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Hope in Kerala's poison fields

February 12, 2013 08:44 IST

After suffering from severe exposure to endosulfan for decades, the villagers of Kasargod are finally moving on. But the scars remain, T E Narasimhan finds out.

Thirty-five years after the first poisonous showers of the deadly pesticide, endosulfan, fell on them, the people of Kasargod in Kerala are slowly beginning to put their life back together.

For years, residents of 22 villages of Kasargod coped with death and diseases due to excessive endosulfan exposure -- classified as a highly-toxic pesticide and banned by over 80 countries, including the European Union and the United States.

For generations, their children were born with twisted limbs and the youth would display sudden suicidal tendencies. While the population is still dealing with cancer, neurological and respiratory disorders, infertility and several kinds of congenital anomalies, change is in the air.

You can see it at the Government Higher Secondary School at Padre in Vanninagar, which comes under Enmakaje panchayat (Kasargod). Till 1976, the school used to record distinctions in the Class 10th exams. In 1976, for the first time, only 79 per cent of the students passed the 10th class exam. By 1990, their number had plunged to 20 per cent. But after the 2000 ban on spraying endosulfan, the results slowly started improving. In 2005, 90 per cent of the students passed. And in the last academic year, 99 per cent of them cleared the exam.

In the last few years, eight special schools have also come up in the villages. Catering to mentally-challenged children and adults, they are called Eight Buds. At one such school in Perur, 25-year-old P Deepa sits in a small room with her students, aged between three and 38. “It is not out of compulsion that we are taking care of them. We have seen their suffering,” says Deepa who has done a course -- BEd Special Education in Mental Retardation -- which equips her to understand the needs of her students. But, they could do with better infrastructure. As of now, Deepa and her team of five work with 35 students out of a small room.

While the Centre is yet to offer financial assistance, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, or NABARD, has sanctioned Rs 190 crore for infrastructure like drinking water projects, district and government hospitals, primary healthcare centres, schools and anganwadis. “Over 230 projects will be taken up,” says P P Syamala Devi, Kasargod’s district panchayat president.

“When we started out, nobody was ready to accept that endosulfan was the cause of the villagers’ condition,” says Mohan Kumar, a doctor from this area who has taken upon himself to treat the villagers. “Political parties, which are now helping us, used to kick us out of their offices,” he recalls. The years of apolitical struggle, he says, are finally yielding some result.

The birds and animals, which had disappeared from the area, too have started coming back. The number and intensity of diseases are also down, says Kumar.


But despite these signs of improvement, several villagers are still scared of having babies. What if they are born with deformities, like the children before them, they fear. Looking at his 23-year-old daughter crawling towards him, Iftikaar says, “These are the killing fields of Kerala -- probably the only place in the world where women refuse to give birth.”

Iftikaar is a resident of Swarga, one of the 22 villages affected by endosulfan poisoning. For nearly 25 years, villages like Swarga, Padre, Muliyar and Bellur received 60 to 70 showers of endosulfan -- no other region in the world has endured an endosulfan exposure of this magnitude.

A narrow road, off the highway which links Kerala with Karnataka, leads to Swarga through lush plantations. This is the last village of Kerala. The hamlet which has barely 100 houses is located around 30 km from Kasargod town and is rich in cashew, areca nut, coconut and rubber plantations. The locals speak mostly Malayalam and Kannada (the official language of the bordering Karnataka). The people here have forgotten how their village got its name -- Swarga, which means ‘heaven’, a bitter irony.

But the few remaining elderly men and women do remember the first warning signs. The initial signal came from the honeybees which vanished from the area around 1977-78. Then the birds disappeared. Then the fish in the ponds started dying and so did the cattle. As they too started falling ill, the residents thought that they had perhaps invited the wrath of the local deity, Jatadhari (or theyyam). “They thought that the deity was perhaps not happy with their offerings,” says Kumar. Every day, the doctor goes in his Alto to three villages to meet the patients.

Among them is 41-year-old Yusuf, who has cancer. His daughter is physically-challenged. Then there is 38-year-old Muafika, who remembers taking her daughter, then two, to a government hospital after she complained of vomiting and fever. That was 18 years ago. Initially, the medicine seemed to work, but within a month the child lost her ability to walk. Stories such as these abound in these villages.

The district, according to Kerala government’s official estimates, has 4,273 endosulfan victims of which 525 are bed-ridden.

* * *

It was in 1976 when the planes carrying endosulfan were first spotted over the vast cashew fields of Kasargod. Swooping down on the fields, they sprayed the pesticide over 5,000 acres of rich cashew cultivation across 22 villages. The village children were thrilled. It wasn’t everyday that such flying machines came to their part of the world. They ran after them, waving and laughing.

From then on, the government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala would send the planes thrice a year to aerially spray endosulfan over the area. The villagers didn’t realise then that along with the excitement they brought, the planes also carried death and diseases.

A doctor-cum-pharmacist, Kumar was among the first to bring the issue to light. Along with him was his farmer-cum-journalist friend, Shree Padre, whose article in 1979 -- titled ‘Life cheaper than cashew’ -- sowed the seeds for a public outcry.

The rules listed in the collector’s orders say that people should not be allowed inside the plantation for 15 days after endosulfan has been sprayed, explains Kumar. The pesticide is not to be sprayed from 10 am to 5 pm or from a height of more than 10 feet. Wind velocity has to be taken into account and all the water bodies have to be covered -- in impossibility in the villages where ponds were the key source of water, says Kumar.

Among the other crusaders is 64-year-old Leela Amma, who first launched legal battle against endosulfan armed with a notice from the corporation that said the water and cashews grown in the area were not fit for consumption. “Despite knowing that it was dangerous, they went ahead and used endosulfan,” says Amma who was working with Kerala’s agriculture department. The Kerala government eventually banned endosulfan.

Padre too had realised that something was wrong when he visited his friend, Somaje Mahalinga Bhat, at his farm. All four calves born to Bhat’s cattle had deformed limbs. Bhat’s farm adjoined the cashew plantation of the Plantation Corporation of Kerala. His cows used to drink water from a nearby tank and graze in the hills. Endosulfan was sprayed here. Years later, Bhat died of cancer.

Officials of Plantation Corporation of Kerala could not be contacted despite repeated attempts. A representative from the agriculture department, meanwhile, said lack of nutrition was the reason for the villager’s condition. But Kumar counters that no case of anaemia was even reported in the villagers before the endosulfan was sprayed. So, the villagers were clearly not undernourished, he says.

“We use to spend a lot on printing brochures and pamphlets to spread awareness,” says Kumar. But it was Amma who took on the Plantation Corporation. Amma had experienced it all. She felt something was amiss when her brother, who was overseeing the construction of her house on the outskirts of the cashew plantation in Periye village in 1992, started falling ill. He would have stomach ache, pain in the eyes and lost his appetite.

Aerial spraying was in full swing when Amma shifted to her new house on April 25, 1993. She was horrified to see helicopters circling over her home and colonies, showering the pesticide on sources of drinking, cattle, and even schoolchildren.

“Being an agriculture assistant in the agriculture department, I was aware of the dangers of endosulfan, but was shocked to see the devastation in my own backyard. After my brother died in 1993, I was determined that my pregnant daughter must not give birth to a baby afflicted with deformities resulting from chemical poisoning,” says Amma. “When my repeated petitions, from 1994 to 1997, to the chief minister, agriculture minister, the Plantation Corporation in Kottayam and the district collector, seeking suspension of the aerial spraying, were not considered, I moved the court in October 1998 and obtained a stay the next month.”

The Plantation Corporation filed an appeal, and lost. The corporation then moved the higher court to get the stay vacated. “When the pesticide manufacturers came out with denials and lobbying, people started to organise themselves to address the issue. In 2000, we started an agitation under the banner of Endosulfan Spray Protest Action Committee which resulted in the suspension of the spray in December 2000,” says Amma.

“After a long court battle, supported by THANAL, one of the most active environmental organisations, and the SEEK organisation in Payyannur, I won a permanent court ban on endosulfan spraying on October 18, 2001,” she says. But tragedy struck that very day, when a truck rammed into her autorickshaw. Comatose for three months, Amma is unable to walk properly, but her spirit is not lost. “When I see the victims, some of whom are unable to chew their food, I hope this campaign will finally get them the right medical and financial help they deserve,” she says. And they will be rehabilitated, adds Kumar.

(Names of the villagers have been changed on request)

T E Narasimhan