Several unusual diseases afflict a Kerala village. Residents blame aerial spraying of the pesticide endosulfan by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala. Sopan Joshi listens
Children of endosulfan
Most of them have been putting it down to a supernatural curse. Jatadhari, the guardian spirit (theyyam) of the area, is angry, believe several people of Padre village of Enmakaje Gram Panchayat (village council) in Kasaragod district of Kerala. Family after family has people suffering from diseases that were never noticed in the area in the past. The worst hit is an area of about four sq km in the sixth and seventh wards of the panchayat . Here, if you walk along the Kodenkiri todu (stream), you'll realise that hardly any family has escaped the curse. Several smaller streams, flowing down the surrounding Western Ghat hills, join the Kodenkiri. The Plantation Corporation of Kerala (pck), run by the state government, has its cashew plantations on the upper reaches of these hills.
Mohana Kumar Y S, a doctor who has practised medicine in the area since 1982, has been perplexed for the past 10 years. "Disorders of the central nervous system are very common among the children of the area -- cerebral palsy, retardation of mental and/or physical growth, epilepsy and congenital anomalies like stag horn limbs. There are too many cases of cancer of the liver and blood; infertility and undescended testis among men; miscarriages and hormonal irregularities among women; skin disorders; and asthma, to name a few. Psychiatric problems and suicidal tendencies have also been rising. Surprisingly, almost all the ailments are restricted to people under 25 years of age," the doctor points out. "There is no source of pollution in the area, no industries. I just couldn't fathom the cause of these diseases. But I was sure about one thing: they are all very difficult to cure," Kumar points out (see interview).
In 1996, he wrote to some big names in psychiatry in the region, drawing their attention to the mysterious nature of the problem. There was no response. In December of 1996, he wrote to the Kerala Medical Journal , soliciting researchers' attention. Again no response. If you check the February 1997 issue of the journal, you'll chance upon the appeal: "I feel the root of the problem lies in the water itself which might contain a mineral or radioactive substance which is harmful to the brain," the letter says, referring to the Kodenkiri stream. Narayan C, teacher at the Government Higher Secondary School in Vaninagar area of Padre, says, "For the past 10 years, teachers have felt that the children coming from the backside of the school, which is adjacent to the Kodenkiri stream, are below the average intelligence level. Of the 40 children who come from that area, nine are mentally retarded. It cannot be malnutrition. Even the poorest of the poor in this village have at least two square meals a day." But let's briefly leave the doctor and the teacher in their bewilderment and go to a somewhat older story.
Insecticide sprays were taken up to counter the tea mosquito, a major pest that affects yields. To begin with, it was a pesticide called endrin. Later, pck began spraying endosulfan, an organochlorine pesticide (see box: Endosulfan: a profile). Aerial spraying of endosulfan began sometime around 1976, say Padre residents. Bala Kurup, manager of pck's Kasaragod Estate, says aerial spraying began only 15 years ago (see interview). The Evidence Weekly magazine published a report on cows giving birth to calves with deformed limbs after aerial sprays of endosulfan in Enmakaje Gram Panchayat as far back December 25, 1981. The author was Srikrishna "Shree" Padre, a farmer and journalist who takes keen interest in agriculture, the environment and matters of public interest (see interview).
Protests against aerial spraying began about two decades ago. The panchayat complained to the district collector, seeking a thorough probe. Sporadic protests continued. Residents saw bees, frogs and fish disappear from the area. Farmers producing honey to supplement their income have continually opposed aerial spraying. But it took 18 years for the matter to come to a head. On December 25, 2000, pck announced that it would carry out aerial spraying the next day.
The next day some young men of Padre gathered around the temporary helipad. Two schoolteachers, Aravinda Yedamale and Nagaraj Balike, led the protest. They asked pck officials to desist from aerial spraying. Bala Kurup would have none of it. When the crowd became agitated, he called in the police. Aerial spraying was carried out. The unrest brought together several residents. The Endosulfan Spray Protest Action Committee was formed with Aravinda Yedamale as the chairperson. Shree Padre was also there. He exchanged notes with Mohana Kumar about the episode. For the first time, the doctor shared his suspicion that endosulfan had something to do with the unusual maladies he has noticed. Shree Padre saw sense in this. He encouraged Kumar to probe further. The doctor went back to his tattered, dog-eared toxicology textbooks. The scribe started searching the internet.
A day later, they were terribly excited. The health effects of endosulfan poisoning were similar to the maladies Kumar had noticed. But saying that a public sector company was indulging in mass homicide was a bit too much. The evidence Kumar and Padre had was too circumstantial. But their sense of moral outrage at the arrogance of pck officials like Bala Kurup made them persist. The doctor began to dig up medical records. Shree Padre, who keeps in touch with the civil society right across the country, began sending emails to anybody who could provide him further information. Both came up with some truly shocking findings. Almost all the symptoms noticed in the area were listed under the health effects of endosulfan. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together.
The doctor began holding public meetings to explain his findings to the villagers. Shree Padre began contacting journalists. In no time, the local press and television picked up the issue. They faced one major limitation: lack of hard scientific evidence. What ensued was a media war. pck began issuing press releases, absolving itself of any blame. But the local media has been more appreciative of their struggle.
One case that has really caught the attention of the media is that of Kittanna, who has cerebral palsy. "After the popular daily Malayala Manorama carried Kittanna's picture on page one, Bala Kurup visited his father Shinappa Shetty. He asked Shetty to give a written statement that endosulfan spraying had nothing to do with his son's illness. Shetty signed a statement saying he couldn't say whether Kittanna's disability had anything to do with the pesticide," points out Shree Padre. Both Shetty and Bala Kurup corroborate this. After obtaining the statement, the pck official went to the doctor to ask for the addresses of other patients in his list. "I refused to give him the addresses of my patients. His motive was obviously not to help them. He probably wanted more signed statements. How can a villager establish the cause of disease?" asks Kumar. The residents saw this move as a sure sign of misconduct. They mobilised themselves under the action committee and sent a complaint to the district administration.
The district collector grants permission for aerial spraying. When Down To Earth met the district collector of Kasaragod, P C John, he refused to comment. He said ministers and elected representatives were discussing the matter and it wasn't proper for him to say anything. In an interview with the television channel Star News , John had earlier said: "How to stop it [aerial spraying]? Why should I stop it? Those are the questions. Because I am giving consent as per rule. "
Till the time of this story going to press, no ministers or administrative officials had visited the village, although elections to the legislative assembly are due in three months. Cherkalam Abdullah, the local representative to the assembly, visited three victims' families on February 3, 2001. The village leaders say the administration's apathy is hardly surprising as the village is up against a public sector corporation, and hence the whole state machinery. No political party took a stand on the matter initially. The first was the Communist Party of India (cpi), a part of the leftist coalition that is in power in Kerala. The vice-president of the Enmakaje Panchayat is from the cpi , and is busy organising public opinion against the spraying. The Bharatiya Janata Party has also decided to take up the matter and join the protest. "Everything becomes a political issue given the polarisation of Kerala's polity. We don't wish to become pawns in a political game. We only want an end to this tragedy. If political parties can sense our misfortune, they are welcome join us." Having lost their faith in the administrative set-up and the political parties, Padre village has taken recourse to the court. The response has been favourable thus far.
On January 24 some residents of Padre petitioned the Court of the Munsiff of Kasaragod. Mohana Kumar filed an affidavit explaining the reasons for his concern. They obtained an ad interim stay till February 8, restricting pck from spraying of endosulfan by helicopters or any other means. The court order states that the petitioners have established a prima facie case through the documents presented. On February 8, the stay was extended till February 16.
But a woman from Kajampady area of Padre, who works in the pck plantations, informed Down To Earth that spraying was going on through manual pumps in some parts of the plantations. The village is contemplating contempt of court proceedings. But the leaders of the campaign aren't content with waiting for the court ruling. Every other day, Kumar, Shree Padre and Shripati Kajampady, a doctor who runs a nursing home in the nearby Perla village, as well as other known people hold public meetings. They brief the residents of all the latest information available. If some agitated people want to take up violent measures to put an end to the endosulfan menace, they try to calm them down. They want to ensure that all protest is non-violent and democratic.
They are trying to build support for their cause in the civil society, constantly seeking guidance and support from scientists, social leaders, environmental campaigners and journalists. They are also reaching out to other villages that have complaints similar to theirs. Periya and Pullur, two neighbouring villages 25 km south of the district headquarters of Kasaragod. Some residents here have obtained a stay order from the courts against aerial spraying by pck. Here, several families stay right inside the plantations. They don't talk readily, living as they are right under pck's nose. But there are several stories of illnesses here, especially among women and children.
This is just the first phase of Padre's struggle. "Our gyanodaya (awakening) happened only one month ago. We have get our hands on some scientific information and mobilise some social support based on that. We are yet to understand the magnitude of the problem," says Shree Padre. One walk through the village is enough to send a chill down the spine. Several families live right at the edge of the forest. Their trees, water, crops, land, their very bodies have absorbed endosulfan for more than two decades. The effect is anybody's guess till a thorough scientific probe is conducted. Till then, all that there is to go by are the observations of the residents, particularly the elders who have witnessed the change in local ecology.
"I don't see jackals in this area now," says Kajampady Subramanya Bhat, 75, whose family has lived in Padre since he doesn't know when. "In 1962-63, when the plantation started, they used to put groundnut cakes in the pits. A worker told me they were mixing pesticides in the cakes to prevent jackals from eating them. I don't see any jackals now, nor too many frogs, fish or crows. Rat snake, a farmer's friend as it checks the rodent population, has disappeared. There are no fireflies. I used to have 22 beehives. Now I have none. "
There are several similar tales of ecological destruction. Even if the village manages to stop endosulfan spraying for all times to come, the people here fear a poisoned future. They don't know what other nightmares are in store. If their problems are due to endosulfan then the issue of compensation is bound to come up. But India's record in compensating victims of environmental pollution is abysmal (see 'The red triangle', Down To Earth , January 15, 1998). There can be hardly any hope when the culprit is a government corporation. If the cause of their maladies is not the pesticide, it might be an even longer wait till some scientist somewhere decides otherwise.
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