India has decided to join a global consensus to end the production and use of endosulfan after being allowed 11 years to phase it out and promised financial assistance. This decision is not irreversible since India has to ratify its own decision. An absolutely final position can be adopted after the results of more elaborate studies on extensive use are available since a causal link between the health hazards in Kerala and endosulfan is disputed. However, it is clear which way the world is going. The Europeans lead in rejecting it and not only have over 60 countries banned its use, the US has also decided to phase it out by 2016. The US Environmental Protection Agency has determined that it can pose unacceptable health risks to agricultural workers and wildlife. According to a World Health Organisation study, the general population does not appear to be at risk from residue in food, but in the general environment it is highly toxic for some aquatic species, particularly fish.
Endosulfan is extensively used in India and China – both are emerging economies with large numbers of poor farmers engaged in low-cost agriculture – because it is a cheap and relatively harmless generic pesticide. In an ideal world, earlier-generation chemicals with greater downside should give way to more recent products that are safer. These exist but are under patent and come at a price. Those voicing the interests of Indian farmers and the endosulfan industry have alleged that the hue and cry against it is the handiwork of NGOs funded by European patent holders of newer chemicals. Even if that was the case, the deciding factor should be whether the stuff is harmful or not. Since newer and safer chemicals are costlier, India has negotiated financial assistance in return for a phase-out. What really matters is how endosulfan is applied. Excessive and indiscriminate use appears to have been the culprit in Kerala, where it was aerial-sprayed, not hand-sprayed. Careful and well-directed use will obviously lessen the risk to ambient non-farm populations. But who can guarantee or ensure that Indian farmers will not be careless and indiscriminate in usage?
A few clear lessons follow from the way the endosulfan issue has panned out. If you want a key decision to be made then try to get politicians involved in it, particularly before an election. This is what happened in Kerala, where Congress leaders sought quick action from the Centre to counter the Left making an election issue of it. There will be lobbies for and against every issue but the truth must be ferreted out on the basis of scientific studies that are not compromised owing to funding from vested interests. Finally, if a patented product is necessary for food security, public health and environmental safety, all that the government needs to do is allow its manufacture under compulsory licensing, ensuring royalty payment commensurate with the status of the economy and users’ ability to pay. Politicians and officials who are susceptible to multinational lobbying have been reluctant to use this weapon, which can aid people and the environment without favouring industry at home or abroad.