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Revealed: the child victims of pesticide poisoning in India

Peter Caton and Beatriz Lopez

4th January, 2012

Endosulfan is the pesticide of choice for farmers in rural India trying to control insects threatening cashew nut and other crops - but the chemical can have devastating health impacts

A panorama of rolling hills distinguishes the landscape of Kasaragod, a northern district of the Indian state, Kerala. With fertile land and an abundance of water, the cashew industry once flourished amidst dense vegetation, red earth and coconut palms.

These forested valleys are home to rural communities still living off the land, such as Mamatha’s family who collect betel-nuts as their main source of income. The household of six adult siblings and their elderly father live in a small, overcrowded cottage, which they may have to sell to fund a series of operations that will remove the tumour distorting Mamatha’s face. Mamatha, her family claim, is an endosulfan poisoning victim.

Endosulfan, an organochlorine insecticide, acts as a contact poison for a wide variety of insects and mites and has been used extensively worldwide on food crops like tea, fruits, vegetables and grains. Famed for its capacity to increase agricultural productivity, endosulfan has been officially banned in the state of Kerala for 10 years. In the 25 years leading up to the state ban, indiscriminate aerial spraying of cashew plantations contaminated the soil, water sources, wildlife and the communities of the Kasaragod District.

Already banned in over 80 countries, 127 represented governments agreed on a worldwide ban at the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) in April 2011. The Indian Government delegation contested the otherwise unanimous consensus. Facing huge financial losses due to the national agricultural industry’s heavy reliance on endosulfan, an 11-year phase out period with financial support was negotiated, giving Government appointed scientists time to develop a cost effective, alternative pest control.

However, last May, the manufacturing and usage of endosulfan in India was forced to a complete halt. Indian Chief Justice Sarosh Homi Kapadia of the Supreme Court imposed an eight week national blanket ban on the pesticide until a conclusive study by an expert committee on whether toxicity levels of endosulfan was safe to humans and the environment had been submitted.

Controversially, the current national Union Agricultural Minister, Sharad Pawar, announced shortly after the ban that there was a lack of evidence to prove a negative impact on humans. He also denied anti-endosulfan protest from any state governments other than Kerala and neighbouring state Karnataka. Kerala and Karnataka were the only states where endosulfan was aerially sprayed, an approach not scientifically investigated at the time.

The pesticide victims in Kerala


In Kasaragod, the Keralan district worst hit by endosulfan poisonings, Leelakumari Amma, is employed as an agronomist by the Agricultural Department of her local Panchayatt. She has observed an abnormal amount of illnesses in the community, which triggered her suspicions about chemical poisoning.

'People had to walk through these fields that had been sprayed as there was no transportation. Children walked through the fields. There were no butterflies; there were no birds; so it was concrete evidence for my suspicions.'

Dr Mohana Kumar, an activist and medical practitioner associated with Pesticide Action Network (PAN), says companies have violated human rights by not protecting water sources when aerially spraying the pesticide.

One former employee of a company using endosulfan, Achuthan Manniyeni, used to be responsible for preparing the pesticide for spraying in his area. He says the concrete mixing tub was located in a cashew field several metres from one of the district’s water basins, which was not covered properly during the aerial spraying.

It was also common practice to dump empty endosulfan cans in a nearby well. Gloves, soap and towels were not supplied to the employees according to Achuthan. Furthermore, he claims endosulfan was freely handed to local farmers after the ban was imposed on Kerala, and that one of his colleagues was contracted to bury containers on a nearby mountain in order to get rid of excessive stock.

The exact location is unknown as all of his five colleagues have since died from symptoms associated with endosulfan poisoning. Large quantities of the pesticide still remain undisposed of in Kerala, 10 years after it was banned in the state.

Local cashew farmer Ashraf disagrees that endosulfan is hazardous to human life, citing his own health as an example. He blames natural causes for the ailments people have been suffering.

'Endosulfan has been produced to protect the trees from bugs. An increase of insects can also be harmful to the people.' His business partner Mohammad says, 'They say endosulfan has harmed a lot of people, but when you look at the economic side it is a pathetic situation.' He recalls that when the cashew crops were treated with endosulfan, farmers collected an average of 700 kilos per day. Untreated, they collect 15 kilos to 30 kilos per day. 'People have lost a lot of income'.

Until recently, endosulfan manufactured in India constituted 70 per cent of the global market, with its total exports valued at about Rs 1.8 billion (£22,000,000). Since the Green Revolution in India, agriculture has become a big export with India ranking second worldwide in terms of farm output with almost 30 per cent of its booming economy coming from the sector.

The lack of a permanent nationwide ban in India has led to growing reports of smuggling across state borders, particularly from Orissa where the chemical is said to still be openly available in the state capital and in Madhya Pradesh where stock is being sold at a premium rate of Rs 500 instead of Rs 250 per litre.

Meanwhile, people neighbouring or living within the predominantly national government owned cashew plantations continue to suffer the consequences of what had became a highly profitable industry; satisfying the demand of western palates at supermarket prices.

The poisoned children

Medical data compiled by health officials in Kerala suggests as many as 4,270 people may have been poisoned by endosulfan, with over 500 deaths linked to the chemical. Campaigners and families blame endosulfan for causing neurological and congenital deformities in babies:

Abhilash Bhat, who is 10, rolls around with difficulty on a floor mat at home. His head weighs 20 kg, roughly four times the weight of an average adult head. Born with hydrocephalus, a rare medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, his head has swelled to enormous proportions. The cranial pressure has shrunk his brain, causing total mental retardation.

His mother, Sreedevi had already miscarried two previous pregnancies and claims her first child died within 10 days from hydrocephalus. Doctors believed Abhilash would not survive and his parents were warned that conceiving another child would only lead to the same heartache: 'We want another child, but we are scared.'

The high-risk operation needed to save his life may well bankrupt the family, who already struggle to make ends meet. Over half of their wage, earned from the collection and selling of betel-nut, is spent on medical and travel expenses incurred from Abhilash needing hospital treatment every three days.

Both born blind, sisters Rahina and Rasna are six and nine years old. Their parents Rajan and Rohina say that the difficulty of supporting two blind children with their minimal income earned through labouring work has forced them to separate the children. Rasna is now living with her maternal grandmother, while Rahina is partly cared for by her paternal grandmother who lives in the family home. After Rahina was born, they gave up on the prospect of a larger family for fear of conceiving another child with the same genetic disorder.

Is God to blame?


People were ignorant about the toxicity of endosulfan, believing in curses and ‘the will of God’. Sumitra and her husband Ganeshrao thought they had been cursed by the Serpent God Jataadhari and spent over Rs 200,000 (£2000) on religious rituals performed at a Hindu temple: their 16-year old daughter Soumya and 14 year old son, Arunkumar, would frequently experience fevers that eventually left them mute and crippled.

As the children are partially blind and deaf, they rely on smell to identify people and make simple gestures to have their needs met. Soumya drags herself across the home’s concrete floor as she is unable to walk. Rarely leaving their home and with no social services or physiotherapy, they receive little stimulation to improve their condition.

Sujatha was struck down with a reoccurring fever at the age of four which left her hospitalised on several occasions. At 28-years of age, her body has not developed properly and she has limited mobility in her limbs. Unable to support herself on her weak, child-size legs, she lives her life bound to her home.

Frustrated by her speech impairment, she speaks of her ongoing struggle with depression. Sujatha has no opportunity to marry and live a normal life, as she is completely dependent on her mother. Her mother explains that her energy levels prevent her from staying awake extended periods of time and that an exhausting menstrual cycle (3 times per month) causes her low blood pressure.

A year ago, a local youth group arranged monthly visits of a physiotherapist who is also an ayurvedic doctor, but her improvement has been minimal and she is still experiencing ongoing pain in her legs. Medicine was also received from a local government hospital for four months, but the home delivery service was suddenly stopped without an explanation. When questioned, the hospital explained they had run out of medicine. Sujatha was never clear what the prescription was for.

Gulabi lives in a small shack with her husband, mother-in-law and 4 children. An apparant endosulfan victim, she experienced her first symptoms after the birth of her second child. Her medical records say she has a 'loco-motor disability'. Gulabi’s low blood pressure and weakness in her legs led to a fall which shattered her right femur. An operation to replace the bone has failed to improve her walking ability, and a lack of finance has prevented her from receiving follow up physiotherapy. The family survives on the Rs 150 (£2.10) per day her husband earns as a seasonal forager.

Another Bhopal disaster?


In an attempt to calm growing pressure, a compensation package has been offered by one major company involved in spraying endosulfan. A comprehensive package is also being launched by the Keralan State Health Department to be available in the 11 worst affected Panchayatts. Benefit cards are being registered under three categories; Class A, the worst affected victims, expecting to receive Rs 2000 monthly pensions (£27); an amount barely enough to cover medical expenses, let alone supplement the potential income loss of carers.

'My greatest difficulty is not being able to leave my daughter unattended,' says Sreeja, a mother of two young daughters. Her six-year old daughter Chaithany suffers from a severe neurological disorder and is unable to control her limbs or communicate. Sreeja is a fulltime caretaker, bound to her single roomed home, while her husband keeps the family afloat with menial labour; earning only Rs 250 (£3.50) per day.

In December 2010, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission K. G. Balakrishnan went as far as comparing the endosulfan devastation to the Bhopal gas tragedy. Others like activist B. Ashraf from the Kerala-based NGO Thanal, call it a 'government chemical warfare on its own people.'

Pesticide industry blames EU and NGOs


Representatives of the pesticide industry dismiss the health concerns as a EU/Western ploy. The Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India (PMFAI) has been reported as saying that the government was folding under pressure from environmental groups. 'This is playing straight into the hands of vested interests such as the European Union, who have a direct business interest in the ban of endosulfan. The overall design of the EU stakeholders is to ban this popular low-cost, off-patent pesticide and replace it with expensive patented products.'

While Kerala suggested alternatives to endosulfan, all other 20 states have denied any knowledge of health problems associated with endosulfan; insisting it was the cheapest pesticide on the market and friendly towards pollinators. Suggestions were made that the ‘poisoning’ of humans, livestock and wildlife in Kasaragod was an isolated incident resulting from the aerial spraying of endosulfan in Kerala.

Pesticide manufacturers argued that possible causes for health problems within the region could be linked to inbreeding, iodine deficiency and radiation, and that all opposition to the use of endosulfan was politically motivated.

However, reports from Karanataka by consumer activists such as Sanjeev Arora tell a different story, 'people are suffering from problems like congenital deformities, mental retardation and physical deformities. The impact is similar to those affected in Kerala’s Kasaragod village.'

According to official figures, 32,604 litres of Endosulfan was aerially sprayed between 1980 and 2000 on 850 hectares in Belthangady and Puttur Taluks in Dakshin Kannada, and a further 11,225 litres were sprayed manually in the region. Nearly 20 villages were affected. 'Health conditions in these villages are scary,' says Sanjeev.

Twenty-seven nations globally are said to still use endosulfan including several African countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe - making endosulfan is the third largest selling pesticide on the global market with a value of £191.5 million.

The danger now, say campaigners, is that, despite all the evidence against endosulfan, big business will be allowed to continue taking precedence over human health and the environment.

Six months after the interim ban was put in place on the production and sale of endosulfan, the Supreme Court is no nearer to reaching a verdict as to whether the ban should be made permanent, with no real solutions of how to appropriately dispose of stock either.

While the question of evidence remains - blocking an immediate, permanent national ban in India - Dr. Kumar puts conflicting scientific evidence into perspective: 'You can argue anything because you cannot test on humans. You have to consider the circumstantial evidence.'

In the meantime, parents of victims like Carmina Costa, who has been promised a consolatory yet miniscule compensation, fear for future generations’ lives. 'My prayer is that this should never happen again. So many children, so many mothers are suffering. This is my prayer to the government.'

All photographs supplied by Peter Caton. Words by Beatriz Lopez.

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