Back to the future

Published: Saturday 31 May 1997

finally from April 1997 after years of dithering, ignoring world opinion, and consistently downplaying the deleterious health effects of pesticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (ddt) and Benzene Hexachloride (bhc), the government has decided to step down from its obdurate stand of supplying cheap pesticides for the agricultural sector and ban bhc after it has been banned almost everywhere else in the world. On ddt the government still has to show some courage. This has agitated pesticide manufacturers, who feel threatened by the consequent absence of markets for their products. The move has, however, raised significant issues such as the need to provide the possible alternatives.

This is the result of immense pressure from us and European environmentalists - where the use of these pesticides, which go into the food chain and refuse to break down - has been banned for years. In India, these chemicals are widely used in agriculture, from the production of tea in Assam and Darjeeling to fruits and foodgrains in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. And, these products are exported to the us and the European Union. But with high levels of pesticide use in their production, these countries do not want to accept our consignments.

Pesticides in the food chain can lead to a series of diseases ranging from nervous disorders and respiratory ailments to stomach disorders and even cancer and mental and physical deformity in children. This has been highlighted by the after-effects of leaking of methyl isocyanate - a gas used to make an agricultural pesticide - from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, in 1984. We have today a lot of mini-Bhopals waiting to erupt like festering sores all over the country. What happened in Bhopal happened overnight and it was easy to link the cause and effect. What is happening today is taking place slowly and surreptitiously. The toxins are spreading and accumulating in river sediments, groundwater and elsewhere. The symptoms do not surface overnight and hence give a false sense of security. This results in complacence on the part of the public. For this reason the government of India is one of the last governments on earth to ban these substances.

The findings of a seven-year study released in 1993 by the Indian Council of Medical Research (icmr), illustrate how deep rooted and all pervasive the presence of pesticides is. The icmr tested some 2,205 samples of cow and buffalo milk taken from 12 states. Detectable residues of bhc were found in over 80 per cent of the samples and more than one-fourth had residues above tolerance levels. ddt residues were detected in about 82 per cent of the samples with more than one-third of the samples containing residues above tolerance levels. Even infant milk formulae were found to be contaminated, with over 90 per cent containing some form of pesticide or the other. The delay in banning these chemicals has created a situation whereby they are present everywhere today, from fruits to foodgrains to meat and eggs; even mothers' milk has not been spared.

Is it possible to do away with chemical-based agriculture in India? Fortunately, the alternatives to pesticides are legion. They include moving to integrated pest management, which helps to reduce the use of pesticides. The government could learn from the Indonesian and Philippines' experiences as both countries have done considerable work in these fields. Promoting the use of biological pest control methods and other pest control techniques which do not use chemicals and using safer pesticides - neem could be one - is another alternative, but research is needed to ensure that neem too is not toxic. The neem tree has traditionally been used for primary healthcare and pest control in India for centuries. The us government, however, still does not allow its use on food crops. Neem is known to be a spermicide and in run-off from farms, it has been known to kill aquatic organisms, which illustrates that it can kill other things apart from the target group.

What is most surprising about the entire pesticide question in India is that while the government has come to the conclusion that pesticides are bad for health, the government's own health department is the biggest user of ddt and bhc. The anti-malaria campaign is based on the liberal use of ddt and bhc in urban colonies.

The government is also a major producer of pesticides. Government factories produce pesticides, government departments buy pesticides, government policies permit their use and the government goes ahead and uses them.
It was the government that educated farmers through campaigns in the past to abandon traditional methods for modern chemical alternatives. Now the government will have to create an information network to educate villagers about the benefits of organic agriculture. All this calls for a major research programme and since the government has realised maximum revenue and possibly generated maximum corruption in the process of making, buying, refusing to ban and using pesticides, it is high time that the government coughed up the bill for setting the clock back and came up with viable alternatives to ensure the health of its citizens.

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