The poster girl of anti-endosulfan stir in Kerala, Kavitha Nair, 22, died of chest infection and tuberculosis last November. She was born with a tongue so large that it would hang outside her mouth, exposing her to chronic chest and throat infections, which finally killed her. Her father, Venkappa Nair, died of cancer 12 years ago, and her brother Ramakrishna, 32, is mentally challenged.
In the Bandiyadukka village in the north Kerala district of Kasargod, the Nairs are not the only family affected with physical and mental afflictions. With about 10,000 people afflicted in 12 panchayats — people with enlarged heads, deformed limbs — crippling ailments and mental abnormalities are a part of each family.
The cause is endosulfan, a pesticide used to repel insects in the cashew fields around the village. Though aerial spraying was stopped about a decade ago, the poison continues to cripple and deform newborns in Padre and Swarg, two most affected villages.
Kavitha’s mother, Premavally, wants a different life for people in her village and religiously takes her mentally-challenged son to all marches, conventions and inquiry committees. “I’m fed up of being exhibited before one committee or the other,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears.
A survey done jointly by the state health and agriculture departments last month identified 2,210 serious cases in six worst-affected villages. Neurological disorders, physical deformity, cerebral palsy, miscarriages and vision problems are at least 30 times higher than the state average. At least 260 cancer deaths have been reported from this area in a decade.
Fourteen committees have filed reports that all differ in their findings. As a thumb rule, state-appointed ones blame the pesticide while the centrally-aided one gave it a clean chit. Four months ago, Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh appointed another committee under Indian Council of Medical Research, which is yet to submit its report.
“Apart from the deadly aerial spraying of endosulfan, we can’t find any other reason for the deformities,” says Sree Padre, writer and activist, who has been at the forefront of anti-pesticide agitation for more than two decades now.
Trouble began, claim activists, when the government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala began aerial spraying of the pesticide on cashew plantations in 1978. Endosulfan quickly checked tea mosquito infestations. Mindless spraying continued for another 23 years, which polluted the soil and water to such an extent that effects remain a decade after the spraying was stopped.
Endosulfan was found 113 ppb (parts per billion) in blood samples taken from the area, reported a 2011-study by Dr Jayakrishnan of Kozhikode Medical College. The latest state government panel headed by Dr Ajay Kumar Verma found high pesticide sediments in soil and water.
People against a ban argue that no study has ever established a direct link between deformities and endosulfan, which is cheaper than alternative pesticides that will push up food prices ten-fold. The endosulfan industry in India is pegged at $100 million — with the country being the largest producer and user, exporting 4,500 tonnes and using 4,000 tonnes domestically. And as India managed to convince 173 nations at the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to agree to a 11-year phase-out period to find a safe alternative, villagers wonder when they’ll be free of this man-made blight.