Endosulfan victims struggle for justice as Kerala govt changes compensation rule | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Endosulfan victims struggle for justice as Kerala govt changes compensation rule

Feb 22, 2024 03:49 PM IST

Endosulfan pesticide poisoning has wrecked the lives of over 6,500 individuals and their families in Kerala's Kasaragod for over two decades

KANHANGAD: There’s a hint of pride in Sarada BK’s voice when she says that her eight-year-old daughter Alvisha manages to call her ‘amma’ ( Malayalam for mother). But as she goes on to describe her daughter’s traits, the pride is quickly swallowed by a deep sense of pain.

In January 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Kerala government to pay a compensation of Rs.5 lakh each to over 5,000 victims of endosulfan (File Photo)
In January 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Kerala government to pay a compensation of Rs.5 lakh each to over 5,000 victims of endosulfan (File Photo)

“She speaks very little. She can stand up on her own, but she is prone to regular seizures. She cannot walk very long, so I have to carry her. She cannot chew and usually swallows food, so I have to feed her. She doesn’t know how to use the latrine. She is eight but has the intelligence of a two-year-old,” Sarada summarizes.

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Alvisha is a victim of endosulfan pesticide poisoning, a scourge that has officially wrecked the lives of over 6,500 individuals and their families in the northernmost Kerala district of Kasaragod for over two decades. In this part of the state, with its distinct red laterite soil that blows with the wind and tropical conditions during most of the year, the organochlorine insecticide was sprayed in massive quantities from the late 70s to early 2000s in cashew estates where it percolated into the soil and eventually found its way into rivers, ponds and streams which were a drinking source for lakhs around it.

While Sarada was a worker in a cashew factory’s cutting section for years, potentially being exposed to the pesticide, it was her daughter, born in 2016, who suffered its worst effects through intrauterine exposure. At a special medical camp organised by the state government in April 2017 in Kasaragod, Alvisha was recognised as an endosulfan sufferer by doctors and subsequently added to the government list of victims in 2019. She received a one-time compensation of Rs.5 lakh in 2022 and has since gotten benefits like a monthly pension of Rs.1,700 and subsidised medicines.

But five years later, Sarada is now anxious that her daughter, who suffers from neuro-behavioural disorders, would be stripped of the government perks as a victim. On November 18 last year, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government headed by Pinarayi Vijayan framed guidelines to identify new endosulfan victims and declared that only those who lived in these places or had intrauterine exposure from January 1980 to October 2011 would be defined as ‘exposed’, essentially striking many children like Alvisha out.

The government, based on the advice of an expert committee, reasons that the ‘persistence’ of endosulfan in the environment lasts for a maximum of six years. Since the pesticide was banned officially in 2005, its effects on the population would remain only till 2011, it argued.

“It is a bizarre order. My daughter was officially recognised as a victim of endosulfan poisoning in 2017. So, the government is basically contradicting itself. Now that the (cut-off year) is 2011, will they take back the compensation and benefits they provided us all this while? I want to know,” asked Sarada, who stopped going to work to take care of Alvisha and her younger child Arush. Her husband Babu is a daily-wage worker and the family survives on a meagre income, she added.

Also Read: Why India must ban highly hazardous pesticides

Sarada is not alone. Seven years have passed since the state conducted the last medical camp in Kasaragod to identify new endosulfan victims and in this period, many suspected victims and their families have been lingering outside the social security net, devoid of benefits like free medical treatment and cheaper medicines.

Activists say that the 2023 government order ignores the visible long-term genetic impact on unexposed generations and aims to diminish the size of the tragedy. A study conducted by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru, whose final findings are expected in a few months, on endosulfan imprint on mice, has a signalled impact on its next generation. These findings run contrary to the administration’s methodology.

On January 30 this year, an action council of endosulfan victims began an indefinite protest outside the mini civil station in Kanhangad town, demanding the recall of the 2023 government circular, inclusion of 1,031 eligible names in the victims’ list, conduct of medical camp with specialist doctors and timely payment of pensions. So far, the government has not batted an eyelid.

It was in the mid-1970s that large acres of cashew trees, held by the state entity Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) in hilly parts of Kasaragod, were facing threats from swarming tea mosquito bugs. To counter the pest attack, the PCK ordered its staff to initially spray endosulfan, an organochloride insecticide, manually with hand. Having found results, the use of the pesticide was intensified, with PCK giving a green signal to aerial spraying over the estates using choppers three times a year. This went on in Kasaragod for the next 25 years until the horrifying effects of the chemical became apparent to the locals and activists.

“The first thing we noticed was the disappearance of honey bees from the region. It’s like they were wiped out. Then, we began to see that the fish and frogs were dying in large numbers. Birds and reptiles were missing. I initially suspected that something was wrong with the water in the two rivulets that flowed through the region like maybe there was a radioactive element. At the time, no one could really connect the dots,” remarked Dr YS Mohan Kumar, a general physician who was among the first to open the lid off the injustice in the name of endosulfan.

As a doctor, who interacted with locals widely at the grassroots in panchayats like Enmakaje and Kumbadaje in the 80s and 90s, Kumar began to spot increasing cases of congenital abnormalities and neurological disorders in children. It was unusual to spot so many in such a small area, he added.

The suspicions transformed into an agitation in the late 1990s against the PCK and its use of endosulfan as scientific tests conducted on samples of water from rivers and wells confirmed the presence of the deadly chemical. In February 2001, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in the magazine Down to Earth published a damning report showing the presence of the chemical in everything from the region’s water and soil to samples of human blood and breast milk.

The report said, “The laboratory results strengthen the suspicion that the Padre residents are subsidising the government’s cashew production with their lives. One woman’s blood showed 900 times the amount of endosulfan that is permitted in water – CSE could not find any permissible limit for blood, meaning that it is unlikely that there is a minimum level at which the pesticide would not harm the human body. The woman’s elder son Kittanna (21) has cerebral palsy; the younger son Sridhar (16) is mentally retarded.”

The published lab findings, coupled with the visible impact on the physical and mental health of the local population, were enough to attract the international media, which put Kasaragod under the spotlight. While the spraying of the pesticide was put on hold in Kasaragod by the year 2001, it was banned across Kerala through a gazette notification in 2005 and across the country in 2011.

In January 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Kerala government to pay a compensation of Rs.5 lakh each to over 5,000 victims of endosulfan as well as families of those who died as a result of its exposure within three months. It also said the government must consider providing special medical facilities and treatment for those suffering long-term effects.

Though the Rs.5 lakh compensation was directed to be paid within three months, the state government took over five years to make the payments to the victims and was pulled up by the top court in May 2022 over the delay. “All your decisions are only on books. The money has to be released. Five years have gone by since our judgment. Many victims would have died. Even the number of victims is bound to increase over a period of time,” the SC said.

Inside a small temporary shed with a thatched roof erected outside the gates of the mini civil station in Kanhangad, Kunhikrishnan Ambalathara, a man in his 60s wearing a tweed cap, is quietly building resistance to what he claims is a government attempt to close the chapter of endosulfan poisoning once and for all. The walls of the shed bear photographs of victims who passed away and news reports on the unfolding tragedy. Around 20 men and women sit on plastic chairs inside the shed, all of whom are relatives of suspected victims whose names didn’t make it to the official government list.

“The government’s mission is to systematically reduce the number of victims because it means they don’t have to hand out compensation, conduct medical camps, offer free treatment and give subsidised medicines. They are basically trying to cut down the scale of the tragedy,” said Kunhikrishnan, who heads the victims’ action council and has been associated with it since 1998.

The LDF government, he said, had promised to conduct special camps every year to address the grievances of victims and identify new ones. But the last camp it held was in 2017 where over 7,000 applications were received and just over 3,800 attended. Following the 2017 camp, the administration added around 500 names to the list of victims, leaving over 1000 ‘eligible’ persons out of it, the activist claimed.

Ambalathara termed the 2023 order of the health department setting October 2011 as the cut-off date for ‘exposure’ to the pesticide as ‘comical’ and ‘devoid of any scientific basis’. “The government says it took the decision based on the advice of an expert committee. But it hasn’t explained what the scientific basis for it is. The logic of setting a year as the cut-off date is akin to claiming that when the pesticide was aerially sprayed, it would remain only within the borders of the plantation. But that was not true. The chemical leeched into the soil, and when it rained, it percolated down into rivers and streams, polluting the entire area. As recently as four months ago, a three-year-old child with hydrocephalus in Badiadka panchayat, close to the plantation, passed away. Isn’t she evidence that it’s still happening?” he asked.

HT reached out to several members of the expert committee but they were either not available or chose not to respond.

Professor Sathees C Raghavan, one of the five researchers who worked on the endosulfan study on mice at IISc, Bengaluru, told HT, “Previous studies published from our lab using mice model suggested that endosulfan can induce DNA damage, particularly DNA strand breaks in the exposed animals. Repair of such DNA damage through microphone-mediated end joining resulted in small deletions in the repaired junction. Reproduction ability was also compromised in the female mice.”

“Our studies were conducted in mice, but the findings can have implications in humans as well. Latest results suggest that the observed effect on genomic integrity could also have an impact on the next generation in mice,” added the professor, who declined to comment on the government order as the study’s final findings were yet to be made public.

On Feb 14, Leader of the Opposition VD Satheesan, raising the issue in the budget session of the Assembly, said, “The victims of endosulfan still remain as Kerala’s grief. They continue to suffer serious health issues and complications. For a section of people who have suffered so much pain for no fault of their own, they are today on the streets demanding their rights.”

Calling for the withdrawal of the 2023 government order, he said, “Studies have shown that the effects of this deadly pesticide can travel through five generations. It is genetic in nature. So, the government order stipulating that those born after October 2011 cannot be termed as victims must be withdrawn. The poor mothers, leaving their children and kin at home, are protesting on the streets. Those ineligible should not be included in the list of victims, but at the same time, not a single eligible person should be denied justice.”

To this, Minister for Social Justice R Bindu merely repeated that the government has released guidelines to identify new victims based on the report of the expert committee.

“To include new names to the list of victims of endosulfan, the government invited applications in December 2022 to conduct a medical camp and over 20,000 applications were received. Steps are being taken to identify new victims as per the guidelines by organising a medical camp.”

But such promises have been made in previous years as well, without any result, say activists.

Sarada sums up, “The government simply does not understand the struggle that the kin of an endosulfan victim goes through. The experience cannot be spelt out in words. It has to be lived through.”

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    Vishnu Varma is Assistant Editor and reports from Kerala for the Hindustan Times. He has 10 years of experience writing for print and digital platforms and has worked at The New York Times, NDTV and The Indian Express in the past. He specialises in longform reportage at the intersections of politics, crime, social commentary and environment.

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