Draft Pesticide Management Bill is Out of Sync With the Agrarian Political Economy

The bill ignores ground realities of sale and consumption of agrichemicals. Any bill genuinely concerned about agrichemicals management must begin with the recognition that much of agriculture is plagued by a deep economic, ecological, and cultural crisis. The government must go back to the drawing board and reformulate the very objectives of the bill. 

One morning in November 2014, as I was talking to Jay, a retailer of pesticides and other chemical inputs, in his shop just outside Nashik city, an elderly farmer walked in with a cutting of a withered stem. Jay glanced at it and put a bottle of micro-nutrients in front of the man. Jay also ferreted out two small packets. He said, “Apply some nutrients (poshak), and give some pesticide and fungicide. The problem will disappear.” The farmer purchased all three. (Author’s field notes)[1]

On 19 February 2018, the Department of Agriculture Cooperation & Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture issued its draft of the Pesticides Management Bill, 2017 for public comments. The bill has justifiably drawn flak from several quarters (Business Standard 2018; Kuruganti 2018; PAN India 2018). It does not fundamentally depart from the Insecticides Act, 1968, and in at least one way, takes a step backwards. While the Insecticides Act, 1968 explicitly named fungicides and herbicides, this bill only covers them by implication. Farmers generally are aware of the differences among pesticides (which kill pests), fungicides (which control fungal infections), and herbicides (which kill plants that compete for resources with crops of interest to farmers). Collapsing these differences and extending the definition of pesticides beyond its common-sense understanding is likely to confuse the scope of the bill for farmers and field regulatory officers alike.  

The term “agrichemicals” is used in the rest of the article, since it is a broader category compared to pesticides and includes fungicides and herbicides among other inputs. 

While there are many issues with the bill that are worth debating, the article briefly highlights a core deficiency—ignorance of the ground realities of sale and consumption of agrichemicals. Any serious attempt at legislating agrichemicals management must begin with the question: what networks market and channel pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and other chemicals to farms? 

Network of Toxicity

Domestic and transnational agrichemical companies aggressively promote their products in rural areas. This happens most visibly through advertisements on hoardings, promotional leaflets, and village-level farm-to-farm marketing by young men in rural areas. This also happens through managing the incentives of retailers of chemical inputs. These shopkeepers operate at the bottom of the agrichemicals supply chain, serving as the point of sale.

Retailers play a decisive role in what inputs farmers purchase and how much they spray. For example, in Nashik district, retailers are the principal sources of technical advice for farmers. It is to them that farmers come with questions and concerns, sometimes with cuttings of an infected plant, or a decaying fruit, or an infected leaf. Retailers respond by recommending a chemical remedy, or more often, a cocktail of chemicals, as the opening vignette highlights. Retailers also make recommendations about dosage. These recommendations are often at odds with the information printed on bottles and packets in English and Indian languages. Both retailers and farmers tend to ignore this. Farmers also depend upon retailers for credit, repaying them for the purchase of chemicals only once harvests begin, with interest charged often at usurious rates (Aga 2018). 

This makes farmers vulnerable to retailers, and retailers to upstream suppliers and companies. For faster accumulation and higher returns, agrichemical companies encourage retailers to sell more, and farmers to buy more. By the very logic of capitalist accumulation, this industry thrives on lean inventories and rapid turnovers. This sometimes means that retailers with expired, unsold stock feel tempted to palm it off to unwitting farmers, or if retailers have excessive inventory of a particular chemical, they nudge farmers to purchase it even if the latter do not need it or ask for it. This is one important dynamic behind the sale of expired and incorrect chemicals. Further, agrarian distress and indebtedness inevitably has a debilitating impact on retailers, making it difficult for some retailers to resist the lure of securing their position via the sale of spurious and banned chemicals. 

Reporting from the epicentre of the horrific deaths and poisoning due to pesticides in the cotton belt of Vidarbha in the kharif season in 2017, Jaideep Hardikar (2018) finds a similar dynamic at play: 

“[F]armers depend on the inputs dealer or shopkeeper for information about new chemicals. And a dealer or shopkeeper is unlikely to part with information about their acute toxicity when he needs to make a sale.” 

The emergence of resistance against chemicals only accelerates the treadmill. These are some principal reasons why chemical use on farms is skyrocketing. For instance, between 2000 and 2015, the consumption of pesticides in Maharashtra has nearly quadrupled, from 3,239 tons to 11,665 tons (Indiastat 2017). 

 

Provisions in the Draft Bill

In this context, how does the bill envisage management of agrichemicals? At the field level, the principal provisions of the bill include:

(i) the definition of “spurious” and “substandard” pesticides in addition to the “misbranded” ones specified in the 1968 Act (though it also confuses matters by introducing “ineffective” pesticides in Section 39); 

(ii) harsher punishments and longer prison terms for those violating the bill, including, alarmingly, farmers and farm labourers as users (Sections 35 and 39); and

(iii) allowing farmers, retailers, and so on to claim compensation from upstream suppliers/manufacturers by recourse to the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (Section 51). 

In many ways, the new bill is the same old Insecticides Act, 1968, but with minor tweaks. The burden of enforcing the bill on the ground still falls on the shoulders of “Pesticide Inspectors,” or “Insecticide Inspectors” as they were called in the 1968 Act. The many instances of agri-chemical poisonings across the country, and the widespread problem of sales of spurious and misbranded chemicals is ample demonstration of the weakness of inspection. 

In this study, the farmer-informants in Nashik district had no information about the existence of such inspectors, let alone their contact details. A more revealing picture is available in the report of the Special Investigating Team, constituted in October 2017 by the Government of Maharashtra, to investigate pesticide-related deaths and illnesses in Vidarbha during the 2017 kharif season. The report finds that for the 16 talukas of Yavatmal, there was only one full-time post of a district-level quality control inspector, which had been lying vacant for the last two years. At the taluka level, inspectorial posts were lying vacant for the last three years, and agricultural officers had been asked to shoulder insecticides-related responsibilities part-time.

Such a resource and manpower-starved structure can scarcely oversee the sale and usage of agrichemicals by crores of retailers and farmers in the vast area of a typical district, rendering the tougher fines and prison terms practically moot. Bereft of support from such officers, an average farmer, lacking time, resources, and legal literacy, cannot make a strong case against companies and retailers in consumer courts, or secure compensation for financial and other losses. 

Even if the government were to appoint an adequate number of pesticide inspectors, the proposed bill will still not address the fundamental issue. Substandard, spurious, banned and misbranded agrichemicals are only the tip of the iceberg. With the collapse of public agricultural extension, farmers lack recourse to objective advice about agrichemicals and their usage. In this context, companies and retailers exploit anxieties about a good harvest among farmers to drive ever-increasing application of correctly branded, top quality, lawfully available agrichemicals. The real and urgent task is to arrest the tsunami of such chemicals, a key factor contributing to rural indebtedness, illness and suicides (Dandekar and Bhattacharya 2017). This is precisely the issue the bill evades.

There are many other things worth highlighting and debating regarding the bill. For instance, specifying tolerance limits for residues before an agrichemical is approved for import or manufacture (Section 12), is an important though inadequately fleshed-out measure. Including a male and a female farmer in the Central Pesticides Board (Section 4) is a small step toward making the board more participatory. However, this step is unlikely to make the board responsive and accountable to its core constituency, namely farmers and farm labourers, rather than the agrichemicals industry. In a symposium organised by the industry lobby Crop Care Federation of India in February 2013 in New Delhi, then Joint Secretary, Department of Agriculture and Co-operation, U K Singh, commented that regulators and the agrichemicals industry have a love-hate relationship. In response, B S Phogat, then occupying the influential post of the Secretary of the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee, confessed that 

“we definitely love industry, but haters [are] our guidelines and technical requirements [for] applicants…” 

 

Conclusions

This article does not discuss such aspects of the bill because no amount of tweaking the board or specification of new definitions and penal terms can salvage a bill that is fundamentally out of sync with the agrarian political economy. 

Any bill genuinely concerned about agrichemicals management must begin with the recognition that much of agriculture is plagued by a deep economic, ecological, and cultural crisis. Rather than tackling the management of agrichemicals piecemeal, the bill must be one pillar of a broader framework of addressing the interrelated problems of farming, food, environment, and health. This will require a wholesale rejuvenation of public agricultural extension, among other measures. The government must go back to the drawing board and reformulate the very objectives of the bill. It must bring safety of farmers, farm labourers and consumers, and economic and ecological viability of agriculture to the centre stage in agrichemicals management.

 

 

 

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