Politics should ideally be banned from the issue of pollutants and pesticides, but it is certain that India’s decision to ban endosulfan at the latest Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants will be used to score political points. India has fallen in line after resisting a ban for years on various grounds, most of which have little merit.
There is also no doubt now that the Left — Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan had gone on a seven-hour fast demanding its nationwide ban — will claim this as its own victory. There is no doubt that the banning of this cost-effective pesticide which is used for vegetables, fruits, paddy, cotton, tea, coffee, cashew, tobacco, rubber and timber will push up the prices of these items.
Organic alternatives are 15 times more expensive than endosulfan. The argument that the endosulfan industry brings in R1,340 crore and, therefore, is economically viable is pernicious to say the least. The economic cost of adverse health effects and long-term damage to the environment far outstrips that.
In any event, people’s wellbeing cannot be pitted against revenue. Much damage has already been done and the endeavour now should be to see how best to deal with this effectively. The Left has been talking about rehabilitating the victims of endosulfan, many of whom suffer from debilitating ailments and we hope that it will show the way. It is incumbent upon the government to try and explore alternatives for the pesticide using the resources of India’s innovative agricultural scientists.
We should also explore how other countries which have banned endosulfan have developed substitutes. Perhaps we need to tap into the native wisdom of our own farmers and include them in the hunt for a safe and cost-effective alternative. The cost could also be offset by imaginative private-public partnerships.
Since the pesticide is used in a variety of crops and since India has bought itself at least 10 years of breathing space to phase it out, the agriculture ministry has enough time to begin a search for technology-based solutions. The logic that there will be further rises in food prices with the ban of endosulfan is belied to an extent, by the fact that the cost of edibles has been going up steadily in spite of the use of the pesticide.
The government has a duty to see that neither farmers nor consumers are excessively burdened by a decision taken for the greater common good. We all remember the crop duster scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. It comes as a revelation that similar crop dusters were still being used in places like Kerala to spray endosulfan until not so long ago.
We have drunk from the poisoned chalice for too long, it is time to come clean now.