Kochi: Sujatha Sundaran, 25, sits on a rickety bench and points to a rubber nursery that was a helipad about a decade ago in Mundakkai colony in the heart of Kerala’s northern district of Kasargod. Local children used to watch with awe as the choppers flew overhead and sprayed the insecticide endosulfan on the cashew groves of the Plantation Corp. of Kerala Ltd, a state government undertaking.
She was eight when she suddenly fell ill. It started with fever and slowly her limbs became numb. As a result, she couldn’t walk. “We were told there is no treatment for this. An organization gave her a wheelchair but our house is so small that there is no place to keep it,” says Jayanthi, her mother, who hasn’t gone out for work for the last 15 years, ever since Sujatha fell ill. She rolls bidis and earns Rs25 a day. Her husband gave up his permanent job in a company and now does all sorts of menial work.
K. Kader, a jeep driver, curses himself for sending his wife to her mother’s house at nearby Muthalapara adjacent to the cashew plantations 17 years ago when she conceived. Their son, Siraj, was born physically disabled and mentally challenged.
Nearly a decade after at least 400 people died and thousands were left mentally and physically challenged in Kasargod, where endosulfan was sprayed on the cashew plantations, the state government has stepped in to look at compensating the victims.
Endosulfan has emerged as a highly controversial agrichemical due to its acute toxicity, potential for bioaccumulation, and role as an endocrine disruptor. Banned in at least 62 countries, including the European Union, several Asian and West African nations, it is still used in India, Brazil, and Australia. It is produced by Bayer CropScience AG, Makhteshim Agan Industaries Ltd and Hindustan Insecticides Ltd among others.
The US banned endosulfan in June, citing risks to humans and the environment. The US Environment Protection Agency said on 9 June that endosulfan, which is used on vegetables, fruits and cotton, can pose unacceptable neurological and reproductive risks to farm workers and wildlife. The agency is now working with the sole manufacturer of endosulfan in the US, Makhteshim Agan, to phase out its use, while giving farmers time to shift to low-risk pest control alternatives.
In 2001, following widespread reports of health problems, Kerala appointed a committee to examine the issue. The panel recommended a ban on the aerial spraying of endosulfan.
The next year, the National Institute of Occupational Health found there was a higher prevalence of birth defects in the area.
A year later, Kerala formed another committee to find out whether health-related problems found in the area were directly attributable to the use of the pesticide and what steps should be taken by the health and family welfare department.
The committee said in its report that it “could not find out any other reason that could explain the health hazards in the area and this may be attributed to aerial spraying of endosulfan”.
However, Plantation Corp. insists there is no study to confirm the cause for illness and death was indeed endosulfan. “We do sympathize with those who are ill. And if it’s proved that endosulfan was the cause of the disaster, steps can be taken to treat them,” says T.J. Anjalose, corporation chairman.
In August 2006, soon after the current Left Democratic Front government assumed charge, chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan said endosulfan had caused misery to the people of Kasargod and disbursed Rs50,000 each from his relief fund to the families of 175 people who had died.
But the families of around 225 victims have not yet been paid. The 2007-08 Kerala state budget had set aside Rs50 lakh for the rehabilitation of at least 25,000 affected people by holding medical camps and distributing medicines, spectacles and wheelchairs.
It has now authorized the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment to monitor endosulfan persistence, its impact on human health and environment and assess the economic, social and environmental impact.
Under the banner of Genuine Ecological Education Vigilant Action (GEEVA), the victims met Achuthanandan in May and asked him to constitute a tribunal to extract compensation from the corporation that had been spraying endosulfan on its plantations for more than two decades until 2001. The pesticide was used to fight the tea mosquito.
M.A. Rahman, chief patron of GEEVA and maker of the documentary A Paradise for the Dying on the endosulfan victims that has won global accolades, recollects the locals recounting early warnings such as the mass death of bees, fish, birds and foxes after aerial spraying of endosulfan. While congenital deformities were noticed in domestic animals such as cows and goats, in the early 1990s there was a rise in the incidence of mental and physical illness.
This led to widespread protests, forcing Kerala to ban the use of endosulfan in 2002.
An 11-member expert committee will prepare a report in six months, assessing endosulfan residue in soil, water and human blood and the state of biodiversity.
Aerial spraying has also contaminated water bodies. Fourteen rivers flowing through the district are polluted, says activist Kumaran. “The people of Kasargod are victims of a disaster literally showered on them. Compensation will have to be based on not just what damage has been done, but what they have lost—a future,” he adds.