Lethal impact

Published : Dec 17, 2010 00:00 IST

Ajith Shaji, anine-year-old victim of endosulfan, at Badiyadukka panchayat in Kasargod district.-THULASI KAKKAT

Ajith Shaji, anine-year-old victim of endosulfan, at Badiyadukka panchayat in Kasargod district.-THULASI KAKKAT

The issues relating to the victims of endosulfan, sprayed in the plantations of Kasargod district in Kerala, have snowballed once again.

Earthworms emerged from the soil, and, subsequently, died. Then birds came to eat the earthworms and they died as well.

Some termites were killed in a cotton farm sprayed with endosulfan. A frog fed on the dead termites, and was immobilised a few minutes later. An owl which flew over saw the immobilised frog, caught it as prey, and then sat on a tree branch to enjoy its meal. Ten minutes later, the owl fell down and died.

Farmer-speak reported from the cotton fields sprayed with the pesticide endosulfan in the Republic of Benin in western Africa, as quoted in a 2002 study conducted by the Indian Medical Association at Padre village in Kasargod district, Kerala.

A LOT has changed in the decade after the initial alarms were sounded against the continuous use of endosulfan in the cashew-growing villages of Kerala's Kasargod district, and such images from faraway Africa are no longer needed to demonstrate the effects of the widely used pesticide on living beings.

Today, the name of the deadly chemical at once evokes tragic images of its living human victims of children born with stag-horn limbs, scale-like skin, protruding tongues, eye deformities, extra fingers and toes, cleft palates, club feet and harelips; of those suffering from hydrocephalus (progressive enlargement of the head, convulsion and mental disability), dermatitis, renal diseases, respiratory disorders, cognitive and emotional deterioration, memory loss, impairment of visual-motor coordination, blindness, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and infertility; of young girls and boys who have undergone multiple surgery and artificial limb modification; of young mothers who have opted for repeated abortions instead of giving birth to headless/limbless/deformed children; of young men and women who look like children; and, of children who look like stunted grandparents.

State government surveys indicate that 486 people exposed to the pesticide have died in these villages so far and that nearly 3,000 people continue to suffer the debilitating effects of the chemical sprayed on the cashew plantations. According to the Endosulfan Action Committee, an umbrella body representing nearly a dozen organisations working for the relief and rehabilitation of the affected people, however, there are at least 8,000 to 9,000 victims still suffering the debilitating effects of the aerial spraying of endosulfan done mainly in the three cashew plantations (total area 4,715 hectares) owned by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) until 2002, when a ban was first imposed by the Kerala High Court.

Endosulfan is a long-lasting pesticide used primarily to kill insects and mites on various crops including cotton, tea, coffee, cashew, cardamom, fruits, vegetables, rice and grain. It is semi-volatile and is known to spread through air, water, soil and food and other means to even the remote corners of the world, including the Himalayas, the Arctic and the Antarctic. It contaminates global food supply and drinking water, is passed from mothers to their unborn children, and is bioaccumulative'.

In human beings, once it is ingested through the stomach, lungs or through the skin, it acts as an endocrine disrupter, interfering with normal hormone production activity in both males and females, and can significantly affect the nervous system. There is also inconclusive evidence that it causes cancer. Studies show that it accumulates in fatty tissue, placental tissue, umbilical cord blood and breast milk and, therefore, a foetus can be exposed when still in the uterus, and the child, after birth, can be re-exposed through the consumption of breast milk. Unborn children and infants are particularly vulnerable to its effects, as are the elderly.

Kasargod's tragedy

Kasargod's endosulfan tragedy and its reasons are now well-documented. It was in 1963 that the State Agriculture Department began planting cashew trees on the hills surrounding the villages in the northern areas of Kasargod district. In 1978, the PCK, which in later years assumed the likeness of a rogue body in the eyes of the people, took over these plantations.

By the early 1980s, the PCK had started its frightening thrice-a-year ritual of aerial spraying of endosulfan in an extensive area of undulating, cashew-growing hills and valleys spread over a dozen villages. To the government-owned company, endosulfan was a cost-effective antidote to the pestilence caused by the tea mosquito bug, a destructive insect often responsible for considerable yield losses in cashew, a major foreign-exchange-earning farm produce in the State.

The unsuspecting villagers were thus excessively and repeatedly exposed to the chemical, initially as they stood gaping at the novelty of helicopters spewing the pesticide, or during their daily chores, especially when using the water flowing down the hills, or while using contaminated food, vegetables and fuelwood or even, as plantation workers, as they stood on the edges of the estates without protective clothing or gear during the spraying.

The PCK ignored stipulations that such aerial spraying of pesticides should be done very close to the canopy level or that the same pesticide should not be used continuously for such a long time in an area. Copters often flew much above the stipulated three metres above the cashew trees to avoid power lines and thus caused the spread of the highly toxic chemical to a wider area. The water and soil in the villages were contaminated severely. Even the possibility of the bugs acquiring immunity because of long-term exposure was not considered by the PCK.

There were also several warning signals that were ignored completely: dead birds, frogs and fish in the streams and rivulets; cattle, and wildlife found dead in the plantation areas; and local people experiencing acute endosulfan toxicity symptoms after the spraying sorties over their villages.

The increasing instances of congenital physical disorders, delayed sexual maturity, mental disabilities, psychiatric problems, infertility, blindness among children, cancer and suicides within a small area, much higher than the State average, began to be noticed only by the late 1990s. High levels of endosulfan residues were detected in the blood and breast milk of villagers and the incidences of disorders of the reproductive and nervous systems and cancer were found to be very high. The possibility that the morbidity was a result of the pesticide being used in the plantations came to be widely understood only after 2001, that too because of the activities of a few individuals and media reports that came in their wake.

A public outcry and court cases ensued. The government first ordered a temporary ban in August 2001 but subsequently, in March 2002, confined it to the aerial spraying of the pesticide. However, in August 2002, following a report of an inquiry by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, which linked many of the ailments to the use of the pesticide, the Kerala High Court ordered an interim ban on its use, until, it said, an inquiry committee constituted by the Union government submitted its report.

The O.P. Dubey Committee, which then gave a clean chit to the use of the pesticide, marked the beginning of a series of such inquiries and temporary bans on endosulfan in Kerala that were ordered as a matter of routine whenever public outrage boiled over or when courts intervened.

Nearly 15 studies have so far been undertaken, mostly by government agencies, and several of them have maintained (rather dubiously, according to NGOs and other organisations) that a clear link could not be established between the pesticide and the health problems of the people in the villages in Kasargod. A few significant reports, especially of the NIOH, the New Delhi-based NGO Centre for Science and Environment, and an expert committee constituted by the State government in 2003, have, however, found the pesticide to be the villain and supported the case for a ban.

In December 2004, the State Pollution Control Board again suspended the aerial spraying of endosulfan, and (on the basis of the 2002 Kerala High Court order) the Union government ordered in October 2005 that the sale, distribution and use of endosulfan in the State of Kerala shall remain prohibited till the results of (another) expert committee became available and a further decision was taken by the Central government.

The question of a total ban on endosulfan in Kerala was left to dally rather ambiguously from then on, with the C.D. Mayee Committee appointed thereafter endorsing many of the controversial claims of the earlier committee led by Dubey.

In the six years that followed, though the aerial spraying of endosulfan in the cashew plantations of Kasargod was stopped, the use of the pesticide itself became rather more widespread in Kerala with the chemical being smuggled in from neighbouring States in large quantities for use in rubber, tea and cardamom plantations and in farms. The morbidity patterns, as seen among the victims in Kasargod, have gradually come to be reported rather alarmingly from many other agricultural districts of the State, such as Idukki, Wayanad and Palakkad as also from the cashew-growing regions of Dakshina Kannada district in neighbouring Karnataka.

Given the obvious and debilitating effects of the pesticide on an entire generation of people in Kasargod, no State government could ignore their plight for long. Yet, it was only in 2006 that a new Left Democratic Front government eventually acknowledged the suffering of the victims, offering at least a nominal compensation of Rs.50,000 to the survivors, pension for families of victims, and medical and social rehabilitation facilities though it was far from adequate for the victims.

In denial

In general, governments have so far been in denial or at best had taken only an ambivalent stand on the issues of the devastating effects of endosulfan on human beings and a total ban on the pesticide. For one, acknowledging the gravity of the situation in Kasargod as having been caused by the unmindful spraying of the pesticide by a government agency would have immediately given rise to the demand for the application of the polluter pays principle, adequate compensation for the victims and punishment for those found guilty of such an appalling act.

Moreover, India is one of the largest producers of pesticides in the world and continues to be the largest producer and user of endosulfan, with reportedly over 60 manufacturers and formulators involved in its production and sale. It is a powerful lobby, and there are frequent allegations by NGOs and others about the connivance of government agencies and regulatory bodies with pesticide manufacturers and their business interests.

For example, India's top three manufacturers among them the public sector Hindustan Insecticides Ltd. (HIL), Kochi together produced 9,500 tonnes of endosulfan between 2007 and 2008, and 5,500 tonnes of it was used domestically, according to one report.

HIL, ironically, is based in the heavily polluted industrial belt on the banks of the Periyar river in central Kerala and is a Government of India enterprise. It is today one of the largest producers of endosulfan in India, manufacturing 1,500 tonnes of endosulfan (technical grade) and 1,900 kilolitres of liquid endosulfan a year, both for use within India (not in Kerala) and for export. But there are equally prominent manufacturers of crop protection chemicals in the private sector too, such as Excel Industries Ltd, EID Parry and Coromandel Fertilizers Ltd.

Controversial argument

The pesticide industries and many government leaders and agencies in India have continuously denied the severe harmful effects of endosulfan and maintained that the tragedy in Kasargod was the result of the improper mode of application of the pesticide (the method of spraying from the air) adopted there. As recently as in October 25, the Union Minister of State for Agriculture K.V. Thomas was seen reiterating this argument at a seminar in Kasargod, even as some of the victims were protesting against the Government of India's increasingly isolated stand opposing a global ban on endosulfan (at the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention held in Geneva a few days earlier).

It is a controversial argument that stands against the accumulating evidence of peer-reviewed scientific studies the world over and an increasingly popular demand for a global ban on endosulfan. The Minister's statement was opposed vigorously even by his own party colleagues within Kerala and in Parliament. With the State Assembly elections round the corner in Kerala, and with the crucial proposal for the inclusion of endosulfan in Annex A to the Stockholm Convention (which would lead to its elimination from the global market) under the active consideration of the 170-member international treaty representatives meeting in Geneva in April 2011, the issues surrounding the endosulfan victims of Kasargod seem to have achieved critical mass once again, after being on the back burner for a while.

On November 18, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Central and State governments seeking explanations on media reports that the aerial spraying of endosulfan in Kasargod had affected people severely. The very next day, even as the State government and several political leaders began to call for a nationwide ban on the use of endosulfan, the Kerala Pollution Control Board issued a notification reintroducing a State-wide ban on the pesticide under pollution control laws.

On November 24, the Kerala government also announced a comprehensive package for relief and rehabilitation of the victims of endosulfan in Kasargod, and sought an assistance of Rs.100 crore from the Centre. The package included a proposal for an immediate moratorium on the recovery of loans availed by the victims, other debt relief measures, and (yet to be finalised) higher compensation and pension for the victims, special facilities for their care, including provision of more health, education, housing and drinking water facilities, and decontamination of water sources.

The endosulfan victims of Kasargod are centre stage once again, thanks also to the media focus on and the pressure from international NGOs, academics and experts against India's opposition to the proposal for a global ban at the Stockholm Convention, under the pretext, among other reasons, that there is still no robust evidence to prove the health and environmental impact of the pesticide.

Endosulfan has been used in agriculture since the early 1950s, but is now banned in over 62 countries, including those in the European Union and, following widespread protests, in the United States too from this year, because of high toxicity to humans and other organisms and its quality of persistence in the environment. Significantly, the U.S. ban was announced by its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 7, 2010, with the following words: The EPA is taking action to end all uses of the insecticide Endosulfan in the United States. Endosulfan, which is used in vegetables, fruits, and cotton, can pose unacceptable neurological and reproductive risks to farm-workers and wildlife and can persist in the environment.

According to a report prepared by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a U.K.-based international NGO, endosulfan is an organochlorine pesticide like the widely banned DDT and dieldrin. Because they tend to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in humans and other animals (particularly in the liver, the kidney and fatty tissues), such pollutants are of concern because of their long-term subtle effects on hormones, the immune system, and reproduction.

It was indeed after an evaluation of the risk profile of endosulfan that the POPs Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention decided to seek the approval from its Conference of Parties' for a global ban on the pesticide, at a forthcoming meeting in April. Robust evidence that endosulfan is persistent, bioaccumulative and has the potential for long-range environmental transport and adverse human health and environmental effects has been piling up from all over the world, including from India.

The affected villagers in Kasargod are but the living examples of the lethal impact of the pesticide.

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