On August 8, the Indian government took action to ban 18 highly dangerous (‘hazardous’) pesticides from use in the country. Twelve of these pesticides were banned from that date; six others will be phased out over the next two years. The decision follows a long process of deliberation that included the 2015 Anupam Verma committee report (which recommended this approach), public litigation case by activists to speed government action and a Supreme Court case.
This is a significant step that will have long term benefits. These pesticides – particularly methyl parathion, phorate, phosphamidon and dichlorvos – have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in India from occupational use, childhood accidents and most commonly suicide. Pesticides are considered to cause around 90,000 suicides every year in India.
Studies from Sri Lanka clearly show that banning dangerous pesticides from agricultural use reduces their availability for suicide attempts, resulting in major falls in overall suicide rates. Suicides occur during acute personal crises; if people can survive the crisis, because the pesticide they drink is not so dangerous, many find a different solution to their problems and go to live a productive life.
Treatment of severe pesticide poisoning is also very expensive, requiring intensive care and mechanical ventilator support that can make families destitute. Pesticide poisoning leads to loss of life and health and shortens productive lives while causing economic and social damage and immeasurable community, familial and individual grief.
The decision to ban these highly hazardous pesticides is long overdue, and one that can be lauded. But this is just the first step on the long journey towards effective pesticide management and understanding the impact of pesticide bans on health and the environment in India.
Other highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) that harm health and the environment remain in agricultural use. The Anupam Verma committee recommended that 27 pesticides be reviewed in 2018, including monocrotophos, carbofuran, dimethoate and quinalphos – all pesticides that have killed tens of thousands of people across South and East Asia. However, the committee did not consider pesticides that are banned in many countries and recommended for international phase out.
All of these pesticides are simply too toxic to be safely used and stored in poor Indian rural agricultural communities. The government needs to develop a comprehensive response to the issue of such pesticides in India.
As the recent decision comes into force, it will also be important to study its impact on agriculture, environment and the health of the nation. Implementing legislation to limit the use of HHPs in agriculture has been a successful approach to suicide reduction, reducing overall numbers in countries where small-scale farming is common, such as Sri Lanka, South Korea and Bangladesh, without affecting agricultural yield.
However, such monitoring will be difficult in India, where there is a lack of good data on the incidence of pesticide poisoning and apparent underreporting of both accidental and suicidal pesticide poisoning. This means that both the state and Central governments do not have the evidence with which to make informed policy decisions for the benefit of the country. Such systems need to be put in place, together with the ongoing review of bans, for HHPs still being used in India at great cost to humans and environment.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers they can call to speak in confidence. You could also accompany them to the nearest hospital.