It is hard to say which is most worrisome: that pesticide-laced Indian vegetables were coming into Nepal, that the government caved in to pressure from the Indian Embassy to allow the poisoned plants in, that Prime Minister Oli was unaware of a intimidating letter from the Indian Embassy to lift the border quarantine, or Industries Minister Matrika Yadav saying he was deceived by bureaucrats.
It is an indication of the PMO’s poor public relations handling that an action which should theoretically have earned Oli brownie points for standing up to India, have instead made him the prime target.
The pseudo-nationalism of Nepalis is a peculiar trait. We are proud to be a nation that was never colonised, but allow our nationals to fight and die for other countries whose enemies are our friends. We boast that the Buddha was born in Nepal, but let Lumbini rot. We gloat about Mt Everest, forgetting that three of the mountain’s four faces are actually in China, and we trash our side of it.
To be sure, there is a pan-Nepali identity that translates into patriotism derived from shared history, culture and language that transcends national boundaries to the Nepali-speaking world. Wherever they are in the world, Nepalis carry an inner pride that is a bedrock, however much an exclusionary state and anti-Mahendraist rhetoric try to erode it.
Unfortunately, the pesticide episode has brought out the kind of hollow and toxic pseudo-nationalism that we have now become famous for. The citizen commentariat, and media opinion-makers heaped scorn all week on Prime Minister Oli for kowtowing to India, whereas the real issues were Nepal’s inability to be self-sufficient in vegetable production as well as the pesticide residue in vegetables grown in Nepal for domestic consumption.
Instead of working ourselves into a fit about pesticide-laced Indian vegetables, we should be more worried about the 2,200 tons of pesticides Nepal imported from India last year. And that was just through official channels: there is a whole lot more that is smuggled across the border, including agro-chemicals banned in Nepal.
Nepal’s pesticide consumption of 400g/ha is one of the lowest in the world, and most subsistence farmers in rural Nepal do not use chemicals. In fact, most vegetables and crops in Nepal are organic. However, commercial farmers supplying produce to city markets often overdose their crops with pesticide. A Rapid Pesticide Residue Analysis Lab set up at Kalimati wholesale market five years ago showed that 15% of produce analysed were too toxic for human consumption. A recent survey showed that the most-used pesticides in Nepal are among the ‘Dirty Dozen’ pesticides banned in the country.
The Pesticide Registration and Management Division is supposed to regulate the use of these chemicals, but it is unable to monitor most banned pesticides, confiscate chemicals past their expiry or pesticides with diluted active ingredients. Government agencies are also plagued by inadequate lab equipment and test ingredients.
A survey by this newspaper of vegetable farmers in Tikathali on the outskirts of Kathmandu in 2015 showed that 90% of them sprayed chemical pesticides, but only half used protective gear. Worryingly, the most commonly used pesticides were banned chemicals like metacid and malathion. These are organophosphates, the easily-available chemical most widely used to commit suicide in the subcontinent. Only one in ten Tikathali farmers had ever heard of IPM (Integrated Pest Management) for chemical-free pest control. Contaminated utensils were commonly used around the households, and more than half the farmers interviewed disposed of pesticide containers in rivers or ponds.
Ironically, one of the best things that happened during the Indian Blockade was that Nepal’s pesticide imports which were rising steeply till then declined in 2015-16. It is up again, due to increasing demand from Nepali vegetable farmers who use 1.5kg/ha, as well as some tea gardens which spray up to 2.1kg/ha. The seven pesticide residue test laboratories in Kalimati, Birtamod, Sarlahi, Pokhara, Butwal and Nepalganj are not enough, nor are they sufficiently equipped, to determine if crops grow in Nepal are safe. We are not even talking about veggies imported from India.
If the government is serious about the health of its citizens (for which evidence so far suggests it is not) it should immediately work to:
- Train Nepal’s commercial farmers on IPM and organic farming
- Spread public awareness about pesticides
- Regulate and control imports, especially of banned pesticides
- Test imported edibles for pesticide residue.