The solution to killer pesticides or to doubling farmer incomes is not limited to on-farm interventions. It stays concealed in the hallowed legislative hallways of a thoroughly compromised system.

“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter,” goes an old African proverb. It also aptly describes the state of the world’s farmers. Farmers are like the hunted lions who need their side of the story told and for their sacrifices, agony, courage and fears to be brought to light. The hunters may well be likened to today’s businesses, academicians, farmer leaders, media houses, politicians and officials, who want to extract glory and career advancement from farmers’ misery.

The Bhopal gas leak tragedy at a unit manufacturing pesticides; the cancer trains of Punjab, more recently, about 50 farmers dying because of pesticides use in Maharashtra and over 1,000 suffering critical ailments, account for a steady flow of tragic information. In the killer pesticide scandal, rumour has it that the inquiry will indict farmers for the incorrect application of pesticides. However, should the Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, want to book those actually responsible, he will be frustrated by the archaic Insecticides Act, 1968. During the UPA rule, the agriculture ministry had prepared a Pesticide Management Bill 2008, which was scuttled in Parliament.

Meanwhile, farmers continue to commit suicide in large numbers and one primary cause, not even discussed in hushed tones, is the sale of misbranded (substandard, spurious, expired) pesticides. Along with pesticide misuse (use, timing and quantity), the inordinate use of antibiotics in the poultry and dairy industry is a major reason for human diseases, monumental species loss and environmental damage. The value of failing crops and the costs borne by farmers as a result of excessive farm inputs cannot be properly assessed.

The real profiteers, the larger pesticide companies (brand owners and marketing agents) generally outsource production to smaller manufacturers. They cannot be prosecuted because the central law only stipulates prosecution of the manufacturer. When the licence to sell pesticides is issued, applicants declare a “responsible person” to be held accountable for violations. The person is usually a low-paid employee, who becomes unreachable over time, making it difficult for the prosecution to even serve notice. The responsible person, therefore, has to be among the top five financial beneficiaries of the firm and the fine should be computed as a percentage of the total sales in the state. The guilty should also be served a rigorous 10-year jail term. This may seem draconian but it is not, when compared to the 10-year jail term a person can get in Bihar for selling genuine liquor.

Most pesticide samples simply do not fail the test. This is not only because conniving officers do not follow procedures. For a “sample failure” to be legally valid, samples have to fail consecutively. The cumbersome documentation procedure allows the second sample to expire before it is tested, rendering the process invalid. Thus, the crime cannot be established. Less than 40 pesticide-related convictions have been possible in Punjab in 10 years. Mandatory e-documentation (as per the IT Act, 2000) for agriculture departments will expedite the process and increase transparency.

Currently, only a magistrate can order suspension of pesticide sales over an evident violation. Considering how easily court proceedings can be ground to a halt, these powers need to be delegated to a pesticide inspector. The magistrate’s judicial process should only begin once the prosecution for punishment starts. Too stringent a system in the hands of an officer can become a tool to harass the industry. However, given a choice, one should accept a tilted system rather than allow more poison in human lives.

Like every other business, the pesticide industry rewards retailers for increased sales, but greater pesticide sales are leading farmers on the road to perdition. The use of imported, untested pesticides and unregistered technical procedures could be a reason for the farmer deaths in Maharashtra. While opposing the industry proposal for private laboratories to be allowed to perform the central pesticide laboratory’s functions, one urges a restructuring of the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Authority and many of its powers to be transferred to the states.

Two simple notifications can result in a giant leap. First, the centre should make it mandatory for all agriculture-input packaging to have a bar code giving product information. The bar code will sync with the GST and the e-way bill. Second, states should make retailers log all agriculture input sales on to the state government servers, allowing for traceability from the factory floor to farmer’s field and for regulation enforcement.

A data bank of agriculture input sales will give unparalleled benefits. The ensuing machine-learning revolution on farms will allow for evidence-based interventions, officer promotion evaluation and better governance. Digitisation at the ground-level will drive personalised and data-driven farm extension, realistic crop loss compensation and insurance. Most importantly, it will facilitate a farmer grievance redressal mechanism to make the system accountable.

Punjab recommended a bar on the sale of 21 pesticides but the existing Act does not even allow the state to act in its own interests and stop pesticide sales within its own boundaries for more than 60 days. Appalling as it is, in a federal structure, the limited use and interpretation of the law that started the cancer train is still destroying lives.Will the forthcoming Pesticide Management Bill 2017 address the many anomalies or will it be an eyewash like many earlier announcements? The precursor to doubling farmer incomes or solutions to ongoing farm distress are not limited to on-farm interventions or financial incentives but are lurking in the hallowed hallways of a thoroughly compromised system.