Pesticide threat (2005)

The Tribune, Chandigarh,24 June 2005

Rajesh Kochhar

IN the recent Green Revolution decades, Punjab has created very many new folk songs celebrating the tubewell and the tractor. No sad songs have yet been written on the excessive use of pesticides of which Punjab is a major consumer primarily for its cotton and rice crops. Punjab produces 21 per cent of India’s wheat, 9 per cent of rice and 8 per cent of cotton, even though it has less than 2 per cent of India’s land. But, there is also a flip side to this accomplishment. Punjab consumes 12 per cent of India’s agro-chemicals.

Quite obviously, any substance that is harmful for insects and pests must be harmful for the human beings also. What is the amount of pesticide in human beings and animals in Punjab? How does it compare with say Uttaranchal Pradesh or Rajasthan? Does the presence of pesticide in the human body cause cancer, mental retardation and other illness? What are the safe limits for human beings? For animals? A large number of players are interested in answers to these and related questions?

There are the environmentalist groups, which are no doubt deeply concerned but at times overstate the case. Then there is the government which is the custodian of public health, but tends to get into the defensive mode at the slightest provocation. The profitable agrochemical industry would like to believe that pesticides are not as big a villain as some people are making them out to be, while the companies engaged in the production of genetically engineered crops are hoping that the controversy would help them gain credibility and business. On top of this, while the numerous television channels vie with one another to produce exclusive round-the-clock news, it is not an easy task to maintain a sense of proportion.

Conflict of interest and difference in perception are inevitable in any contemporary debate. But the debate should take place in an informed manner. When people take diametrically opposite views on any issue, the decision making becomes erratic. It is therefore essential that differences are narrowed down so that the broad direction in which the decision lies becomes obvious. It is the sacred duty of all participants in the debate to make sure that the scientific methodology is not brought into disrepute. This means that as the very first step, everybody should agree on the basic facts of the case.

What is the amount of pesticide present in human beings of different age groups? Does it vary from region to region? Is the amount higher in the cotton belt? Is it higher among the non-vegetarians? Does it vary with seasons? What is the picture in other parts of the country? Ditto for cattle and other animals.

It is a simple matter to chemically analyse the composition of blood. In view of the high stakes involved it is imperative that the credibility of the various laboratories remains unquestioned.

The first step should be the calibration of participating labs and their equipment. A single blood sample should be divided into sub-samples and given to various labs. No matter what equipment or procedure they employ, no matter who the researchers are, the results should all lie in a permissible range. Once this is ensured, rest of the task is easy.

A systematic study, involving government labs, research institutes and universities as well as NGOs, should be carried out. Within the framework of a firm, dependable data-base, different sides can try to convince one another about their point of view. Common citizens, farmers, government, and scientists all would be able to pool their resources and efforts to arrive at a solution.

Any problem that is created by human beings must necessarily be solvable by them. What is needed is determination and clear headedness.

— The author is Director , National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), New Delhi

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