To industry's tune

By Madhumita Dutta
Published: Sunday 30 November 2008

"With a small half life, endosulfan does not pose any serious health risk in tropical countries like ours" --Indian delegation at Rotterdam Convention  
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There were unusually high cancer cases and deformities in Kasargod (Kerala), where for 25 years endosulfan was sprayed on cashew plantations
Photo-Ruhani Kaur
The line was blurred between the official and industry stands

"If people do not use endosulfan properly, why blame endosulfan, blame the users." This was an all-too-familiar spiel the industry dished out when confronted with evidence indicting the pesticide's deadly effect on people.

But this was no industry-speak. It was the official line of the Indian government to block the inclusion of endosulfan in a list of chemicals slated for global information sharing on its health hazards. As ngo observers, we watched with disdain as the Indian government towed the chemical industry line.

At the 4th Conference of Parties of the Rotterdam Convention in Rome, India obstructed putting endosulfan and chrysotile asbestos in the prior informed consent (pic) list, exploiting the consensus process of the convention.The consensus process ensured that voices of developing countries were heard. But now it had become more of a bane. In its 10th year, the Convention was in imminent danger of being rendered ineffective and meaningless.

It used every possible trick--pettifogging, filibuster, even downright lies--to subvert the inclusion of the two substances. India became the butt of many a gibe at the conference corridors for its official delegation's barely disguised intimacy with the unofficial industry delegation. At times the distinction became so blurred that statements of the Indian industry were mistaken for the official position.

While the expert from the Indian delegation touted for discredited science ("with a small half life, endosulfan does not pose any serious health risk in tropical countries like ours") and stated facts contrary to the findings of a 2002 study done by the National Institute of Occupational Health (nioh), the Indian chemical industry was busy circulating the conference room paper from cop3, which outlined India's official objection to the listing. A case in point was a meeting on October 29. In an effort to break the deadlock over India's objections, a side meeting was convened, attended by an official delegate from the Union environment ministry accompanied by representatives from the Indian Chemical Council (icc) and Hindustan Insecticides Limited. The opening intervention for India was made by S Ganeshan of icc, stating that "our objection is purely procedural in nature". But what was this procedural nature about?

India had objected to Thailand's notification on endosulfan, which cited reasons of "intentional misuse" for bringing about regulatory action on endosulfan in Thailand. As per annex ii (d) of the convention, regulatory action brought about by "intentional misuse" could not in itself be an adequate reason to include a chemical in the pic list. India had raised this issue at cop3, where it circulated the conference room paper. Since then the convention secretariat had clarified the legal ambiguity surrounding "intentional misuse" with the United Nations Environment Programme (unep) legal cell, but this was not acceptable to India, and I dare say, to the chemical industry. The icc representative, and not the official delegate, argued against unep's legal interpretation. India did not even have an answer when asked if it would accept endosulfan listing if the "technical legal" objections were sorted out.

On chrysotile asbestos India took refuge in the discredited study of nioh. India argued that "till the time the nioh study is completed, which will be in next two years (2010), we will not be in position to take a decision on listing of chrysotile." Information sought under the Right to Information Act, 2005 revealed the hypocrisy and vested interests behind the study. This supposedly scientific study was being part-sponsored, reviewed and vetted by those who stood to gain or lose from it. Nine independent scientists, who reviewed the interim reports and draft of the study, termed it fundamentally flawed in its design, methodology and execution.

So what did this entire shenanigan signify? It obviously helped India kill the consensus of a majority of parties, mostly from developing nations, to include these chemicals in the pic list. But more importantly, it clearly showed that science was a mere fig leaf to cover the nexus between a colluding government and an avaricious industry.

The writer is with The Other Media, a Chennai-based advocacy organization

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