[KASARGODE, INDIA (PANOS)] A year ago, the Indian media was flooded with photo-features and spot reports on some strange deaths in the prosperous southern state of Kerala.
Hard-hitting exposes, studies by experts and a whole showcase of dead and maimed people of Kerala’s Kasargode district put the blame squarely on a pesticide called endosulfan. The district is home to lucrative cashew plantations where extensive aerial spraying of endosulfan has taken place over the past 20 years. In some areas the chemical was sprayed directly over the houses of families living near plantations.
But the exposes have not deterred the manufacturers of endosulfan from selling the deadly pesticide on the Indian market — if anything they are hitting back at environmental activists.
A panel of experts set up by the Central Insecticides Board of India and headed by scientist O.P. Dubey, concluded in March that endosulfan is not responsible for the health problems in Kasargode. The result: endosulfan continues to be sprayed over the villages of Kasargode.
But a fundamental flaw in the composition of the panel has raised a few eyebrows.
"It’s funny," says Cheloton Jayakumar of Thanal, a public interest research group that studies environmental toxins. "It was O. P. Dubey, the young scientist, who recommended the use of endosulfan to the Plantation Corporation of Kerala about 22 years back. Now the government has put the same person to chair a committee that will decide if endosulfan is safe to people or not."
The obvious conflict of interest has prompted the leader of the opposition in Kerala to write to the federal agriculture minister asking for the Dubey panel to be disbanded. He says that members of the panel, during a visit to Kasargode, did not even bother to consult the affected people or representatives of the State legislature or elected village-level bodies.
That the Indian government chose Dubey to chair the panel has led Jayakumar and other activists to question the motives of the government. They are convinced the large pesticides companies are influencing the supposedly democratic decisions being made on behalf of Indians.
"Officials from Kerala’s agriculture department procured endosulfan late last year. This was done despite all the controversy and fair knowledge spreading around about the ill effects caused by the pesticide. This proves the administration and the endosulfan lobby are hand-in-glove," says Jayakumar.
India’s pesticide industry has a total market value of about $8.7 million. According to the Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India (PMFAI), India is the world’s leading manufacturer of endosulfan.
"Kerala gives priority for cash crops dependent on fertilizers and pesticides," says Soolapani Usha, a researcher who has studied the pesticide affected areas. "There are no tests for chemical residues or health problems. But even without any health monitoring, the use of pesticides is encouraged," she says.
This January, Kalathiparambil Gauri, Kerala’s minister for agriculture, issued a statement on a visit to Kasargode. She said: "We are not ready to ban endosulfan because we simply have not received any concrete proof that connects endosulfan with the diseases in Kasargode."
Activists beg to differ: several studies from around the world, including India, have independently concluded that endosulfan is dangerous.
The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies the chemical as a Category 1b (highly hazardous) pesticide. It has been banned on the rice fields of Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand. And its use is severely restricted in Britain, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Madagascar.
Pastel brown in colour with a smell like turpentine, endosulfan is an organochlorine insecticide that acts as a contact poison to a wide variety of insects and mites on a wide variety of crops, including cereals, coffee, cotton, fruit, oilseeds, potato, tea and vegetables. On the cashew plantations of Kerala — a foreign exchange earner — it is used to counter the tea mosquito pest.
Animal studies have shown effects on the kidneys, foetus, and liver from longer-term exposure to low levels of endosulfan. Studies have also proved that endosulfan can harm aquatic systems and is highly toxic to fish, birds, bees and wildlife.
In India, the National Institute of Occupational Health proved conclusively over a year ago that endosulfan is the "causative factor" in the incidence of all crippling illnesses in the Kasargode area.
Several independent field studies have shown that to date at least 60 people have died in Kerala due to reasons directly related to endosulfan. Cancers, congenital anomalies, mental retardation and manic depression have all been reported in large numbers from six areas of Kasargode.
"There is a very strong case for a ban on endosulfan, not only in Kerala but the whole of India, says Manaparambil Prasad, a leading environmental activist in Kerala.
The fact is it wouldn't take much to ban endosulfan. A lower rank judge can ban it by simply invoking Article 21 of the Indian Constitution that guarantees right to life. And under the Indian Insecticide Act of 1968, the state government can recommend a ban to the federal government. In neighbouring Karnataka state, pressure from farmers has led the administration to issue just such a recommendation. It is now awaiting a response from the federal authorities.
Meanwhile, activists opposing endosulfan have been threatened with legal action. Endosulfan manufacturer Excel Industries threatened a New Delhi-based campaigner, Madhumita Dutta, with a letter asking to retract her public statement seeking to link endosulfan with the sickness in Kerala.
The New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a leading independent research and campaign group in the developing world, which has conducted a high-profile campaign against endosulfan, says: "The murky games of the [pesticides] industry include disinformation campaigns, involving misleading advertisements, manufacturing scientific data by sponsoring 'scientific' studies, and influencing government scientists and officials."
CSE says the reason why the industry is in such a tizzy over endosulfan is that a ban over it could spark similar protests among other communities. Other pesticides could come under scrutiny.
In June, Sundaram Ganesan of the Indian Chemical Manufacturers Association went to the extent of urging the government not to ratify the Persistent Organic Pollutants treaty (POPs) — a key international treaty seeking to reduce the health and environment risks posed by 12 specified POPs.
India, along with 97 other countries, signed the agreement in 2001 as an instrument to protect human health and environment, but it has yet to ratify it. "If accepted now," warned Ganesan, "the globally legally binding treaty would be detrimental to the health of the Indian chemical industry."
As of now, the industry looks like calling the shots in India as the residents of Kasargode continue to fall prey to disease. The estates of Indian democracy have not so far come to their aid.
Joshua Newton is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kerala.