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India’s Killing Fields

(Special Report) / 15 May 2011

In scenes rivalling the 1981 Jamie Uys movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, when helicopters came circling over their hamlets, the flying machines kicked up more frenzied excitement than dust.

But little did the villagers know that the “manna” the choppers showered from the skies was to devastate generations of human beings and different species of flora and fauna that would sustain their lives.

Human life is more important than anything else. This observation by India’s apex court on Friday sums up what the citizens of India have been trying to tell their elected government for a couple of decades. Spraying of hazardous pesticides like endosulfan kills and maims humans, cried victims. New Delhi never listened. But the international community did, and slapped a ban on it last month. The credit goes to three common men who dared to raise their voices to let the world know about the dead and the living-dead. Khaleej Times Night Editor Suresh Pattali talks to the trio to track their trials and tribulations and unfold the catastrophe that’s now dubbed as India’s Chernobyl

Welcome to the “Killing Fields” of Kerala, one of India’s most progressive states. This is probably the only place in the world where women refuse to give birth. They have been aborting their babies due to abnormal pregnancies. Women here don’t want to deliver deformed children anymore, according to environmental activists. “Most of them have babies with congenital defects — bedridden since birth. They spend their life nursing their babies till their death. They know that their babies will not grow up or go to school like normal children,” said a recent report, corroborated to Khaleej Times by environmental activists, calling it the Hiroshima syndrome.

In the hamlet of Swarga, which literally means paradise, and the 10 adjoining villages in the northern Kasargod district of Kerala, poison rained from helicopters for 25 years. The hazardous endosulfan insecticide was sprayed over cashew plantations in Enmakaje Panchayat to eradicate tea mosquitoes, killing hundreds and creating a generation of people who could only be described as the living dead.

The catastrophe is so enormous and gripping, as evidenced in a sample survey that found 49 cancer cases, 43 psychiatric cases, 23 epileptics, nine with congenital abnormalities and 23 with mental retardation in 123 houses alone. At the time of writing this report, Kasargod lost two more lives, as a two-and-a half-year-old girl succumbed to the endosulfan ill-effects — deprived of medication by a designated government hospital —  and another cancer victim died just the previous day.

The Plantation Corporation of Kerala started using pesticides in 1976, throwing to the winds all precautionary measures laid out for the aerial spraying of chemicals. At a time when industrialisation had hardly knocked on the doors of the southern state, let alone the villages, the aerial spraying of endosulfan, an organochlorine pesticide, did not initially raise any eyebrows, except for the curiosity among the middle-class land owners and poor farm hands who came out in the open to watch and got drenched in the poison rains.

The endosulfan victims are mainly afflicted with congenital anomalies, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, epilepsy, cancer, asthma etc. — Photo courtesy Shree Padre and Dr Mohan Kumar

“Deformed calves, disappearing honeybees, dying fowls and jackals were the first warnings. Not long after, strange illness in men, women and children started happening. Many believed that the deities were angry and many had to pay the price of pesticide use with their own suffering and death,” says a report from a fact-finding mission, led by Dr Romeo F. Quijano of the University of the Philippines, for the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific.

By the time people noticed this environmental abuse and started to raise a banner of protest, the aerial spraying of the persistent pesticide for almost two-and-a-half decades had done the maximum damage it could have.

While the Kerala government has confirmed 450 deaths and identified around 5,000 victims (including 525 bed-ridden), environmental activists put the toll at nearly 1,000 dead with another 8,000 down with critical illnesses. The people finally woke up. And, thanks to the perseverance of a handful of activists and a relentless campaign by local print and television media, the cries of Kasargod not only reverberated in the corridors of power across the world but also helped open the eyes of farmers from Asia to Africa to the hazards of endosulfan and other pesticides.

Moved by the pictures and poignant stories of India’s victims, the Geneva summit of Parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants decided last month to phase out the chemical despite initial opposition from the government of India, which meets nearly 70 per cent of global endosulfan requirements. The decision will not be binding on India unless specifically ratified by the country.

The industry statistics are so alluring and mind-blowing that during the talks in Geneva, Indian officials fought tooth and nail against the phase-out. India produces over 10,000 tonnes of endosulfan worth Rs3 billion a year, nearly half of which is exported. Analysts say India might have feared that any admission of endosulfan deaths would have opened up a Pandora’s Box of legal claims for damages.

The journey from Kasargod to Geneva spanning over 30 years was a lifetime work for some of the villagers. While Kasargod thanks mainstream newspapers, magazines and television for their significant contribution to the campaign, there are three people who would always remain in the hearts of the victims for exposing the “killing fields” back in the seventies. This story is a tribute to the unsung heroes of the endosulfan war who have made it a mission in their life.

Talking to Khaleej Times, the trio — farmer-journalist Shree Padre, medical practitioner Mohan Kumar and agriculture assistant Leela Kumari Amma, all of who had been extensively quoted in Dr Quijano’s report — were philosophical about their achievement.

It was Padre’s article about deformities and stunted growth in calves that sowed the first seeds for a public outcry. “It’s true that it was my article that first broke the story in 1979. But it was only about calves and at that moment I really didn’t know about the chemical’s effects on human beings,” admits Padre, 55. The story raised awareness among the people who started to complain about new health problems. “It was at one of those protests I first met Dr Mohan, who told me about endosulfan’s possible dangers to human beings,” says Padre.

“To be frank, I was the first person not to disbelieve Dr Mohan and was more than convinced when the owner of the calves I wrote about also died of cancer. By that time Dr Mohan had already written to the authorities about the phenomenal rise in diseases in our area. But the credit goes to Leela Amma who showed the guts to take on the Plantation Corporation by launching a legal war,” says Padre. “It was a one-person battle in the beginning.”

Leela Amma has seen it all, experienced it all. She felt something amiss when her brother, who was looking after the construction of her house on the outskirts of the cashew plantation in Periye village in 1992, started to fall sick with stomach ache, severe eye pain and falling appetite.

Aerial spraying was in full swing when Leela Amma shifted to her new house on April 25, 1993. She was horrified to see that the helicopters circling over her home and other colonies in the area were showering poison on all drinking water sources, cattle and even school-going children.

“Being an agriculture assistant, I was aware of the dangers of endosulfan, but was shocked to see the devastation in my own backyard. After my brother died in 1993, I was determined that my pregnant daughter must not give birth to a baby afflicted with deformities resulting from chemical poisoning,” says Leela Amma, 63. “When my repeated petitions from 1994 to 1997 to the chief minister, agriculture minister, the Plantation Corporation in Kottayam and the district collector, seeking suspension of the aerial spraying, were not considered, I moved the court in October 1998 and obtained a stay next month.”

The Plantation Corporation, with the backing of the powerful pesticides lobby, filed an appeal which they again lost. With the legal war already telling on her financially and morally, Leela Amma was shattered when the corporation moved the higher court to get the stay vacated.

But she wouldn’t give up easily. Despite failing health and threats from various quarters asking her to give up the campaign, she battled on. “After a long-drawn court battle, supported by THANAL, one of the most active environmental organisations, and the SEEK organisation in Payyannur, I finally won a permanent court ban on endosulfan spraying on October 18, 2001.”

But tragedy struck her on the victory day when an unidentified speeding truck ploughed into an autorickshaw she was boarding. Comatose for three months, Leela Amma is still unable to walk properly, but the accident has not knocked out the fighting spirit in her, despite the heavy price she had to pay for taking on the pesticides lobby.

Leela Amma’s true achievement is her humility. Far short of being a figure of pride, she says she is just happy about the 2002 endosulfan ban by the A. K. Antony government and the present global ban on. “When I see the victims, some even unable to chew their food, I hope this campaign will finally get them the right medical and financial help they deserve.”

Dr Mohan Kumar started medical practice in 1982 after doing his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) from the Government Medical College, Mysore. As he became familiar with locals, he observed that there are many chronic patients in some localities on the sides of two streams, with up to five patients in one family.

“The diseases are mainly related to the central nervous system like congenital anomalies, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, epilepsy and so on. Cancer rate was high. Abortion, asthma and allergic diseases were common, and youngsters were the worst affected,” Dr Kumar tells Khaleej Times. “I was sure that water contamination is the culprit. I discussed this with some friends, doctors and journalist Padre. In 1996, I wrote in the Kerala medical journal about my observation which was not given much attention by the authorities.”

The local inhabitants attributed these to the curse of a local deity, Jatadhari (theyyam). And Dr Kumar’s clinical suspicion initially fell on the presence of some obnoxious substance like minerals or radiation in the stream water. “By 2000, the situation got worse and as we studied some science literature, it was almost certain endosulfan is the reason,” says Dr Kumar.

In 1997, he called the attention of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) about the unusually large number of diseases. “When I wrote in newspapers linking the chemical with health issues in Kasargod, it was like a bombshell. The Plantation Corporation, which had been spraying endosulfan since 1976 over some 15,000 acres of cashew plantations, reacted strongly, abusing us as environmental terrorists. Their people came to my clinic and threatened me. Pesticide company people served defamation suit against me.

“When the pesticide manufacturers came out with denials and lobbying, people started to organise themselves to address the issue. “In 2000, we started an agitation under the banner of Endosulfan Spray Protest Action Committee which resulted in the suspension of the spray in December 2000,” says Dr Kumar.

Ever since, there had been at least 16 Indian, regional and international studies on the Kasargod phenomenon, which either directly blamed endosulfan or refuse to exonerate the deadly pesticide as the causative factor of the health problems.

The IMA says a meticulous medical evaluation of the situation clearly shows that Dr Kumar, Padre and Leela Amma were right in their suspicion. “Almost all of the people affected with congenital malformations in the area are all below the age of 30 years, the duration of aerial spray of endosulfan in the area,” says the IMA.

Are these illnesses due mainly to endosulfan exposure? The team lead by Dr Quijano says the answer is YES. It says the illnesses observed are to be expected from the known intrinsic toxicological properties of endosulfan. The IMA says putting the matter in reverse also provides evidence.

“In the 10 years of endosulfan-free atmosphere, I have observed that there is an improvement in the environment, and birds and reptiles which had been wiped out have come back. I am happy to say that there has been no child born with congenital anomaly in my area and epilepsy cases have come down. I am not sure about other areas. It is too early to be sure, but in another 10 years, we can say clearly,” says Dr Kumar.

Even after very high levels of endosulfan residues were found in all samples of blood, water and other pieces of evidence collected from the area by different agencies, the central government refuses to impose an all-India ban on endosulfan, insisting that the chemical is safe. The recent statements by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and federal ministers Sharad Pawar and K .V. Thomas that there is no evidence that endosulfan is responsible for the tragedy, have outraged the victims and campaigners. “How many more deaths does the prime minster want to see before he is convinced. I really felt ashamed. You don’t expect any responsible minister to do PR for pesticide companies with such statements. After 81 countries banned endosulfan following deaths in different parts of the world, there is no justification if the Indian government still gambles with human lives,” says an agitated Padre.

He says the global ban on endosulfan is a last-minute moral victory. “For India, this is justice delayed. And you know what justice delayed amounts to… But, yes, considering the mass damage it has done to public health, we were hoping for an immediate and full ban in India.

While writing this, the Indian Supreme Court banned the production, sale and use of endosulfan for the next eight weeks, holding that human life is more important than anything else. “We don’t want even one child to suffer either for six or seven weeks as human life was the paramount consideration... Don’t go by money alone. You have corporate social responsibility also,” the court said.

But the trio says the endosulfan battle is only half won. “We badly need to start a ‘Pesticide Literacy Campaign’ by imparting working knowledge of short-term and long-term effects of such harmful chemical insecticides to society,” says Padre.

“Regarding rehabilitation, unfortunately medicines can’t do much. The aggrieved families have to be helped to augment their income and those who can’t, be fully supported by the government. They have to be suitably compensated from the coffers of the Plantation Corporation, pesticides companies and the state and central governments,” says Padre.

“Personally it was a great victory. When we started, nobody was ready to accept the theory. Political parties which have jumped onto the bandwagon had once kicked us out of their office, but the many years of apolitical struggle has finally won,” says Dr Kumar.

“Rehabilitation work has to be started immediately after a new government takes over in Kerala. Actual patients must get all help. I feel basic infrastructure facilities like house, water, electricity, toilets and roads are to be given importance. The monthly pension scheme that has already started should be continued and medical facilities strengthened,” says Dr Kumar, himself an agriculture and dairy farming enthusiast.

“But the need of the hour is a campaign among farmers to make them aware of alternate biological agriculture practices. And all hazardous chemicals should be banned to make sure the next generation leads a healthy life,” says 52-year-old Dr Kumar, who says it was his parents’ wish that he served in this remote rural village.

‘Life cheaper than cashew’

It was a world minus Google, Wikipedia and the Internet. Journalism back then was all about unleaded journalistic instinct, a pinch of gut feeling and some village-level consultation. And that is exactly what Shree Padre relied on when the farmer-journalist chanced upon this story. When Somaje Mahalinga Bhat, a retired lecturer, sent a word about the birth of a calf with a twisted forelimb, little did Padre know that he was penning a story that would become a talking point for the international and scientific communities for generations to come.

In 1979, Somaje began to wonder what might have caused the deformities and stunted growth in three of his calves. When informed, Padre consulted a local veterinary doctor on his suspicion that the endosulfan chemical used in aerial spraying over the Kasargod cashew plantations could be the cause.

“I am basically a farmer, but used to string for some newspapers and magazines,” Padre tells Khaleej Times. A multi-lingual journalist, Padre first wrote the story in Kannada, which is widely spoken in the Kerala district that borders the Karnataka state, for the weekly Sudha published by the Deccan Herald group. The article on Sept 30, 1979, backed up by a picture of the calf with deformities (see picture), didn’t make the fur fly, and the spraying of endosulfan continued.

Padre repeated the story in 1981 in the Hyderabad-based weekly Evidence, the Kannada weekly Udayavani and the leading Malayalam newspaper Kerala Kaumudi. “The repeat was part of our strategy to draw the attention of the authorities and to create some awareness among the people about the dangers of such very dangerous agro-chemicals. It also appeared as the cover story in 2001 after we launched our own farm magazine, Adike Patrike, in 1988,” says Padre.

“In 1977-78, four cases of cows giving birth to calves with deformed forelimbs were reported within a gap of six months after the spray from Enmakaje village in Kasaragod taluk . Although three of them died soon, the fourth one was alive for a long time . These cases were suspected to be the ill-effects of the carelessly sprayed pesticide,” says Padre’s Evidence article under the headline ‘Life cheaper than cashew’.

“Cashew may be an important cash crop, but public health and prevention of cruelty to animals are equally important. The Plantation Corporation has no right to endanger villagers’ health and rural economy in order to supply cashew to rich foreigners, just because the poor Kerala villagers cannot complain,” concludes the report.

Somaje, the owner of the calf, too died of cancer some time later. - By Suresh Pattali




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