POP, and we opt out

Something murky in India's ratification of two international conventions

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- the news is out. India is close to a final decision on ratifying the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (pops) and the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent (pic). A note to ratify the latter is already with the Union cabinet; one for the former is being prepared. On the face of it the news is welcome. But wait till you read the fine print.

As of now, it seems, the decision has been taken to ratify the treaty availing Article 25 (4) of the convention that allows discretionary powers to countries. So, any future additions of chemicals to the list of pops may not be binding for all. Called 'conditional ratification', countries that avail of this can 'opt in' or 'opt out' of the ban that may be imposed on chemicals that are included in the list of pops. By doing this, the Indian government will clearly be playing in the hands of the chemicals manufacturing industry.

Indian industry has always worried about the pops treaty. They had campaigned long and hard to prevent India from ratifying it. When all else failed, they ensured that it was only a conditional ratification. The reason: industry is not worried about the original list of 12 pops. Nine out of these 12 substances have already been banned in the country and therefore aren't of much concern to industry. It is the newer substances, currently included in list of Persistent Toxic Substances, that are irksome. Two chemicals in particular -- endosulfan, a pesticide, and phthalates, used in the pvc industry -- are likely to be included in the pops list. The market of endosulfan, a controversial pesticide, is worth about Rs 300 crore. Ditto for phthalates.

Industry associations have claimed conditional ratification protects our sovereignty and food security. They forgot (perhaps deliberately) to add that it protects their profits. Losing profits from these, and maybe many more such poisons, is what bothers industry. And they had to make sure that they do not let things completely out of their hands with an unconditional ratification.

Civil society will have to be prepared to fight it out each time a new chemical is included in the pops list. Because industry would pressure the government to 'opt out' and those concerned with public health would want to 'opt in'. Now, the long hard fights are here to stay.

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