Insecticides
Fifteen people died in Karnataka after a temple’s prasadam was poisoned with Monocrotophos, an insecticide that’s been banned in many countries, but is still freely sold in India.

On December 14, around 100 people who consumed contaminated prasadam from a temple in Karnataka's Chamarajanagar district were hospitalised. Fifteen of them have died so far, in addition to 80 birds. 

According to the latest reports, Monocrotophos is responsible for the death of these devotees and the authorities are investigating how the chemical got into the food in the first place. Monocrotophos has been responsible for many tragic deaths in India, including the large number of farmers who died last year in the cotton belt of Maharashtra as well as the 2013 mid-day meal incident in Bihar where 23 children died. What’s more, scientists, consumer groups and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been demanding a ban on Monocrotophos and similar pesticides for a long time, but the Indian government has refused to comply.

A system in need of change

Monocrotophos was licensed in India in 1972, and it has been approved only to be used on cotton, paddy, maize, Bengal gram, green gram, pea, red gram, sugarcane, citrus, mango, coconut, coffee and cardamom crops. Though its use is banned on vegetables, government institutions like Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) have long known about its indiscriminate usage on fruits and vegetable. While we lack data on its toxicity/ residue in vegetables, studies conducted by IARI have found very high residue in vegetables.

In India, the pesticide regulatory framework is in dire need of a complete overhaul. Most developed countries systematically review pesticides and phase out those that have proven to be harmful to human or animal health or ineffective in their function. But here, there is no such mechanism and once a chemical has been approved, the license to manufacture exists in perpetuity. The only review in place is committees (and more committees) to review the recommendations of the previous committees.

WHO’s stance against Monocrotophos

WHO conducted a review of Monocrotophos use in India and its implications in 2009. The review stated, “The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WHO have encouraged countries to phase out highly hazardous pesticides. Leading Asian countries have banned the use of monocrotophos because of unacceptable health risks, but in India, monocrotophos continues to be produced, used and exported. The perception that monocrotophos is cheap and necessary, have prevented the product from being taken off the market. Urgent action is thus needed to reduce the availability of and the demand for highly hazardous pesticides, as recommended by WHO and FAO (42). It is imperative to consider banning the use of monocrotophos, which is one of the main agents used for suicide attempts in the country. The argument that there are no alternatives has been refuted by those countries where its use is no longer permitted, including Australia, Cambodia, China, the European Union, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United States of America and Vietnam.”

But the Government of India refused to heed the advice of WHO.

In 2015, the government set up the Anupam Verma committee to review some of the pesticides currently being sold in the country, of which Monocrotophos was one. Amongst other things, the committee noted that Monocrotophos was being misused.

“The Certificate of Registration of technical and its formulation deemed to be invalid w.e.f. from 1st January, 2018 if studies as recommended by the Expert Committee is not submitted by December, 2017.”

Though the Mayee Committee, another government-sanctioned group, was set up in 2006 and asked for the same health impacts of Monocrotophos, no studies were conducted. Meanwhile, the EU, USA, China and Vietnam have banned the chemical and the WHO has classified it as “highly hazardous.” But as expected, the Indian industry did not submit the health impact reports that it was required to by December 2017.

Waking up to a dangerous reality

The Indian agro chemical industry is the fourth largest in the world valued at USD 4.1 billion and expected to increase to USD 8.1 billion by 2025, according to the latest FICCI report. But neither has the government accepted international data on the dangers of Monocrotophos, nor are new studies being conducted in India.

Instead, the pesticide industry is expected to collect data, but, in a clear case of conflict of interest, it refuses to comply. They continue to intimidate researchers, scientists by slapping defamation suits, and in the meanwhile, helpless farmers and consumers continue to get poisoned.

After each pesticide-related death, I wonder if the government will take finally concrete action and ban the WHO-classified hazardous pesticide. But the question remains -- how many people will be the victim of powerful lobbies or government lethargy before we wake up?

Reena Gupta is an environment specialist. She has worked with several government and non-government organizations including the World Bank. Pesticides, pollutions and plastics worry her.

Views expressed are the author's own.