NEW DELHI — INDIA's 800 million people ingest among the highest amounts of pesticide residues in the world. Their daily intake has hit the warning level set by the World Health Organization. The substances include widely banned DDT and BHC. Significant pesticide deposits have also been found in breast milk.
``We need to take some very hard decisions now,'' says K.N. Mehrotra, a pesticides expert at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. ``The residues of DDT used in India today will be in our environment for the next 20 years.''
Changing course, however, poses deep conflicts for a poor country like India, whose government is the world's largest manufacturer of DDT.
On the one hand, the chemicals play a key role in development: They help control malaria, India's biggest health problem, and are a cornerstone of the ``green revolution'' that raised food output and averted famine.
On the other hand, India's rising pesticide consumption can only worsen an emerging third-world health threat. More than 80,000 tons of pesticides are used here yearly, 10 times the amount consumed three decades ago. Consumption is expected to rise to 100,000 tons by the turn of the century.
Despite bans in the United States and elsewhere, India continues to rely on DDT and BHC because they are cheap and attack a variety of pests, experts say.
Government officials insist that evidence of the pesticide danger is inconclusive. But critics charge the government is indifferent to the threat, refuses to launch a research effort, and is bogged down in bureaucratic neglect.
A government-appointed expert committee recommended the banning of DDT and BHC in agriculture. Three years later, there has been little official reaction.
More than 20 years ago, legislation regulating use of insecticides was passed. Today, tolerance levels have been set for less than one-quarter of the 131 pesticides approved for use in India.
``For the government the problem doesn't exist,'' says A.T. Dudani of the Voluntary Health Association of India. ``DDT is invisible, and information is lacking.''
``The problem is just not on their agenda,'' says a Western official at an international aid organization. ``They're more concerned about development and just producing enough.''
Manufacturers say efforts are under way to improve safety for workers in pesticide plants and teach farmers how to use insecticides more carefully.
``We are trying to keep up with the latest developments for safer production and efficient products,'' says S.P. Dhua, chairman of Hindustan Insecticides Ltd., which produces most of India's DDT. ``Our policies are upgraded all the time to protect the workers and environment. This has gained new momentum of late after Bhopal.''
Experts like Mr. Mehrotra say India cannot afford to totally ban pesticides. But there are other less expensive alternatives.
Critics support this view, arguing that more education is needed to teach farmers when to use pesticides and how much; that the government should begin close monitoring of toxic residues and poisoning cases and set pesticide tolerance levels; and that doctors need to be better informed to detect these cases.
India has only begun experimenting with biological controls in which insect pests are contained by their natural predators, introduced into certain types of crops, instead of using chemicals. Critics say the government should begin phasing out DDT and other highly toxic chemicals, even if it means spending more for substitutes.
``These chemicals are banned in other countries because they take into account environmental costs. Unfortunately, in our country we never look at those other costs,'' says Mehrotra. ``It will cost more to switch to other methods, but it's worth it.''