Endosulfan: India in denial

Agriculture minister claims several states had asked him not to ban the pesticide

By Savvy Soumya Misra
Published: Sunday 15 May 2011

Sharad PawarUNION agriculture minister Sharad Pawar is rooting for endosulfan just before the fifth Conference of Parties (COP) of the Stockholm Convention meets in Geneva in April-end to decide the fate of the pesticide.

There seems to be a pattern in Pawar’s resistance to banning endosulfan. Replying to a question in the Lok Sabha on February 22, the minister misled the House and said many states did not want a ban on the pesticide.

Pawar reiterated his inability to ban at a meeting with National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) officials in Delhi on April 19. He contends there are no studies to prove that endosulfan is harmful. Eighty-one countries have either banned it or are in the process of banning it. In India, Kerala and Karnataka have banned it. But Pawar argues there is no scientific basis for actions recommended on endosulfan by the Stockholm Convention. “We fail to understand his logic,” an NHRC statement says.

Damage done
    • 4,273 victims identified in Kasaragod
    • 38 per cent of the victims suffer from neuro-behavioural, cognitive disorders
    • 15 per cent suffer from endocrine, reproductive disorders
    • RTI application filed in Dakshin Kannada reveals aerial spraying was done in 96 villages; a preliminary count suggests 6,000 victims in these villages
    *Source: Sneha Santhwanam, Kerala’s rehabilitation programme for endosulfan victims
“Countries which banned it have access to advanced scientific research. The European Union, the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand did that on the basis of scientific data and studies.” The NHRC had earlier asked the government to join the international consensus at Geneva and allow the pesticide to be listed as an Annex A chemical. This will allow complete elimination of endosulfan from the environment.

“The chemical, agriculture and health ministries have adopted a regressive stance on banning endosulfan under the influence of the Indian Chemical Council, an industry body,” says Gopal Krishna, convener of advocacy group Toxics Watch Alliance.

The demand to ban the pesticide gained strength in December last year. Since then, Pawar has claimed the government would go by the decision of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR). The medical body is awaiting results of a study by Calicut Medical College in Kerala, after which it will start a nationwide study on endosulfan. It was expected to be ready before the Indian delegation left for Geneva. But the study has not been released yet.

“Now India will go to COP with the excuse that a study is on and, therefore, it cannot take a call on the ban,” says Jayakumar C, who works with Thanal, a non-profit in Kerala. He has been a regular observer at COPs.

A study done by the Kerala government shows endosulfan leads to high abortion rates, infertility, intra-uterine deaths, besides kidney, liver and neurobehavioural disorders. Among children, congenital heart disease, cerebral palsy and skeletal abnormalities were found common. Schoolgirls were diagnosed with high levels of estrogen, which, in the long run, leads to cervical and breast cancers. Endosulfan residue was found in blood samples of victims in Kasaragod district of Kerala.

Pawar’s lies

The agriculture minister had told Parliament that many states did not want a ban on endosulfan. But no state ever wrote to him requesting not to ban the pesticide. Responding to a Right to Information (RTI) application, the ministry said it had received six letters. But, none were from state governments.

Four of the letters were sourced from Gujarat, two from farmers. The third was by Saurashtra Chamber of Commerce and Industry while the fourth was from Shri Sudarshan Vishav Krishi Kendra Trust, a non-profit in Amreli, Gujarat.

Gujarat has vested interest in opposing the ban as two of the three big endosulfan manufacturers—Excel Crop Care Limited and Coromandel International Limited—are based in the state.

The fifth letter came from the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association. Its secretary general P Chengal Reddy has worked closely with Monsanto. The last letter was written by Jyotsana P Kapadia, who was portrayed by the pesticide lobby as “the scientist who revealed the fraud done by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH)”. Its study had indicted endosulfan. Kapadia is DGM, Excel Crop Care Limited.

In March, Gujarat released a study done by the state health and family welfare department which stated exposure to endosulfan has no impact on people’s health. “The report is absurd. It gave a clean chit to endosulfan by citing methodological errors in the NIOH study. It ignored scientific evidence and literature,” says Mohammed Asheel, a medical doctor, who is also assistant nodal officer of Sneha Santhwanam, a state rehabilitation programme for endosulfan victims in Kerala.

The Gujarat endosulfan report refers to a study done by Samvardhan Trust, a non-profit based in Bhavnagar. The trust had evaluated residues of the pesticide in blood samples of farmers in two villages of Rajkot. It had assigned the job to International Institute of Biotechnology and Toxicology (IIBAT) in Tamil Nadu.

In 2001, IIBAT—called FIPPAT earlier—was commissioned by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala to study the impact of endosulfan in Kasaragod. It found no residue of the pesticide in any blood sample, cow’s milk or water. But an investigation by Down To Earth in 2004 revealed the institute had detected endosulfan residue in human blood samples, but did not disclose it in the final report.

“I suspect the report is ghost written by officials of the Pesticide Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India (PMFAI) or the Indian Chemical Council. It makes all the standard arguments and uses language identical to the industry releases.

It says endosulfan is ‘soft’ on pollinators; ‘vested interests’ are behind the call to ban endosulfan; and banning endosulfan is EU plot to increase sale of patented insecticides. Some parts are taken verbatim from the remarks of the PMFAI president,” writes Karl Tupper, senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network-North America, in an e-mail circulated within the organisation.

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