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Issue 32
, 2011
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High financial stakes dictate agenda

Ravi Agarwal
Source: MailToday, Date: , 2011

WHEN Sharad Pawar, India’s powerful agricultural minister, recently spoke in defence of endosulfan in Parliament, it was a first of sorts. Probably, never before had a mere chemical attracted the interest of such a high profile minister.

However, endosulfan is no mere chemical.

It is one whose recent history has been written in guile, intrigue and politics.

Endosulfan is arguably one of the most toxic pesticides being used on the planet today. The international scientific community has formally recommended it for a global ban in the upcoming 172- nation meeting of the Stockholm Convention, an international legally binding UN treaty dealing with the most toxic chemicals in use.

Endosulfan currently tops this notorious list, with 21 already having been acted upon previously. The pesticide can cause severe health impacts including deformities in limbs, loss of motor control, brain damage, delayed puberty and cancer. It persists in the environment for a long time, circulates globally and passes on from the mother to the child, causing intergenerational health effects. On all these counts, banning it should be an open and shut case, as has already been done by over 60 countries in order to prevent harm to their citizens and the environment.

In India, there is a twist to the tale. We produce about ` 4500 crore worth of the pesticide annually, which is over 70 per cent of the world’s supply, and consume almost half of it for our horticulture, pulses, cashew, cotton and other plantations.

Two Indian companies are the largest global manufacturers, one of them being a public sector company, Hindustan Insecticides Ltd.

It is no wonder then that with such huge economic stakes, the Union government has blatantly resisted any attempt to talk science regarding endosulfan’s toxicity ever since the debate became international four years ago. It has not only cocked a snook at global research, stating it inapplicable to the tropics ( are Indian bodies so different?), but has made valiant ( though seemingly futile) efforts to disrupt the process without presenting any research to back its claims.

Government delegates to the International Science Review Committee have, invariably accompanied by representatives of the companies, attempted to block any discussion. Often company representatives have made official statements on behalf of the government.

It has been international diplomacy at its worst and the Indian behaviour has been whispered about in the UN corridors.

Activists and even academics from reputed institutions such as IIT Kanpur or the National Institute of Occupational Health, who dared to speak on the issue, have been publicly maligned, served legal notices or had criminal cases filed against them by the industry. Despite this, Kerala banned the use of endosulfan in 2002. The pesticide was widely used for aerial spraying on cashew crops in the state. The Karnataka government followed suit in 2010. A recent ban in Australia cited the health impacts in Kerala’s Kasaragod as one of the reasons for the ban.

Ironically, our very vociferous environment minister Jairam Ramesh chided the Kerala government for “ politicising the issue” and stated that a ban would have “ national implications”. Farmer leader Sharad Joshi has spoken against the proposed ban, fearing its impact on farmers and imputing motives on the EU to capture the market with new chemicals instead.

In fact, many alternative non- chemical approaches exist and have been documented. Simultaneously, the industry lobbying machinery is in full swing as the convention meeting draws closer.

Its representatives can be seen stalking the corridors of the environment and agriculture ministries. They should be less cocky, since India can be isolated in a global meeting.