Refer Pesticide Bill to select committee

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Even those whose hearts go out to the farmers as they protest are unlikely to evince similar solidarity with a close ally of the farmer, the pesticide industry. Pesticides evoke alarm and distaste and those who make them are seen as peddlers of harm, who can, at best, be tolerated and should always yield pride of place to advocates of organic farming.

However, if these did not exist, as has famously been observed in the case of chemical fertilisers, a couple of billion humans would have to starve to death and those who do avoid that fate would devote a larger share of their income to food and live poorer lives. Pesticides are vital, the point is to manage them well.

Parliament is considering a Pesticide Management Bill, which would replace the 1968 vintage Insecticides Act. The Bill would appear to be ill-thought-out and half-formed, starting with its very name. Why exclude weedicides from the Bill’s nomenclature? Why exclude chemicals that, for example, extend the life of fresh produce? Why not call it the Crop Care Regulation and Development Bill? The industry is some Rs 40,000 crore in size, including exports, and spends almost 10% on R&D, the comparable figure for India as a whole being 0.7% of GDP.

It employs a fair number of people with advanced degrees in chemistry, agriculture and biology (the most virulent enemy of groundnut has to be attacked not by spraying the crop but by targeting the pest as it clambers nearby trees to mate, and that insight cannot come from students of chemistry). The Bill fails to propose a regulator with an appellate body, criminalises far too many ill-defined offences and provides for arbitrary stoppage of production and export.

Norms for import of know-how and formulations would appear to be poorly crafted, with little regard for promoting domestic capability. There is no call to rush the Bill through Parliament. Refer it to a Select Committee. Hear domestic and foreign industry, and farmers, before finalising the Bill, and consult the Dalwai committee report the government had commissioned.

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