Toxic tales from God's own country

As deformity cases swell in Kerala's Kasaragod district, the silent screams of the victims fall on the deaf ears of the government

By Surendranath C
Published: Wednesday 15 August 2001

Toxic tales from God's own country

Rachel Carson couldn’t have been more accurate. A disturbing silence is the overarching presence in lands doused with chemical pesticides. Not just Padre — a village in Kerala’s Kasaragod district where the media has reported extensively on the deformity cases — but several new villages in the district are now in the grip of a veritable Silent Spring. The cases — which include childhood blindness, physical retardation and cancer — have been linked to exposure to endosulfan, an insecticide that has been banned in many countries. Since mid-1970s, the state-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala ( PCK ) has been undertaking aerial spraying of the pesticide in over 4,715 hectares spread over the Kasaragod, Rajapuram and Cheemeni plantations ( Read Children of endosulfan, Down To Earth, February 28, 2001) A survey team in Bellur recently found several abnormalities in a single ward (the sixth) in the panchayat — 11 cases of blindness among children, six recent cancer-deaths, six persons with physical/mental growth retardation and several cases of acute skin diseases in over 180 households. This ward is surrounded on three sides by the cashew plantations over which PCK has been spraying endosulfan thrice a year for over two decades. “Physical handicaps and stunted growth in children have been reported from six out of 10 wards in the panchayat surveyed by local college students,” says Madhava Shetty, vice president of the panchayat .

For example, the youngest son of Hassan in the fifth ward is suffering from hydrocephalus (unusual enlargement of the head). He is taking medicines administered by a Hakkim . Compelled by belief and also because of fears instilled by the media reports from neighbouring Bovikkana, the child’s mother has threatened to commit suicide if any one took a picture of the ill-fated boy.

PCK’s stranglehold

It is the fear of the PCK and the spread of its local tentacles that restrain most people, especially the families of the plantation workers, from speaking out their anguish. But for many others it is the fear of being branded for life. The peculiar manifestations and the causes of the diseases observed in these villages remain strange to the people and puzzling even to the doctors. Media glare has brought some sympathy, but hardly any succor to the victims. Being visible also means being stamped for the rest of their lives. Not just individuals or their families, but even whole villages are made to bear the stigma. So they would rather be silent than speak out.

“In Padre we have stopped adding up the numbers of the patients suffering from various diseases that afflict the village,” say farmer-journalist Shree Padre and doctor Mohanakumar Y, who have played a major role in exposing the issue. “I have taken at least six media teams to visit the victims of my village Bovikkana,” says K B Mohammed, member of Muliyar Grama Panchayat and president of the Punchiri Arts and Sports Club. The club had started the campaign against endosulfan before the Padre exposé, having taken the cue from protests in neighbouring Periya. The Punchiri club also conducted a household health survey covering 156 people in 40 houses closest to the plantation. It found 39 people sick in one way or other in the 40 houses. Most cases were of mental retardation and retardation coupled with physical handicap and gynecological problems.

But there are several panchayats in the district where neither the media nor the local groups have mobilised much information on the environmental and human damages of endosulfan spraying. For instance, in Panathadi panchayat in Hosdurg taluk where PCK has estates in Panathur and Rajapuram, endosulfan was sprayed lavishly last year. “The spraying went on from early morning till noon. They had used two helicopters that came very close over our houses. It was as if they were in a mad rush to finish off the stocks,” says a local resident.

The effects of endosulfan have taken a toll on the villagers. Chedikund John (50) and his elder brother Maththayi (60) are among the many cancer victims of this area. Another resident, Karuplackal Jose, is too scared to talk. His family has been offered a job in the plantation in compensation for the death of his wife P C Annama (39) who died of cancer on July 7, 1999 while in PCK ’s service.

“There are more than 50 women from the area who are employed by the PCK as field workers.

Almost all of them have one disease or more, though they wouldn’t tell you,” says K M Yeshoda, a PCK worker herself. Yeshoda has 20 years of service remaining, but is on a prolonged medical leave. Once while mixing the spray, a few drops of the chemical had splashed into her eyes. She suffers from difficulty in walking and working, blurred vision and constant back pain.

In her neighbourhood, 18-year-old Soyal died of blood cancer on May 14, 1999. K C Mathew of Rajapuram, who had tried in vain to get a court order staying the aerial spraying of endosulfan, says at least 10 persons have died of cancer in the last 3-4 years in the area.

Past struggles

The people were not silent spectators in the past. Those of the Kayyur-Cheemeni Panchayat had protested in 1978 that PCK was not following safety regulations while spraying the chemicals. An effort was also made in 1991 to force PCK to abide by the rules of spraying and generate awareness among the people on safety precautions, says K Balakrishnan, Kasaragod district president of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad ( KSSP ).

But even nearly two decades later, KSSP found that the PCK still flouted all the precautionary norms when it sprayed endosulfan.

Out of 757 households within 200 metres of the plantations surveyed by the KSSP team, 411 families (54 per cent) reported that they did not even get prior notice of the spraying.

Nearly 73 per cent of the people said the sprayings usually went on from morning till noon, against the norm that it should be restricted to dawn and dusk. Nearly 450 people (59 per cent) in the 100-metre radius of the plantations said that the PCK did not provide effective covers for the waterbodies

“In areas such as Padre where more people used open, running sources of water rather than dug wells, this lapse could have had grave significance,” says Balakrishnan. A majority of the people also reported noticeable decline in biodiversity. Death of snakes, frogs, birds and butterflies were common in areas neighbouring the plantations.

Based on the opinion survey, KSSP feels that the environmental damages of aerial spraying of endosulfan could be quite grave and spread over the district. Based on the survey results, the parishad has demanded that the aerial spraying should be stopped immediately. “Considering the undulating topography, high population density and the presence of a large number of open waterbodies in Kerala, it is neither feasible nor desirable to carry out aerial spraying of agricultural chemicals in the state,” says the KSSP .

However, regarding the magnitude of the damage to human health in areas other than Padre, KSSP remains skeptical of the views of the media and the other environmental groups. “A strange fact we found was that the workers of the PCK didn’t report large-scale health disorders,”

Balakrishnan said. The case of Periya

Other opinion surveys, however, unfold a more grave picture. In October-December 1999, almost two years before the Padre exposé, members of Thiruvananthapuram-based Thanal Conservation Action and Information Network had elicited data on health status of the Periya village, where PCK had a division of its Kasaragod estate. The symptoms of the malady they found were alarming.

While all the people surveyed were found to be generally weak, their active working hours were getting reduced to practically two hours a day — women and children were found to be the worst affected. A large number of women reported gynecological problems, including writhing pain, periods repeated twice or even thrice a month, absence of periods during certain months of the year and several cases of removal of uterus. Many girls in Periya were found to be taking hormone treatment to correct the imbalance in the menstrual cycles. Women in their 30s often looked as if they were 50 years old.

In contrast, men appeared under-grown by 10-15 years. Infertility was also high among men. Local doctors confirmed to the survey team of having treated breast formations in men. A few men in the village were found to have lost their voice and some were diagnosed with throat cancer. This included a 25-year-old plantation worker. Recurrent swelling of the body, stomach pain, skin diseases ranging from frequent itches to chronic psoriasis and eczema, pain in the throat and blurring of vision were symptoms frequently reported by men in Periya in the 1999 survey.

The protest against aerial spraying and endosulfan began in 1994 with people submitting a memorandum to the district collector, detailing their pathetic experience. But the district administration proved ineffective in checking the PCK and the varied interests behind its operations. After a prolonged struggle and having won temporary relief through the intervention of the court, which stayed aerial spraying, the people of Periya are now silently awaiting the outcome of the legal battle. In its interim order staying the aerial spraying, the Kasaragod Munsiff court noted that the stand taken by the respondent was that of a heartless industrialist. “They say that the use of the insecticide would bring more profit and foreign exchange. But it cannot be at the cost of human lives. Certainly we have the power to destroy nature, but the question is whether we have the wisdom to preserve it.”

Neither the ongoing legal battle nor the swell in media reports resulting in popular resentment against aerial spraying of endosulfan has made the various arms of the government move. Those who haven’t so far bothered to assess the ground reality include the district collector and the health department. The DMO -in-charge once visited Padre for just half an hour. Cherkalam Abdulla, the minister for local self-government and the panchayats, who hails from the district, had talked of the issue during his recent election campaigns. “We hope Abdulla would do something to stop this spraying of poison and also bring medical aid to the victims,” says Shree Padre.

“Despite the groundswell of protest, the department of agriculture is still pushing endosulfan at subsidised rates through the panchayats ,” says a villager. “There are bigger interests behind the chemicals and they have penetrated deep into the system.”

The KAU Study

After the Padre exposé, a team of scientist from Kerala Agriculture University ( KAU ) visited a few villages in Kasaragod, including Padre, and interviewed 10 “randomly selected” families. The team found “some families” with grown-ups and children with physical abnormalities and mental disorders, but “no conclusive evidence for implicating endosulfan in the malady,” according to the Thought Paper signed by Samuel Mathew, toxicologist, and Abdul Salam, head, Cashew Research Station, Madakkathara, KAU .

The KAU scientists also conducted a residue analysis on samples drawn from the same area in February, 2001, two months after the spraying. While justifying the delayed collection of samples, the scientists talked about the lack of funds. But in the Thought Paper the argument is apparently “scientific”: “Will the residue levels in the environmental components analysed immediately after the application (of endosulfan) give an idea about the exposure levels on a long term basis?” As expected, the KAU analysis found no endosulfan residue in any of the five samples of drinking water. Cashew leaves analysed contained only low levels — 0.507 to 0.858 parts per million (ppm) of residue. “Alpha isomer residues were low, indicating metabolic dissipation of the residues from the leaf.” No residues were also detected in the samples of pepper and betel leaves analysed. According to KAU , endosulfan residues in the soil samples ranged from 0.055 to 3.815 ppm.

“Since the reported half life of endosulfan in soil was 50 days and endosulfan residues were immobile in soil,” KAU scientists concluded that the “above level of soil contamination is not likely to be the cause of the health hazards reported.” The KAU scientists also asserted that they wouldn’t subscribe to the view that endosulfan caused CNS related health problems. Hence they proposed more detailed studies by medical, agricultural, veterinary science and earth science experts.

But tests conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment reveal a different picture altogether. Maximum residue limits for the pesticide endosulfan in soil, water, vegetables and even blood had breached several times over. “Of course, detailed, interdisciplinary studies may be required to elicit all data regarding the impact of the chemical on human health and environment. But why don’t they admit that till then the benefit of doubt should be given to the people who are suffering,” asks Sripathy Kajampady of Perla. “Every genuine scientist should now know that there is something called a precautionary principle in science.”

That the principle by which the system is run is expediency and not precaution is made clear by the plight of the expert commission set up by the Kerala government to probe the issue. The order for setting up the commission was dated February 23, 2001, and the direction to the commission was to submit the report within three months. Five months hence, the terms of reference of the commission are yet to be framed. Chairperson of the commission A Achuthan of Kozhikode is reported to have written to the government in April, seeking the terms of reference. But there has been no response from the state.

“It’s a stalemate that continues,” says Shree Padre. “If you ask me what has happened since last December, I would say that, on the solution side, next to nothing; on projecting the gravity of the situation, the reports so far have touched only the tip of the iceberg.”

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