In an ongoing PIL that seeks Supreme Court’s directions for concrete action on harmful pesticides and their phasing out in India, in its last hearing a month ago, the court directed the petitioners to make a representation to the “J S Sandhu Committee” within 15 days.

However, the said committee ceased to exist and a new committee was reconstituted some months ago. A recent press release by a non-government organisation, which is also the lead petitioner of the public interest litigation, has brought out this fact.

The court ordered, “Since the matter is of urgent nature, let the recommendations be finalised by the committee expeditiously, preferably within three months, and if decision is taken to ban a particular pesticide, let it be implemented 15 days thereafter.”

The existence and functioning of such a committee was highlighted by the Government of India counsel during the hearing on March 19, 2018, in writ petition (c) 1079 of 2017. However, to the petitioners’ surprise, when they sent their submission to ICAR on March 27, 2018, they found that no such J S Sandhu Committee was functioning in the ministry of agriculture & farmers’ welfare.

Dr J S Sandhu, who was the ICAR deputy director-general (crop science) and chair of the registration committee of CIBRC (the apex regulatory body for pesticides in India) had retired in July 2017, it was found, even though the government counsel referred to the ‘Committee headed by Dr J S Sandhu’ in a March 2018 hearing. After inquiries and communication initiated with CIBRC, the petitioners were informed on April 16, 2018, that in October 2017, the committee was reconstituted with Dr S K Malhotra, agriculture commissioner, DA&FW, as the chairperson.

“It is indeed a very sad state of regulatory affairs in the country when it comes to pesticides. This petition was filed soon after the acute pesticide poisoning incidents that emerged in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, in November 2017.” The petition contended that even the Anupam Verma Committee’s mandate was narrowed by the government to 66 pesticides (“bannable” pesticides, as Parliament replies refer to these), when there are at least 99 pesticides being used in India, which have been banned or restricted elsewhere in the world. The petition prayed for all these pesticides to be banned in India too, after citing numerous studies on the health impacts of these pesticides mainly on farmers and agricultural workers. This is the violation of the Right To Life of these citizens.

“Meanwhile, we find that the Anupam Verma Committee constituted in 2013, which gave its report in 2015, had inter alia recommended that 13 pesticides be completely banned and 6 pesticides to be phased out by 2020 (incidentally, pesticides like Monocrotophos banned in numerous other countries and implicated in many acute pesticide poisoning cases in the recent past, have been put into a list that was recommended for further review in 2018 by the Anupam Verma Committee). Based on this, the Government of India put out a draft ban notification, dated December 15, 2016. However, after receiving 108 comments on this draft notification, the MoAFW, on March 30, 2017, set up a committee headed by Dr J S Sandhu for evaluation of the objections and suggestions received in response to the Gazette Notification. While this Committee was given one month’s time in which to submit its report, it is seen that no report is presented by the time Dr J S Sandhu retired by July 2017.”

Further, “After a gap of another two months, the MoAFW reconstituted the committee with Dr S K Malhotra as the chair, but with a time period of two months given. Instead of this report being submitted by December 2017, it is seen that even in the month of April 2018, no report has been submitted,”said Kavitha Kuruganti, co-convenor of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture) and the lead petitioner of the PIL. Co-petitioners include Ananthasayanan, a safe food activist, and Dr Amarsingh Azad, a public health & child health expert. The case is being argued by senior counsel Prashant Bhushan on behalf of the petitioners.

As per the Supreme Court’s directions to the petitioners, a representation was submitted in Krishi Bhawan on April 18, 2018. In their representation, petitioners submitted that no concrete action has been seen for nearly five years now, even as the negative impacts of pesticides were being borne by farmers and farm workers. They also objected to the constitution of the committee, pointing out that no health experts have been included, and that the members are drawn mostly from the registration committee which had already reviewed the Anupam Verma Committee report in December 2015.

The petitioners highlighted the serious limitations of the Anupam Verma Committee, its mandate and functioning, and reiterated the regulators’ failure to regulate and restrict use of pesticides. In their representation to the committee, the petitioners repeated their broad prayers to the Supreme Court, which are the following:
1.       Ban as a first step all the 99 pesticides that have been banned or restricted in one or other countries elsewhere in the world;
2.       Ban the advertising and unacceptable practices of marketing and promoting of pesticides, which are after all poisons;
3.       Put into place a system by which the precautionary principle is to be followed before registering any pesticide for use or manufacture;
4.       Make it mandatory to perform a Needs and Alternatives Assessment before registering any pesticide;
5.       Appoint an expert committee comprising individuals of unimpeachable integrity mainly from the field of organic agriculture / agro-ecology to examine the issue of making a road map for phasing out all chemical pesticides in a time-bound manner, preferably within five years, and for making recommendations on the assistance to be given by the Central and state governments to farmers for the period of time it will take for their farms to convert to chemical pesticide-free organic farms, as well as for providing the requisite impetus to organic farming in the country. Thereafter, Central and state governments should implement the recommendations of the said expert committee in a time-bound manner. Such an expert committee should comprehensively and thoroughly examine and recommend the structural, institutional, legal and programmatic reforms that are needed to convert to organic farming in the country.

The committee’s recommendations are now awaited, within three months, as per the SC’s orders.