The decision of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to include the pesticide endosulfan in the list of chemicals scheduled for elimination at the global level is a positive step. For the controversial insecticide to be replaced with benign alternatives, though, it is critical that official policy makes the development of low cost substitutes a priority. India has done well to reiterate its commitment to the phasing out of pollutants, which includes polychlorinated biphenyls, under the Convention. It has come up with a National Implementation Plan to cleanse the environment, while admitting that POPs have been found in human and animal blood and tissues, in the environment, and in foods. Given the evidence linking such chemicals to cancer, birth defects, diminished intelligence, and reduced immunity, there is a strong case to adopt the precautionary principle on the use of endosulfan. It is indeed significant that the World Health Organisation has classified this organochlorine insecticide as “moderately hazardous” and the POP Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention recommended its elimination on the ground that it could have adverse effects on human health and the environment.
Under the terms of its accession to the Stockholm Convention, India has the option to ratify the decision on endosulfan whenever it chooses. But, given the strong public sentiment against its use, especially in Kerala where aerial spraying of crops by the Plantation Corporation is seen as the cause for a rise in mental retardation, birth defects, infertility, and growth abnormalities, the central government should take a view sooner rather than later. A window of 11 years is available to replace endosulfan with safer alternatives based on the exemption provisions of the Convention and the date of implementation, but that is unacceptably long. Moreover, if the harmful effects of the insecticide are indeed true, as several studies suggest, there has to be urgent action at the national level. Equally important is the need to fully rehabilitate the people of Kasaragod in Kerala who have been affected by the indiscriminate use of the insecticide in cashew cultivation. The wider effects on the environment in the affected region, as recorded by the Salim Ali Foundation, underscore the need for a good remediation plan. Containing the pollution requires a systematic study of the soil, air, and water quality. Recovery of the regional ecology would be aided in no small measure by sparing further chemical stresses, and wherever feasible, by switching to organic methods. India has stopped the use of DDT in agriculture and, with sufficient will, can do the same with endosulfan.