Saturday, October 30, 2010

The world’s favourite dumping ground

The worst offenders have the best lobbies to protect them. Perhaps it is a law of nature. The more one has to hide, the greater the paraphernalia one needs to hide them. Laws of this kind work extremely well in India because our bribability quotient is pretty high.

How else can we explain the recent spectacle of a shipload of New York City municipal waste being dumped in Kochi port? Or a condemned ship with most of its parts deadly with radioactive material coming to our west coast for scrapping? It is well known that medicines banned in the West are freely sold in India and that poor Indians are used for field testing that are not allowed on American citizens. Such things happen because same Indians like to get rich at the expense of their fellow citizens and their country. And because the state shirks its responsibility.

The same principle has made India the favourite hunting ground for promoters of Bt. brinjal and endosulfan. Both are long-running scandals, but Monsanto has added a new, revealing twist to the genetic engineering mess: they don’t want labelling of GM products made mandatory in India. Companies voluntarily labelling products as not containing genetically modified organisms is all right, but no legal requirement should be there, they say. In other words, an internationally suspect corporation like Monsanto (and its Indian avatars) must have the right to hide what it wants to hide; people do not have any right to know what they are eating.

Even if we leave out the European Union (Monsanto was banished from Europe), countries like China, Japan and Australia have enforced mandatory labelling rules. India has done nothing of the kind, showing the power of the lobby on the one side and the “influenceability” – to put it mildly – of the Indian establishment on the other.

These factors are even more dramatically evident on the endosulfan front. Actually India should have been in the forefront of the global campaign to get this poisonous pesticide banned. It was only in India that endosulfan was sprayed from the air across acres of cashew plantations for as long as 20 years. This callous operation by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala ruined the soil and water of the area. Pitiable deformities and horror diseases spread among the people living in the area.

But the pesticide lobby rejected pictorial evidence provided by TV channels and on-the-spot surveys done by researchers. Instead, it spread the story that there was no proof to show that endosulfan was the cause of the tragedy. Ministers in the Centre and the state mouthed this argument; Union Minister of State for Agriculture repeated it last week though he should have known better since he comes from Kerala.

Two factors expose this irresponsible ministerial posture. First, if endosulfan is not the cause of the neurological disorders and hormonal imbalances, then what is? Mosquitoes? No minister has bothered to look into this. Scientific panels have indeed linked the pesticide with genetic disorders, but these were brushed aside in favour of “official” panels who echoed the lobby line.

Secondly, India is the world’s largest remaining producer of endosulfan. In addition to several private companies, the Government of India’s Hindustan Insecticides runs three manufacturing units. With this vested interest, when India becomes the lead country opposing the ban much of the world is demanding (sixty countries have already banned it), we present a reactionary, retrograde profile to the world. The pesticide lobby doesn’t care, but India should.

The first thing the Government should do is to privatise Hindustan Insecticides and cut endosulfan out of its products line. Then it must ensure that the poisonous pesticide is not manufactured or used in India at all; Kerala banned it but the stuff still finds its way into the state in various disguises. Obviously the lobby is powerful enough to defy the laws it finds inconvenient. Even over the twisted, tangled bodies of helpless victims, the worst offenders have the last laughs.