The endosulfan controversy is typical of India, of Indian politics, of Indian corruption, of Indian morality. There were 173 countries in the Stockholm Convention that debated whether or not there should be a global ban on this notorious pesticide. Of these 125 had banned it outright. All 47 of the remaining 48 sat on the fence and generally kept quiet. Only one argued vehemently on behalf of endosulfan. That one-in-the-world nation was India.
India was further isolated by the silliness of its arguments. It said, for example, that America's Federal Drug Administration ruled in 1998 that endosulfan posed no health hazard. The US has the most stringent and independent regulatory agencies in food and environmental matters and therefore American rulings are taken as a benchmark in the rest of the world.
But India cited American authority only to mislead. In 1989, a decade before the purported FDA ruling, the US Fish & Wild Life Service had said that endosulfan was fatal to endangered fish species. In 2007 the US Environment Protection Agency began a review of pesticide policies and decided, in 2010, to phase out endosulfan. The industry lobby said this was not a ban,but only a deregistration. The fact was that Bayer, the first and principal manufacturer of the pesticide, closed down its American factory. The only remaining factory, an Israeli company, started winding down as per the phase-out period allowed by the Government. The pesticide, it was declared, “poses unacceptable risks to farm workers and wild life”.
In America and Europe, in China and Japan, scientific studies lead to fairly quick policy decisions. In India about 80 expert study teams have reported on the Kasargod victims of endosulfan, examining everything from breast milk to male reproductive systems. Yet the Government kept saying that expert studies were needed before a ban could be considered. Sharad Pawar was the sole fighter for endosulfan initially. Later the Prime Minister and the green warrior Jairam Ramesh joined him. What was going on?
It is true that excessive and careless use of pesticides led to the tragedies in Kasargod (where children are born with horrible defects) and in Punjab's Bhatinda area (where cancer is endemic). Civilised societies impose responsibilities on the industry as well as on government agencies to ensure proper and controlled use of poisonous chemicals. In Bhatinda what steps did the industry and the Government take to guide farmers many of whom could not even read the instructions on the packets?
The Kerala Government's lapse was even more reprehensible. Irresponsible aerial spraying of the lethal chemical was carried out by a government undertaking, the Plantation Corporation. Was any official of the Corporation booked for the offence and punished? The state's case against the Central Government would have been stronger if it had held its own offenders accountable.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at Delhi's defence of the indefensible and its indifference to India's isolation in the world. India already has a shameful record of bowing before multinational lobbies. Drugs that are banned in Western countries become easily available in our country. Field trials disallowed in America are carried out on unsuspecting Indian patients. Genetically engineered products must be so labelled in other countries. In India there is no such rule because the GM lobby has “persuaded” the authorities against it.
Many things happen in India that cannot happen in countries concerned about public welfare. The needle of suspicion must naturally point to the possibility of corruption. We hear pesticide lobby's arguments from the mouths of government leaders. We hear arguments in favour of chemically engineered brinjal from agricultural experts who have received lucrative research grants from GM companies. World opinion has now forced India to agree to a phase out of endosulfan over the next 11 years. Given the hold the lobbies have on India's power structure, there is no guarantee that the phase-out will work as transparently in India as it did in the US. Scepticism is in order when decisions about poisons in our water bodies and soil and food chains are in the hands of people like Sharad Pawar.