A law for the farmer

Pesticide Management Bill should address the anomalies that prevent state governments from booking large pesticide companies.

Written by Ajay Vir Jakhar | Published: January 4, 2018 12:33 am
Pesticide Management Bill, Indian farmers, india farmers, pesticides death, pesticides in market, GST, indian express Farmers continue to commit suicide in large numbers and one primary cause, not even discussed in hushed tones, is the sale of misbranded (substandard, spurious, expired) pesticides.

“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter,” goes an old African proverb, which is also apt to describe the state of the world’s farmers. Farmers are like the hunted lions who need their side of the story told and their sacrifices, agony, courage and fears to be brought to light. The hunters may well be likened to today’s businesses, academicians, farmer leaders, media houses, politicians and officials who want to extract glory and career advancement from farmers’ misery.

In case you have forgotten the Bhopal gas leak tragedy at a unit which was manufacturing pesticides or the cancer trains of Punjab, more recently, within a few weeks, about 50 farmers have died due to the use of pesticides in Maharashtra and over 1,000 have suffered critical ailments. There are rumours that the inquiry will indict farmers for the incorrect application of pesticides. But should Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis want to book those actually responsible, he will be as frustrated as I am today, due to the archaic Insecticides Act, 1968. The agriculture ministry during UPA rule had prepared a Pesticide Management Bill 2008, which was scuttled in Parliament.

Farmers continue to commit suicide in large numbers and one primary cause, not even discussed in hushed tones, is the sale of misbranded (substandard, spurious, expired) pesticides. Along with pesticide misuse (use, timing and quantity), the inordinate use of antibiotics in the poultry and dairy industry is a major reason for human diseases, monumental species loss and environmental damage. The value of failing crops and the costs borne by farmers as a result of excessive farm inputs cannot even be properly assessed.

The real profiteers, the larger pesticide companies (brand owners and marketing agents) generally outsource production to smaller manufacturers. But they can’t be prosecuted because the Central law only stipulates prosecution of the manufacturer. When the licence to sell pesticides is issued, applicants declare a “responsible person” to be held accountable for violations. The person is usually a low-paid employee, who over time becomes unreachable. So, even serving the prosecution notice becomes difficult. The responsible person, therefore, has to be among the top five financial beneficiaries of the firm and the fine should be computed as a percentage of the total sales in the state. The guilty should also be served a rigorous 10-year jail term. This may seem draconian. But it’s not, when compared to the 10-year jail term a person can get in Bihar for selling genuine liquor .

Most pesticide samples simply don’t fail the test. This is not only because conniving officers don’t follow procedures. But for a “sample failure” to be legally valid, samples have to fail consecutively. The cumbersome documentation procedure allows the second sample to expire before it’s tested, rendering the process invalid. Thus, the crime cannot be established. Less than 40 pesticide-related convictions have been possible in Punjab in 10 years. Mandatory e-documentation (as per the IT Act, 2000) for agriculture departments will expedite the process and increase transparency.

Currently, only a magistrate can order suspension of pesticide sales over an evident violation. Considering how easily court proceedings can be ground to a halt, these powers need to be delegated to a pesticide inspector. The magistrate’s judicial process should only begin once the prosecution for punishment starts. Too stringent a system in the hands of an officer can become a tool to harass the industry. However, given a choice, we could live with a tilted system rather than allow more poison in our lives.

Like every other business, the pesticide industry rewards retailers for increased sales, but greater pesticide sales are leading farmers on the road to perdition. The use of imported, untested pesticides and unregistered technical procedures could be a reason for the farmer deaths in Maharashtra. We oppose the industry proposal for private laboratories to be allowed to perform the central pesticide laboratory’s functions. The Central Insecticide Board and Registration Authority should be restructured and many of its powers be transferred to the states.

Two simple notifications can result in a giant leap. One, the Centre should make it mandatory for all agriculture-input packaging to have a bar code giving product information. The bar code will sync with the GST and the e-way bill. Next, states should make retailers log all agriculture input sales onto state government servers, allowing for traceability from the factory floor to farmer’s field and for regulation enforcement.

A data bank of agriculture input sales will give unparalleled benefits. The ensuing machine-learning revolution on farms will allow for evidence-based interventions, officer promotion evaluation and better governance. Digitisation at the ground-level will drive personalised and data-driven farm extension, realistic crop loss compensation and insurance. Most importantly, it will facilitate a farmer grievance redressal mechanism to make the system accountable.

In Punjab, we recommended a bar on the sale of 21 pesticides. But the existing Act doesn’t even allow the state to act in its own interests and stop pesticide sales within its own boundaries for more than 60 days. Appalling as it is in a federal structure, the limited use and interpretation of the law which started the cancer train is still destroying lives.

Will the forthcoming Pesticide Management Bill 2017 address the many anomalies or will it be an eyewash like so many earlier announcements? The precursor to doubling farmer incomes or solutions to ongoing farm distress aren’t limited to on-farm interventions or financial incentives but are lurking in the hallowed hallways of a thoroughly compromised system.

The writer is chairman, Punjab State Farmers’ Commission. Views are personal.

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  1. Maya M
    Jan 5, 2018 at 4:32 pm
    Couldn't agree more with Harish Mehta. Indian masses are being fooled by a continuous dose of negative propanganda in the mainstream media. Urban, non farmer suicides comprise close to 90 percent of all suicides in India. Yet intellectuals, NGOs, media and politicians will only talk about farmer suicides for Funding, TRP and Political gains respectively. Ask your author who happens to be the son of an 'out of power' politician to visit villages to find out that those simple folks are far more happy, honest and content than the so called urban educated elite, who will go down to any levels of lies for money and fulfilling their vested interests.
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    1. Harish Mehta
      Jan 5, 2018 at 4:15 pm
      I firmly believe in logical debates based on facts, not fiction. The information shared below is authentic: >Suicides among the farmers has declined from 16 in 2004 to 9.4 in 2015 where as NON FARMER suicides, increased from 84 in 2004 to an alarming 90.6 in 2015. However this fact is concealed by speakers claiming to be an authority on farmers interests. >The Yavatmal incident is being investigated by SIT and one should refrain from RUMOURS till the final finding are known >India is the 2nd largest agricultural producer in the World and USES MUCH LESS pesticides as compared to China, USA,Brazil and Europe.We are among the top in production of milk,fish F Veg. >The apprehension on use of UNTESTED UNREGISTERED pesticides is unfounded as CIB RC assess effect on human health, on applicators environment >India ranks 156th globally in deaths due to CANCER. Linking pesticides to cancer is demeaning. Take pride in Indian farmer negative propaganda MUST STOP
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      1. Narasimha Reddy Donthi
        Jan 5, 2018 at 11:26 am
        Is Pesticide Management Bill 2017 similar to the 2008 version? If so, it does not help. We have a given detailed list of amendments to this version. Because of this pressure, it was stalled then. Let us hope the current version, if it is true, is ecology and farmer friendly, than a mere tool to perpetuate the existing system.
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        1. Ravichandran Vanchinathan
          Jan 4, 2018 at 9:27 pm
          A well-articulated article which highlights the lacunae in the system. Suicide by farmers feeding the world is a national shame. The real culprits escape the eyes of justice by misusing the shortcomings of the law enforcement agencies. The real culprits get away with the offence by making an insignificant person as a scapegoat and make him responsible for the crime. Besides the spurious, substandard insecticides many of the banned chemicals such as monocrotophos are easily available in the market. How such banned chemicals hit the market? Doesn't the government know about it? Many of the traders don't even issue the bill.Because of such unhealthy and unlawful practices, precious lives are lost. It is high time the Central Govt takes cognizant of the gravity of the situation and empower the state government to punish the real offender by making necessary modifications in the Pesticides Management Bill as suggested in the article.
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          1. seer rishi
            Jan 4, 2018 at 9:37 am
            In general we should strengthen the provision of vicarious liability across organizations. Irrespective of who is responsible for the lapse those who are accountable, employers, companies and ins utions are penalized. Only then people will take law seriously.
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