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Toxic Tours - XV: 2003: A defining moment for food safety issues in India

By Laxmi Murthy

India's policies on pollution and pesticide use address impact mitigation and end-of-the-pipe solutions only. No thought is given to the Precautionary Principle, which raises fundamental questions about the process of development itself, says Ravi Agarwal, Director of Toxics Link, which works towards public education and awareness on issues of ecological contamination

What are the main policy issues around pesticides?

The policy around pesticides is actually characterised by a lack of policy. A policy implies a vision, a larger context. But the issue of chemicals in India has not been looked at holistically. Policymaking is not logical – it is an interplay of several factors, and policy in operation is political negotiation between various stakeholders. India’s policy measures have been few and far between. For instance, in 1992, there was a Policy Statement on Pollution Abatement, which looks at pre-emptive actions, but this has not found its way into legislation. We have been talking about the need for a National Pesticide Policy, and are working together with other groups to evolve such a policy.

What are the loopholes in legislation?

Environmental legislation such as the Insecticide Act of 1968 has only attempted to mitigate damage – for instance, tackling emissions, toxic waste, or impact of pesticides. Laws are flawed and difficult to implement. At the policy level, there is no questioning of the chemical industry per se, or about whether the use of chemicals is the best way forward for development, whether alternatives are possible, etc. No thought is given to the Precautionary Principle, which raises fundamental questions about the process of development itself. Policy is still in a very regulatory framework – it only looks at impact mitigation and end-of-the-pipe solutions. In this scenario, it is only the environment ministry which is focused on impact mitigation, whereas agriculture, health etc are ignored. While bans are not effective in themselves, they are good markers, and open up possibilities as campaign tools that can be built upon.

Is setting standards useful to tackle the adverse impact of pesticides?

If you look at the food safety issue --even the Coke and Pepsi furore—it has been reduced to an issue of standards. The moment standards are de-linked from the practical context, they become unmanageable. When you don’t look at the entire regime, the danger of pushing standards is that you do not redefine the issue, but only increase policing. Policing is not only cost-ineffective, the whole set-up of inspectors, visits etc becomes perfunctory, and in our context, a victim of red tape and corruption. You can carry out any number of reforms in the process of regulation, but they are bound to be limited. Yet, I don’t look at standard-setting negatively. It is a driver, which brings to the fore many other important issues.

What do you suggest as an alternative approach?

Look at Europe – it is a region where the Precautionary Principle is being operationalised. Policymakers are looking at pesticides from the point of view not only of industry, but as a consumer issue, examining the processes involved at every stage of the food chain, not only end-of-the-pipe. The notion of sustainability and of corporate social responsibility are also entering policy formulation.

What has brought this about?

It has mainly been driven by a high level of public awareness, consumer pressure and taking scientists on board. Setting standards everywhere is a political issue, and getting stakeholders’ voices heard in policymaking is a challenge. The shift in Europe has taken place over the last couple of decades, and has been manifesting in policy over the last five years.

Do you see this happening in India too?

The process of globalisation will see India too being driven by these concerns. Production bases are shifting to the global south, and there is a demand for standardised production. Industry is being pushed towards better performance, beyond market issues, into looking at consumer concerns. The problem is that India aligns itself with the more conservative industrial forces like US and Canada, which are industry-driven rather than consumer-driven as in Europe. Over the last few years, there is increasing pressure on Indian industry, which has had to respond to law suits and media campaigns. So industry is lashing out now. Industry is the strongest stakeholder, particularly since it ensures food production, and enjoys government protection. The government is generally reluctant to move contrary to industry, and then only when there is intense consumer pressure, as with the recent Coke episode.

What is the role of the other stakeholders?

The Indian middle class is growing in strength and influence. This is reflected in the nature of judgments from the higher courts. For instance farmers’ deaths due to pesticide are not likely to get as much mileage as pesticide contamination of food on the table in middle class homes. When problems are presented in the middle class framework they are likely to get more attention – from the media as well as the judiciary and policymakers. Why, for instance, is there a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to look into contamination of Coke and Pepsi and not that of cauliflower or spinach? Similarly, pesticide contamination of Coca Cola gets more media coverage than contamination of tap water. The attention depends on who the problem impacts, and who is bringing it into focus.

How do you deal with the seeming conflict between environmental rights and human rights?

We are very conscious about the social context we operate in, unlike many of the environmental groups based in the global north. The interface between environmental concerns and human rights demands that we work together with trade unions, farmers associations and women’s groups. Strong bans and closure of manufacturing units may go against other stakeholders such as workers, so we cannot see things in isolation. For instance, job losses because of closure of pesticide factories is a sensitive issue which has to be tackled in tandem with workers’ rights groups. Similarly, recent media highlighting of pesticide levels in breast milk did not mention our stand that breast milk is still best for the baby – a deficiency that many health groups were concerned about. A major gap in working together is the lack of a gender perspective, since women’s groups in India are not engaged with these issues.

How do you explain this lack of involvement of women’s groups?

Poverty, basic survival issues and the pressing concerns of violence on women are probably the reasons why women’s groups in India are not able to concern themselves with environmental impact on women’s health, although reproductive health is severely impacted. The scenario is very different in the more industrialised countries. To take one example, in the Convention on the Elimination of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), over the four-year-long negotiations, a women’s caucus has emerged. However, it is not an issue for women’s groups here. I wish it was! But no change happens overnight – we have to invest in change.

What is the role of organisations like Toxics Link?

We play a major role in consumer awareness, public education and bringing the language of debate into the public domain. For instance, many more people can now relate to words like “contamination”, “standards”, “permissible levels” etc. We also see bringing together the various stakeholders as the only way to negotiate. Bringing farmers groups, women’s groups, as well as scientists on board, is a political process. Srishti (of which I am part) has also filed a case in the Supreme Court on food safety, which was admitted in March 2003. The case, although it is presented as a food safety issue, attempts to go beyond. Legislation too can change fast given the right pressures.

What has been the result of the recent media spotlight on pesticides in beverages and food?

This is a defining moment for food safety issues, just as 1995 was a defining moment for the urban waste issue when post-plague, the media and public pressure mounted. Since ’95, there have been five major court cases, policy changes and increased funding for urban waste issues. Over the last eight months, a lot has happened – media exposes on contaminated mineral water, soft drinks and food, the food safety case was admitted into the Supreme Court, and given the current atmosphere, the bits and pieces need to be taken to a crescendo.

Toxics Link
H2 Jungpura Extrension,
New Delhi 110 014
Tel: +91-11-24328006
E.mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

(Laxmi Murthy is a freelance journalist specialising in gender and development. She has been active in the women's movement for the past 18 years)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2003