Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Gauhati High Court directs to constitute special authorities for random checks on vegetable markets operating in Guwahati City

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The Gauhati High Court has observed that to make the effort more effective to prevent  the entry of the contaminated vegetables from entering the city of Guwahati smaller mobile groups comprising of the officials of the Agriculture Department, Home Department, the GMC authorities and any other Scientific authority that may be required be constituted and make random checks in the vegetable markets operating in the Guwahati city.

The Division Bench of Justice Achintya Malla Bujor Barua and Justice Robin Phukan heard a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed against the widespread, excessive and uncontrolled use of pesticides for agricultural farming in Assam, more particularly in the tea plantation areas.

In response to Court’s earlier order dated 23.02.2023, a meeting chaired by the Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam was held on 01.03.2023, wherein the Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam in the Agriculture Department, the Principal Secretary to the Government of Assam in the Health and Family Welfare Department, the Principal Secretary to the Government of Assam in the Home Department, the Secretary to the Government of Assam in the Finance Department, the experts from the Assam Agriculture University, the experts from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, Government of India, the officials of ICAR-IARI, New Delhi and the representatives of the Tea Board were present, including some further officials who are relevant for the purpose.  

In the meeting, the following decisions as extracted were taken:- 

“Initiating the discussion, Chief Secretary welcomed all the Officers present and asked all the Officers and invited persons to give their brief introduction. Some of the Officers from Deartment of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, Government of India also attended the meeting through VC. List of the participants is annexed. 

Chief Secretary asked the Additional Chief Secretary, Agriculture Department to explain the background of the matter to all the participants. Additional Chief Secretary gave a brief background and details of direction of Hon’ble High Court in the matter of the PIL and the content of Order passed by the Hon’ble High Court on 23-02- 2023. He also informed regarding the direction of the High Court regarding setting up random testing arrangements at entry points of vegetables carrying vehicles into Guwahati city. The issue of availability of rapid testing kits was also discussed and experts from Assam Agriculture University informed that they had heard about such kits manufactured by BARC which are primarily for testing organo phosphorous and organo chlorine group of pesticides. 

Detailed inputs were also sought by the Chief Secretary from Dr. J. P. Singh, Plant Protection Advisors, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India as well as Mrs.Vandana Tripathi, Network Coordinator, AINP on Pesticides residues, ICARIARI, New Delhi and the experts from Assam Agriculture University, Department of Agriculture, Government of Assam as well as representatives from Tea Board. 

After threadbare discussion the following decisions were taken : 

1. Six teams will be formed comprising of representatives from Agriculture Department, Gauhati Municipal Corporation, Commissioner of Police, Transport Department with a support of FSSAI to do random sample collection and tending on the three major routes entering Guwahati city from where most of the vegetables are brought into Guwahati. 

2. Agriculture Department shall immediately source the requisite number of mobile kits from BARC to ensure that random testing can be done for a period of two months. Subsequent procurement of mobile kits can be done on the basis of expertise gained from the results of the first slot. 

3. Since, as per the inputs from Plant Protection Advisor, Government of India and experts of Assam Agriculture University the mobile kits available in the market are capable of detecting primarily few pesticides only and that level of pesticides is not being detected, it was decided to send the collected samples also to the Government lab for detailed analysis of pesticides and heavy metals. A one page format also be prepared to collect basic details origin of the   vegetables which would help in back tracing once details analysis report is available. 

4. List of prominent whole sellers of vegetables of Guwahati shall be collected from Gauhati Municipal Corporation and farmers/aggregators sources of vegetables from the major growing areas of Assam shall be documented for this purpose for collection and testing of the samples in the primary areas of production by Agriculture Department. 

5. Plant Protection Advisor, Government of India informed that there are many chemicals which may be banned for one crop but may be recommended for other crops. Hence, there is a need for proper publicity of package of pouches of different crops and need for awareness of the farmers. It was decided that Agriculture Department shall carry out an intensive awareness generation amongst the farmers informing them about the adverse effect of uses of pesticides not recommended for that crop. This awareness exercise shall be started by the Agriculture Department within the next seven days and shall be taken up in all the districts of Assam. 

6. Checking of fertilizers and pesticides dealers for possible sale of banned/restricted chemicals shall be taken up on priority by Agriculture Department across the districts of Assam with special focus on major vegetables producing areas of the State. 

7. To address the issue on a long terms basis, study shall be conducted by Assam Agriculture University on the possible source of heavy metals in the soil and water. Similar study on source of metals and pesticides in tea shall be carried out by Tea Board of India. 

8. The committee recommended that a proposal may be sent to Dr. Vandana Tripathi for setting up a ICAR lab for testing of pesticides and metals by way of inclusion of Assam in the ICAR schemes for setting up of such labs. 

9. Committee informed that there was need to invite representatives from Department of Housing and Urban Affairs to address issues related to home segregation of waste for avoiding heavy metals contamination. Representatives from FSSAI, Transport and Public Health Engineering Departments and Assam State Agricultural Marketing Board also need to be invited in the next meeting. 

10. Matter shall be taken up with the FSSAI to explore the feasibility for a mobile testing van being stationed in Guwahati. 

11. The results of the random sample testing to be initially carried out over two months shall be analyzed for putting in place protocols for the entire State of Assam. 

12. To monitor the flow of pesticides in the State an IT based system to be put in place for real time information gathering. 

13. A training programme for pesticides dealers and Agriculture Department officials may be organized through a Regional Centre of IPM to bring awareness about the adverse health impact of usage of non recommended pesticides and fertilizers. 

14. It was decided to incorporate the clause of zero heavy metals for procurement all agri inputs specially micro nutrients/bio fertilizers and phosphate fertilizers. 

15. Agriculture Department shall develop protocol for subsequent action with regard to disposal of the items detected with heavy metals and pesticides beyond permissible limits as well as withdrawal/cancellation of licences of dealers from where the non recommended pesticides/fertilizers has been procured. 

Next meeting on this issue shall be convened after 15 days. 

The meeting ended with Vote of Thanks to the Chair.”

The Court held that  decision taken in the meeting dated 01.03.2023, which was chaired by the Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam are encouraging and accordingly, the High Court required all the concerned Departments which may comprise of the Agriculture Department inclusive of the Assam Agriculture Marketing Board, the Home Department including the Police, the authorities in the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC), the Transport Department in a conjoint effort with the experts in the Agriculture Department and the Forensic Department of the Government of Assam, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, Government of India, ICAR-IARI, New Delhi and the other authorities as noted above to take necessary effective steps to implement the decision taken in the meeting dated 01.03.2023.  

One of the decisions as noted by the High Court is that 06 (six) experts teams comprising of the officials of the aforesaid Departments would be constituted who shall monitor the movement of the contaminated vegetables to the Guwahati city, do the necessary testing and if the test results are in the positive regarding existence of unacceptable chemicals, to prevent such vegetables from entering the Guwahati city. 

To further fortify the said decision, the Bench also provide that apart from putting up the barriers and making the tests at the three major entry points to Guwahati city as indicated in the decision, a random mobile barrier and testing can also be put up at different places on different dates on the entire route of the contaminated vegetables from their source towards the Guwahati city and take necessary action there itself.   

If upon detection upon the contaminated vegetables, any such vehicle carrying the contaminated vegetables are made to return back without entering the Guwahati city, a further surveillance be also maintained as to which destinations the contaminated vegetables would be redirected.  The result of the aforesaid exercise will be captured in a database and be placed before the Court from time to time on the subsequent dates , directed by the High Court.

Further the Court directed that apart  from the three main entry points to the Guwahati city, the aforesaid authorities to also explore as to what are the possible smaller entry points of the contaminated vegetables to enter the Guwahati city and upon identifying the smaller entry points that may prevail to take similar effective measures in such entry points also.

Another issue of concern would be the riverine route through the river Brahmaputtra. The Court ordered that the aforesaid authorities may also discuss and take a decision as to in what manner the entry of the contaminated vegetables can be prevented from entering the city of Guwahati through the riverine routes .

“Further, to make the effort more effective, smaller mobile groups comprising of the officials of the Agriculture Department, Home Department, the GMC authorities and any other Scientific authority that may be required be constituted and make random checks in the vegetable markets operating in the Guwahati city. But, we clarify that in doing so, the smaller traders be not harassed and if any contaminated vegetables are detected with any small trader, the source of the contaminated vegetables reaching the small traders may be traced out and appropriate action be taken against the big traders of the contaminated vegetables”.

Similar random tests may also be made in the recognized wholesale vegetable markets within the Guwahati city.

Depending upon the result of the aforesaid efforts pertaining to Guwahati city, further orders in respect of other places would also be considered , the Bench observed.

The Court has placed the matter on  21.03.2023 for further hearing.

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