Far from banning dangerous pesticides like monocrotophos which caused the school lunch deaths, India is quickly emerging as one of their biggest manufacturers
Who is ultimately responsible for the school lunch deaths of 23 innocent children between 5 and 12 on July 16, 2013 in Bihar’s Dharmasati Gandaman village, in Saran district? While investigations have discovered who is immediately responsible for the tragedy, the bigger questions are, who is manufacturing this toxic venom, and is allowing the sale and use of it? They are also the people to be included as guilty of 23 counts of murder.
Acts on nervous system
Let’s start with what was responsible for these fatalities: Monocrotophos. Monocrotophos is a highly toxic organophosphate pesticide. Organophosphates inhibit an enzyme necessary for the nerves to work. They work as a pesticide by paralysing the nervous system of insects. They also take effect in birds and bees in the same way. In humans too. Symptoms of organophosphate poisoning in humans include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, tearing, salivation, sweating, slurred speech, tremors, involuntary urination and defecation, psychosis, irregular heart rhythms, seizures, coma, and even death. Ingesting as little as 120 mg of monocrotophos can be fatal. These children ate a meal laced with this poison.
Monocrotophos was developed by Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis) in 1965. Novartis has now stopped making it. Its use has been banned in 27 countries including the United States, the European Union, and Canada. Its import is not allowed in 46 countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations have been urging for a global phase out of this nerve poison. The Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty to ensure proper information disclosure about dangerous chemicals in the international marketplace, has monocrotophos on its list of highly toxic substances.
Common and inexpensive
India not only has ignored recommendations by the WHO urging a ban on monocrotophos, but has also become a major manufacturer. It is a very common pesticide easily available in India. It is cheap too. It is also one of the most common causes of accidental occupational poisoning. The WHO has said, “Pesticides whose handling and application require the use of personal protective equipment that is uncomfortable, expensive or not readily available should be avoided, especially in the case of small-scale users in tropical climates.” Monocrotophos qualifies as this sort of pesticide and India qualifies as this sort of setting. Not only that, many farmers cannot read the labels on the containers and have not been properly informed about their dangers. Given the situation, it was no surprise to find out that cooking oil was being stored in an empty monocrotophos container at the school in Bihar.
Monocrotophos is one of the main agents used in the current epidemic of farmer suicides. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, every year since about 2006 approximately 17,000-18,000 poor Indian farmers have been taking their own lives by ingesting an insecticide. Farmers are lured by the promises of higher yields through genetically modified seeds and chemically intensive farming methods. They despair under the weight of the debts incurred by the costs and the failed assurances. The lives of 23 children have been sacrificed to bring the world’s attention to the scourge of death by pesticide ingestion in India, accidental or intentional. But life is cheap in India. The accidental deaths of 23, or even more than 20,000 people (the current estimate for the cumulative death toll in the 1984 gas disaster in Bhopal), doesn’t cause the government to take a strong stand or make a meaningful move.
Extent of trade
Nevertheless, according to a 2012 report by Research and Markets, India is emerging as the sixth largest producer of pesticides. The Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India (PMFAI) is up in arms over the European Union’s ban on endosulfan. It is likely do its best to make sure monocrotophos doesn’t get banned in India, even if the rest of the world is on the bandwagon to ban it. The Indian domestic market itself is $1.36 billion. PMFAI is also committed to promoting the export of pesticides made in India. In an interview with Business Standard, the president of PMFAI said that since 1997, pesticide exports from India have gone from $50 million to $1.32 billion. The entire global market for pesticides is worth around $44 billion and is projected to grow to $65 billion in the next few years.
While the police and media are pointing fingers at the headmistress of the school where those children ate their last meal, and the invaluable school lunch programme is being harshly criticised, let’s not forget the responsibility of the people making the murderous chemical agents, the government that allows its ubiquitous use and our collective responsibility for allowing it all to take place right under our nose.
(Jayshree Chander is assistant clinical professor, Family and Community Medicine Occupational and Environmental Medicine, University of California, San Francisco.)