Welcome to Kerala-Gods own country. That is how toursists worldwide know it. But, sometimes, names can be really misleading. Take for instance, this area in Kasaragod district in the picture postcard state. It is called Swarga. In Hindi and Malayalam, Swarga means Heaven. Nothing could be more ironical. This is no heaven. Those who live here and in hamlets around the cashew plantations in the state feel they have died many deaths. Swarga is plagued by disease and tragedy.
For 26 long years, the government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala aerially sprayed endosulfan in an area of nearly 4,700 acres in Kasaragod. Endosulfan is a deadly pesticide banned in many parts of the world. The United States Environmental Protection Agency classifies Endosulphan as a highly hazardous pesticide. But in Kerala it was sprayed for years in government-owned plantations. Today, villagers who lived close to the plantation are paying the price, despite an indefinite ban on the substance. Many of them got paralyzed or are seriously ill. Swarga and other areas like Padre, Muliyar and Bellur in Kasaragod district of Kerala have become living examples of how the poison in pesticides could be lethal to our health when used excessively and carelessly. The area is dotted with tragedy struck families battling physical deformities, cancers and disorders of the central nervous system.
Deformities in endosulfan-use areas (parental discretion advised)
As the plantations are in a mountainous area, the pesticide residues settled on the soil and got washed away when it rained into drinking water streams below. It is mandatory to cover all water sources like wells, tanks and other water bodies during the spraying of such a toxic pesticide. But this was not done.
Dr. Mohana Kumar, a general practioner in Padre was among the first to notice that something was seriously wrong with the health of the people in the area. When he started his medical practice there in 1982, he saw the peculiarity. There was a abnormally high incidence of diseases of the central nervous system, psychiatric problems, mental retardation, cerebral and genetical abnormalities and cancer. He started talking about it where ever he went.
As the tragedy of the victims got media exposure - (eds. note: India Together carried an online petition calling for the ban in 2000-2001) - the Indian Council of Medical Research asked the National Institute of Occupational Health to study the effects of Endosulfan exposure on school children in Vaninagar. The study showed children had congenital abnormalities. Male children suffered from delayed sexual maturity while female children matured early. Another study by the Keralas health department also found cases of congenital abnormalities, mental retardation, cancer and infertility in areas where the aerial spraying was done. Endosulfan was also found in the blood samples of children.
Says Trivandrum based Dr. P.K. Sivaraman, additional director, Public Health, Kerala: There were no guidelines followed when the spraying was done. People were exposed to the chemical all through the year as it leeched into the soil and was washed into drinking water streams.
The pesticide industry was quick to rubbish these studies saying that endosulfan had nothing to do with the health problems, although there was no other pesticide used there in such large quantities. Nonetheless, seeing so many medical complications in areas where spraying was done, the Muliyar Village Panchayat which is the local self-governing body, banned the use or sale of pesticides. Says an angry Mohammed Kunhi, chairman, Standing Committee, Muliyar Gram Panchayat: We do not use pesticides to grow cashew. But only the Plantation Corporation of Kerala is spraying it. In the last two years they could not spray it because of our agitation. And, the yield of cashew has increased! Only the officials of the corporation have benefited along with the pesticide companies.
Mohammed Kunhi remembers how he and his classmates used to run out of their classrooms when they heard the sound of the helicopter that was spraying endosulfan. The spray would settle on their hair and shine in the sun and they would all laugh. I shudder to think of it now. We used to go and welcome the helicopter pilots and treat them like heroes. We were actually inviting death and disease, he says with a shudder.
Shree Padre, a journalist and farmer in Padre says that the pesiticide industry must be made to pay compensation to the victims and the government officials who aided the pesticide industry in pumping so much of pesticide in the area must be punished. Cashew is grown without pesticides all over Kerala, he says, without any pesticides. But the government run plantation invested millions of rupees of public money in spraying the deadly pesticide. All those who have suffered by this poisoning are martyrs to the cause of stopping the use of poison in farming, says Shree Padre.
"Most farmers get advice from the pesticide dealer on which pesticide to use, as the agriculture extension worker network has failed".
Today, India uses up ten million litres of endosulfan making it the largest user in the world. Kasaragod is just one example of the tragedy India is heading toward. India is not only one of the largest users of pesticide, it is also one of the largest manufacturers. The Kerala government, unable to face up to the media war against endosulfan poisoning in Kasaragod, banned its use for an indefinite period. The effects of that are already showing. The birds are back, there are butterflies flitting around, micro organisms are alive in the eco-system and nature is seemingly bouncing back. Dr Jayagovind, a doctor in Ukkinadka village, says that he earlier could not get even five kilos of honey to prepare his ayurvedic medicines. Now, he can get any quantity he wants as the bees are back.
As the media in Kerala is very alert, the Plantation Corporation has not been able to use endosulfan in the cashew plantations. The ban is on aerial spraying only. But there have been reports from villagers around that a new pesticide called Round Up is now being used. Television channels in Kerala run stories on the endosulfan tragedy almost every month. But there is a fear in Kerala among the villagers and activists that the ban can be lifted anytime. Indian activists have tried to raise the endosulfan ban issue at various national and international fora, but with little success.
Endosulfan is still being used in various parts of India in Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. It is used for cotton and tea. But communities are not clear about the danger ahead.
"Most farmers get advice from the pesticide dealer on which pesticide to use, as the agriculture extension worker network has failed," says Jalapati Rao, Principal Scientist at the Agriculture Research Station at Warangal. Bixapathy Karne, a cotton farmer from Thirajpalli village in Warangal district lies in a special ward created for pesticide poisoning victims at the Civil Hospital in Warangal. His wife, Kala, sits holding his hand on the hospital bed with a worried look on her face. Her husband was spraying endosulfan at his one and a half acre paddy field for three hours at a stretch. He then started vomitting and then fell unconcious.
But how long will the ban last? A month ago, the government said in parliament that it did not find that endosulfan was responsible for the health complications that were visible in Kasaragod. All the studies that showed that it did were conveniently swept away. Kasaragod's tragedy has shown once more that India badly needs a pesticide policy that is drawn by health experts and not the pesticide industry that today has tremendous clout in ensuring that harmful pesticides continue to mint money in India.