecology, environment, farmers, civil society, health and consumers in the Central Pesticide Board as well the registration committee.

This is not the case in the proposed bill. Alternatively, there should be an introduction of an independent oversight committee to review the decisions of the registration committee.

Second, how the board and committee are linked and would work together must be defined clearly in the bill.

Third, a better balance in the role and powers of states and the Union government needs to be attained.

States are proposed to have powers to ban a pesticide for up to a year. A separate provision, however, mentions the union government would manage the pesticide industry, taking away these powers from the states. 

Class I pesticides

The bill includes an important aspect stating that extremely and highly hazardous pesticides — considered Class I pesticides by the WHO due to acute toxicity — are to be used only after prescription.

It is, however, important that accountability and conditions with respect to such prescriptions be described in the bill.

For example, who should be the prescriber and what should be the guiding conditions to allow the use of such pesticides.

Further, the bill should create provisions to enable phase out of class I pesticides by re-evaluating already registered pesticides and developing a phase-out plan.

The bill should also include this in the criteria to register any new pesticide, wherein no such pesticide is registered as long as a safer alternative exists.  

‘Precautionary principle’ and ‘Polluter Pays’ principles missing

The precautionary principle should be included in any bill that deals with hazardous chemicals, especially if such chemicals are to be applied on food and feed crops.

The bill, however, does not mention this. The provisions related to registration in the bill must include it, thereby ensuring that a pesticide with riskier, unsafe profile, despite having limited evidence, should not be registered.

Any pesticide banned in other countries due to acute or chronic toxicity should also not be allowed in India.

Pesticides with no assessment of long-term safety and environmental impact should not be preferred for registration.

The ‘polluter Pays’ principle is also critical. India has seen cases where pesticide manufacturing plants have severely damaged the health of the people and environment.

For example, Union Carbide India Ltd before and after the Bhopal gas tragedy was responsible for long-term toxicity in soil, ground water and health in the nearby region.

It is critical that the bill includes the manufacturing aspects of managing pesticides.

The act should provide provisions for a robust grievance redressal system and compensation, in addition to the above-mentioned points.

Penalties should also be in proportion to the sales of pesticides, since a penalty of a few lakh rupees may not be a big enough deterrent for big companies.

A database of pesticides should also be created at the tehsil level.    

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