The Union Cabinet in its meeting held on 7 October, 2020, chaired by the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, ratified the ban on seven Persistent Organic Pollutants (“POPs”) considered hazardous and listed under the Stockholm Convention. It may be noted that India had ratified the Stockholm Convention on January 13, 2006 as per Article 25(4) of the Convention, which enabled it to keep itself in a default "opt-out" position to the extent that amendments in various Annexes of the Convention cannot be enforced on it unless an instrument of ratification / acceptance / approval or accession is explicitly deposited with UN depositary. This ratification by the Union Cabinet is a step towards such enforcement.

POPs are chemicals which have raised concerns globally due to their significant negative impact on human health and the environment. This is also because of the ability of POPs to persist in the environment for a long time. A press release by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (“MoEF&CC”) defined POPs as “chemical substances that persist in the environment, bio-accumulate in living organisms, adversely affect human health/ environment and have the property of long-range environmental transport”. Humans are exposed to these chemicals in a variety of ways including through the food we eat and the air we breathe.

Many products used in our daily lives may contain POPs, which have been added to improve product characteristics, such as flame retardants or surfactants. As a result, POPs can be found virtually everywhere on our planet in measurable concentrations. The seven chemicals which have been banned are (i) Chlordecone, (ii) Hexabromobiphenyl, (iii) Hexabromodiphenyl ether and Heptabromodiphenylether (Commercial octa-BDE), (iv) Tetrabromodiphenyl ether and Pentabromodiphenyl ether (Commercial penta-BDE), (v) Pentachlorobenzene, (vi) Hexabromocyclododecane, and (vii) Hexachlorobutadiene. These chemicals are used in insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, fire retardants, solvents, lubricants etc. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to cancer, damage to central and peripheral nervous systems, diseases of immune system, reproductive disorders and interference with normal infant and child development. POPs are listed in various Annexes to the Stockholm Convention after thorough scientific research, deliberations and negotiations among member countries.

The harmful properties of these substances, coupled with farmer deaths due to excessive exposure to these chemicals initiated legislative discussions leading to the notification of the Regulation of Persistent Organic Pollutants Rules, 2018 (“POPs Rules”) in March, 2018, thus prohibiting the manufacture, trade, use, import and export of these seven chemicals. The POPs Rules mandated the industrial units handling or possessing these chemicals to declare the total quantity of the chemicals, which are in use and their stockpiles to the MoEF&CC within six months. The POPs Rules also required a strict observance of the provisions of Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016. The Rules however carved out an exception for these chemicals to be used, sold or imported in quantities as required for research and development activities in central universities, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (“CSIR”) laboratories, government institutions or other research institutions or accredited laboratories in the government or private sector after the approval of MoEF&CC.

India is the fourth-largest producer of pesticides in the world after US, Japan and China. In a study carried out by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (“FICCI”) it has been reported that eight states consume more than 70% of the pesticides used in India. There are approximately 292 pesticides registered in the country, and it is estimated that there are around 104 pesticides that are continued to be produced / used in India that have been banned in two or more countries in the world. The industry has grown to be an INR 20,000 crores business in India, with the top three companies having a market share of 57%.

Since the MoEF&CC had already prohibited manufacture, trade, use, import and export of these seven chemicals earlier, with the recent delegation of power, the MoEF&CC will be empowered to regulate the other pesticides beyond these seven chemicals which have currently been prohibited under the POPs Rules. The delegation of power has been done with an intention of streamlining the procedure to MoEF&CC along with Ministry of External Affairs (“MEA”) in respect of POPs already regulated under the domestic regulations thereby.

It is therefore expected that the government might soon overhaul the laws governing this sector. The Pesticides Management Bill, 2020 which was introduced in Rajya Sabha in March this year seeking to replace the Insecticides Act, 1968 may be the first step in this direction. It is expected that the Government will take action on POPs in line with international commitment by implementing control measures, developing and implementing action plans for unintentionally produced chemicals, developing inventories of the chemicals' stockpiles and reviewing and updating its National Implementation Plans.

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