Kerala’s pesticide puzzle

In 2000,endosulfan,a controversial pesticide,was banned in Kerala after it was linked to congenital and infertility problems in Kasargod.

Written by Shaju Philip | Published: January 30, 2011 11:00 pm

Twice every year,between 1981 and 2000,a helicopter would whirr around the hills of the Western Ghats in Kasargod,a district in north Kerala bordering Karnataka,spraying endosulfan over the cashew plantations on the upper reaches. Children would rush out to take a look at the helicopter and the white spray would settle like mist on their heads and on leaves and shimmer in the sunlight. But that’s also when people associated the mist with something deadly—the unusually high number of people with infertility and congenital problems in 11 panchayats in the district.

In 2000,after a sustained anti-endosulfan campaign,the state government banned the pesticide. But the issue stayed alive and images of the ‘pesticide victims’ from Kasargod villages filled the public debate in the state. Recently,Union Minister of State for Agriculture and the Congress’s MP from Kochi,K V Thomas,reignited that debate when he said there was no proof to hold the pesticide guilty for the health hazards in Kasargod. Thomas’s comment came soon after India opposed a global ban on endosulfan at the sixth meeting of the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee to the Stockholm Convention. But the issue is an emotive one in Kerala and Thomas quickly changed his stand to go with the prevailing mood.

Last week,the Indian Council for Medical Research commissioned a study to look into the extent of the damage the aerial spraying of endosulfan over 4,696 hectares of cashew plantation,owned by the state-run Plantation Corporation Kerala Limited,had done to the surrounding villages.

While the problem is for real,there are some unanswered questions,drowned in the shrillness of the anti- and pro-endosulfan debate and the contradicting findings of the dozen-odd committees set up over the years to study the issue. Like,has there been a study that aims to get to the bottom of the problem,without taking sides? Who is an ‘endosulfan victim’ in Kasargod? Has there been any study so far that conclusively links the pesticide to the congenital problems in this area?

According to Dr K M Sreekumar of the College of Agriculture in Kasargod,“There are a lot of missing links between the reported health problems and endosulfan. Although the pesticide was sprayed across the cashew estate,only some areas have reported an unusually high number of diseases. All the expert committees had suggested the need for a comprehensive,multi-disciplinary epidemiological and health study in the plantations to bring out the truth,’’ says Sreekumar.

“A major challenge to prove a cause-and-effect relation between endosulfan and the reported health hazards is the absence of evidence that this pesticide would cause a particular disease. Besides,there aren’t enough studies done on endosulfan’s effects on health,’’ says Dr K P Aravindan,pathology professor at the Kozhikode Medical College.

NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP

Despite the high-decibel campaigning for the cause of the affected people,neither the government nor the agitators have a grip on the magnitude of the tragedy. Revenue department documents say 178 people have died of endosulfan-related illnesses. The health department has just done a fresh survey aimed at identifying endosulfan victims in Kasargod.

According to district medical officer Jose D’Cruz,the exact number of endosulfan victims is yet to be known. “In the recent survey,our department held 17 camps in 11 panchayats. Of the 15,698 patients who attended these camps,we identified 3,435 patients as suspected endosulfan victims,’’ says D’Cruz.

But almost any death here gets linked to endosulfan. There is also a rush to get into the list of the affected as the state government gives free medical care,a monthly aid of

Rs 1,000 and rice at Rs 2 a kg to the victims—a scheme the LDF government started in 2006. As of now,535 people are eligible for this aid. Last month,protesters,angry with officials who wanted to weed out the ineligible,disrupted the health survey at many places.

There is no mechanism to verify if a patient is a pesticide victim or not. Jagadeesh,40,from a village under the Enmakaje panchayat,is an endosulfan victim in government records—diagnosed with mental retardation and epilepsy. He was born in 1970,at least 10 years before the first spraying of endosulfan and even before the trial run began in 1977-78. That he wasn’t enrolled in primary school at the age of six indicates his congenital problems preceded the spraying. His four younger siblings,born in the days of the spraying,are all married with children who are in good health. Jagadeesh was first taken for treatment only 15 years ago,when the endosulfan issue erupted.

In 2003,a state government-appointed medical team conducted a survey comparing areas where endolsulfan had been sprayed and areas untouched by the pesticide. Eighty thousand people each from the two areas were part of the survey. It found that cases of mental retardation,congenital deformities and infertility were high in the sprayed areas as compared to the non-sprayed areas,but only relatively. The numbers indicate that the health problems are unusually high in the non-sprayed areas too. Surprisingly,the non-sprayed areas were found worse than the sprayed areas when it came to multiple abortions and physical disabilities. (see box above)

Another aspect that needs attention is why,among the sprayed areas,there are some places that are more affected than others. For instance,while Enmakaje is the worst-hit among the 11 panchayats,areas very close to the sprayed zones,for example,Veeramoola and Asharimoola settlements near Muliyar panchayat,have no reported case of endosulfan-linked problems. That’s surprising since these two settlements are in the lap of the hills where cashew trees once grew. Villagers say the only trouble they had was on the day of spraying when the fish in open wells and ponds perished.

Thirty-five km away from Muliyar is Enmakaje,the face of the tragedy. In 2001,the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishath (KSSP),a pro-Left science movement,conducted a study in seven panchayats—Cheemeni,Panathur,Rajapuram,Periya,Kottor,Muliyar and Enmakaje. The survey found that at Enmakaje,the consanguinity rate (couples who are related) per thousand was 7.4 while the same for the other six panchayats together was 6.3. There were 18.6 childless couples for every 1,000 couples at Enmakaje,while the figure was 6.6 for the other six panchayats put together. So what makes Enmakaje worse off than the other affected areas? No study has established this.

OTHER REASONS?

Enmakaje has a sizable presence of backward communities,especially Marathi Naiks. The 2003 health department survey revealed that liquor and tobacco consumption was high in Enmakaje.

Narasimha Poojari,a CPI(M) leader at Vaninagar in Enmakaje,says diseases such as cancer and psoriasis have been prevalent in the region,even before the spraying of endosulfan began in 1981. “Even school children are addicted to tobacco and cheap liquor from Karnataka. Oral cancer has always been prevalent in the region. Years of endosulfan rain only made things worse,’’ says Poojari.

Dr Y S Mohan Kumar,a doctor at Vaninagar since the early 80s,was one of the first to campaign against the use of endosulfan in the cashew estates after he detected a high number of people with deformities in the region. But it was possible,he thought,for the reasons to lie elsewhere. In 1997,Dr Kumar wrote in the Kerala Medical Journal of the Indian Medical Association,“I feel the root cause of the problem lies in the water itself which may contain a mineral or radioactive substance which is harmful to the brain.’’ He was referring to the waters of the Swarga stream that flowed through Enmakaje.

This was a reasoning that was supported by the state health department team in 2003—they found a bunching of cases of mental retardation,epilepsy,infertility and cancer among people living on the banks of the stream. That was an angle that was never probed.

“There may be genuine cases and not-so-genuine ones. Circumstantial evidences hold endosulfan responsible for the maladies. We cannot say whether the 10-year-long ban has helped improve the health of the villagers,’’ says Dr Kumar,who continues to be in the forefront of the agitation.

In Kasargod,the high number of mentally and physically-challenged persons is not confined to the endosulfan-hit regions. A recent survey,conducted as part of the Centre’s Nirmaya Project,revealed that there were 146 mentally-challenged people in Mogral Puthur village panchayat,48 km from Enmakaje. Here,there are families who have more than one challenged child.

“Even now,many children are born with congenital deformities in the region. Consanguinity is prevalent among Muslims and backward Hindus of the coastal belt of the district. That could be a possible reason,” says C Ramakrishnan,a resource person with the Integrated Education for Disabled Secondary Stage Project.

Former employees of PCKL disagree that endosulfan is responsible for Kasargod’s health worries. Bala Kurup,a former PCKL manager,says workers at the estate never had health problems linked to endosulfan. In fact,none of the committees looked into the health status of the workers who once worked in the cashew estates.

K Gangadharan,56,started working at the PCKL estate when he was 18. “During the days of aerial spraying,I was part of the team that mixed the pesticide. We were ignorant and didn’t wear any protective gloves. But we never developed any health problems,’’ says Gangadharan,now a supervisor at the estate.

About 345 km away,in central Kerala’s Palakkad district is Thenkara village. Here too,PCKL had aerially sprayed endosulfan over its 505 hectares of cashew plantation,starting from the mid-eighties till 2000. Strangely,no case of chronic ailment was ever reported here.

Is there then more to Kerala’s endosulfan story that needs to be probed?

Study reports on endosulfan

Centre for Science and Environment,Delhi,analysed biological and environmental samples for endosulfan residue in February 2001,a month after the last aerial spray. High levels of the pesticide were found in human blood,human milk,vegetables,spices,cashew leaves and cashew.

The Frederick Institute of Plant Protection and Toxicology in Tamil Nadu looked for pesticide residue in some samples from Padre,near the estates,in February 2001. Survey did not show elevated endosulfan levels in samples of blood,cows’ milk and water,but traces were detected in soil and leaf.

National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) study in September 2001 said endosulfan residues were detected above the permitted level in blood samples of school children in exposed area. Low sexual maturity rate detected. Higher prevalence of goiter,congenital deformities and fast history of jaundice in exposed group.

The Kerala Agriculture University conducted a probe into the environmental effects of spraying. The University reported that though nervous system-related problems are present in some families,there was no evidence to confirm the involvement of endosulfan. It recommended a detailed multi-disciplinary study.

A state health department probe in 2003 reported health problems in three panchayats adjacent to the plantations. No evidence to implicate or exonerate endosulfan as the causative factor.

The Union Agricultural Ministry’s expert committee reported there was no link to establish endosulfan-health link. However,the committee recommended against the use of the pesticide in Kerala.

The Kerala State Council for Science and Technology is now doing a split analysis of water and soil in the affected region for preparing a benchmark protocol for an environmental monitoring and future studies.

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