SC bans Endosulfan; Order to be effective till ICMR submits report

The Supreme Court on May 13, banned the manufacture, sale, use and export of endosulfan throughout the country, citing its harmful health effects. The ban would remain effective till the time the joint committee, formed under the aegis of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Agriculture Commissioner, submits its report to the court about the harmful effect of the widely used pesticide. The report is expected to be filed within eight weeks. Apart from conducting a pan-India study of the health impacts of endosulfan, the court has also ordered the government to come up with safer and cheaper alternatives of the pesticide and decide on how existing stocks have to be destroyed. A decision to lift the ban would be taken if endosulfan came clean in the study conducted by the ICMR.

The three judge bench, comprising chief justice SH Kapadia, justice Swatantar Kumar and justice K S P Radhakrishnan was hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI- Kerala wing) seeking a ban on the toxic pesticide.

The Union government agreed with the need of a blanket ban but suggested waiting till the ICMR report. To which the chief justice Kapadia said, "I cannot allow the use of endosulfan for even seven weeks. Effect on one child's health is also crucial and I can't have that on my head." The DYFI had supported their petition with three reports indicting endosulfan- 2002 report on the health impact of endosulfan on Padre village prepared by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), the 2003 Kerala government report on the health hazards of aerial spraying of endosulfan and the latest report prepared by the Government Medical College in Calicut.

The Solicitor General representing the union government, Gopal Subramaniam expressed concern on the impact an immediate ban would have on the  production of kharif crops especially paddy and cotton. In response the bench wanted to know about the alternatives of endosulfan to which the union government  exhibited ignorance. The government ceded it does not have adequate information on the alternatives but knows that endosulfan is cost effective. The bench countered that money can't be the only yardstick to decide this matter and if Kerala's kharif crops could do without endosulfan so can the rest of the country's.   

The counsel for the endosulfan manufacturers present in the courtroom cited examples of endosulfan being sprayed across the world and also the fact that it was being used in India for the last 40 years. Justice Swatantar Kumar brushed aside the statement and said it did not matter what was being done across the world. He added that just because a blind eye was turned towards the impact of endosulfan for the last 40 years does not mean that the trend has to continue. The chief justice also chided the endosulfan manufacturers for lacking corporate social responsibility and ignoring the impact on human health.

The pesticide manufacturers and the union government took refuge in a 2003 report by the OP Dubey committee that was mandated to look into Kerala's endosulfan tragedy and the findings of the NIOH report. IN an expose by Down To Earth, the OP Dubey committee report incidentally was found to be manipulated, facts distorted and dissent voices suppressed. (see 'What Dubey did', Down To Earth, August 16-31, 2005). Nevertheless, the pesticide manufacturers cited from the Dubey committee report that had taken data from different state agricultural universities and concluded that there were no health impacts of endosulfan except in Kasaragod where the pesticide was aerially sprayed. They added that one NIOH study could not be the basis for a countrywide ban.

The bench overruled, stating that just as the NIOH study cannot be a basis for a country wide ban, the Dubey committee report could not be the basis for allowing endosulfan through the country. They further added that an all-India study cannot be based on data from agricultural universities and it had to be a field study.

The pesticide manufacturers did try to sneak out a permission for exports but were unable to submit export orders to the bench and so it was ruled that exports too will have to be banned.  Deepak Prakash, advocate for the DYFI  said after the victory that it was a smooth sailing for the petitioners as the bench prima facie supported the all India ban.

There is rejoicing in the Kerala camp which had been relentlessly working towards a ban on endosulfan and getting justice for the victims in the state. "This judgement restores our faith in the judiciary. It was quite endearing to learn that the bench announced that it did not depend on how toxic a pesticide was, but the fact that if it affected even one person appropriate action should be taken. This was a people's issue which was for long ignored by agricultural scientists who were completely sold out to corporate interests," said C Jayakumar of Thanal, a non profit working with the endosulfan victims.