The northern border of God’s own country—Kerala has become a devil’s playground with sprinklers and aircraft spewing slow fuse painful death amongst Kasargod district natives.
The death spit that has transmogrified the green ribbons of Kerala into killing fields is the most-banned pesticide in the world—Endosulfan. Ironically, though banned by the state government of Kerala in 2005, following protests, the Union government continues with its deranged experiment, keeping its thumb on the fast-forward button. Quoting orchestrated, quarter-baked callous and indifferent researchers, the Union government has once again appointed a committee into the matter. The result: Coffers of manufacturers continue to over flow and so do the numbers of coffins in the districrt.
For over a decade, Kasargod has been witnessing a silent genocide through the spraying of Endosulfan on its fields. Though a popular pesticide amongst farmers growing cashew crops, the toxicity of the chemical leads not just in a slow painful fatality and deformation amongst adults, but the exposure attacks neo-natal infants by mutating the growth pattern.
Countless researches, surveys and plethora of reports have indexed the adverse effect of the usage of Endosulfan—“children born with stag-horn limbs, scale-like skin, protruding tongues, eye deformities, extra fingers and toes, cleft palates, club feet and harelips; of those suffering from hydrocephalus (progressive enlargement of the head, convulsion and mental disability), dermatitis, renal diseases, respiratory disorders, cognitive and emotional deterioration, memory loss, impairment of visual-motor coordination, blindness, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and infertility; of young girls and boys who have undergone multiple surgery and artificial limb modification; of young mothers who have opted for repeated abortions instead of giving birth to headless/limbless/deformed children; of young men and women who look like children; and, of children who look like stunted grandparents.”
However, despite such tragic outcome, the Indian government has refused to concede to the wails and cries of people. Ironically, even though the neighbouring countries, looked down upon as less advanced, have banned the usage of Endosulfan long, long time back, India continues to be the world’s largest consumer, thanks to the Union government’s patronage to the manufacturing companies.
A random epidemiological survey carried out last month jointly by the state government’s Health and Agriculture Department, revealed that 2,210 victims of Endosulfan poisoning in Kasargod, with nearly 200 deaths due to cancer in last eight years.
Kerala Agriculture Minister M Ratnakaran conceding the deathly effects, pleads helplessness in the face of smugglers who carry out a thriving clandestine intra-state trade of Endosulfan. “The Kerala government banned its usage in 2005, but then it is readily available in the neighbouring states,” he stated to newspersons.
Prof MA Rehman, an anti-Endosulfan activist, talking to Uday India, from Kasargod shrugs away the dubious stance of Kerala politicians. Pointing out that after the October 15th meeting in Stockholm of Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee, wherein scores of countries acquiesced to Endosulfan ban demand, Union Minister for Agriculture KV Thomas (hailing from Kerala) had the temerity to root for the pesticide usage. Of course, Thomas was just parroting the Indian stand at Stockholm.
But then Thomas is not alone in this dubious dance. According to Rehman, Kerala government is also playing a dubious game in the entire issue. “Since it is well documented that hundreds of people have died due to Endosulfan exposure and thousands are suffering with slow fulminating serious latent ailments but Kerala government has come out with token payment for victims, terming it as ‘relief rehabilitation package,’.”
“First of all the very payment is so less that it is not worth mentioning and then this verbal jugglery, the term “compensation, is not used because that will drill the nail straight into government lies”. Endosulfan Action Committee (EAC,) a conglomeration of organisations working for the relief and rehabilitation of the affected people, in its study state that there are at least “8,000 to 9,000 victims still suffering the debilitating effects of the aerial spraying of Endosulfan done mainly in the three cashew plantations (total area 4,715 hectares) owned by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) until 2002, when a ban was first imposed by the Kerala High Court”.
Today in Kasargod district, PCK is looked down upon as a cannibal beast out to suck the blood of villagers. Though the State Agriculture Department started cashew trees in 1963 in the region, it was in 1978 that PCK started taking over the plantations.
In 1980s, PCK started its death spray thrice a year, in the cashew plantation hills. For the state-run company it was cost-effective annihilation of tea mosquito bug which causes yield losses in cashew plantations—a major forex churner for the government.
And since then Kasargod villagers who initially watched the jaw-dropping spectacle of chemical spraying by the helicopters never realised the slow-death that was enveloping their skin, water ways, food and even fuel wood.
NITROGEN VS FOOD SECURITY
The government’s latest decision to spend Rs 350 crore to assess the degradation of environment due to improper use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and to educate farmers in at least 100 districts vulnerable to climate-change, indicates the pressure mounted by environmentalists from all over the world.
This pressure to cut down on use of reactive nitrogen in agriculture could further mount even as India is yet to fully address the ever threatening food security situation. The UPA government has committed itself to getting a Food Security Bill enacted by the Parliament. Once this bill is enacted then government will not just be obliged but legally bound to provide food to the poor of the country. But it would require a substantial increase in country’s agricultural production, about 65 million tonnes, Food and Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar had said during a conference in Delhi early this month.
The 65 million tonnes requirement of foodgrains is based on the recommendation of the Sonia Gandhi headed National Advisory Council (NAC) which was subsequently announced by Pratibha Patil. She had announced that government will provide 25 kg of rice or wheat a month to poor at Rs 3 per kg. The requirement of foodgrains is higher than the government’s total procurement of 50-56 million tonnes in last two years, Pawar had pointed out while adding that “if we have to procure 65 million tonnes from the open market, we have to see that production has been substantially increased”.
Precisely here is the catch. More food production implies greater use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Nitrogen is an inert gas but in its reactive form (mainly used in fertilizers) has been mainly responsible for multiplying food-grain productivity the world over during the last 40 years. India’s green revolution could also not have been possible without massive doze of nitrogen-based fertilizer inputs. In fact, out of all fertilizers used in the country, over 70 per cent are nitrogen based. And we are world’s second largest user of chemical fertilizers.
But usage of reactive nitrogen has also had serious implications on soil fertility, bio-diversity, ozone layer and climate change primarily because nature has limited capacity to absorb nitrogen leakages.
Reactive nitrogen compounds (NO3, NO2, NOx, N02, N2O etc) accumulating in soil, water and air, some of which are 300 times more reactive than their carbon-counterparts in terms of their global warming potential has been a cause of serious concern to scientific community. Due to the limited capacity of nature to neutralise the reactive forms of N into relatively inert N2 gas, the global nitrogen cycle has become the most anthropogenically altered nutrient cycle on earth.
Speaking at the International Nitrogen Conference held in New Delhi, early this month (December 2010) Dr Cheryl Palm, Senior Research Scientist in Earth sciences from Colombia University and chairperson of International Nitorgen Initiative had said, “Global nitrogen cycle represents one of the most important nutrient cycles that sustain life on earth but today, humans add 1.5 times more nitrogen than the natural terrestrial processes combined together through a combination of agriculture and fossil fuel use, and unduly influence the global nitrogen cycle.”
Environmentalists and countries such as the Netherlands (a low-lying nation) which are at increased risk due to climate change, have been advocating and pressuring the world community to cut down the usage of nitrogen.
But the question is can India or the world afford to cut down the N-usage especially as global population is set to double in the next 25 years and food security will be prime concern of all governments?
Participants at the Nitrogen Conference, which included over 400 scientists from 37 countries, concentrated on understanding the consequences of reactive nitrogen and to find the best possible way to manage reactive nitrogen without impacting food security or adversely impacting environment.
“The biggest challenge in the coming years is going to be how scientific community and policymakers respond to the twin but conflicting challenges of food security and environmental concerns, even as Indian policies move from patronage era to rights-based approach,” pointed out Dr MS Swaminathan, chief patron of the conference, adding, “India can deliver on the right to food only if productivity is improved by properly managing inputs such as nitrogen, as land is going out of agriculture.”
Similar sentiments were voiced by Dr Sybil P Seitzinger of International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, Stockholm, Sweden, during one of the sessions. “The multiple positive and negative impacts of nitrogen (N) on eco-systems and society present an unprecedented challenge for science and management. How can we sustainably use nitrogen to produce the food, fiber and energy for the Earth’s seven billion people while minimising degradation of air and water quality, bio-diversity and ecosystem services, is the critical question today.”
Fertilizer industry can breathe easy for now as the larger opinion of scientific community appeared to be tilted in favour of efficient use of nitrogen rather than cutting down its usage as food security concerns are currently overriding while negative impacts, in the opinion of scientists, could be mitigated through effective nitrogen management.
“Due to environmental and economic constraints, another doubling of food production must be met through improved N use efficiency rather than more N fertilizer inputs,” said Dr Fu-Suo Zhang, from College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, China Agricultural University, China. According to Dr N Raghuram, coordinator of Indian Nitrogen Group, “In Indian agriculture, genuine demands for expansion of fertilizer N use in some areas co-exist with the concerns over the environmental hazards of excessive and inefficient N-fertlizer sue in other areas. The solution lies in efficient nitrogen-management.”
While scientific community debated the N-question, Indian government appeared quite clear as to what its priorities were. In his inaugural address, Prof KV Thomas, Minister of State for Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, GOI, had firmly stressed that “food security is the top priority of the government,” though as a rejoinder he had added that government was also committed to address environmental concerns.
By Bisheshwar Mishra
According to EAC reports, “The PCK ignored stipulations that such aerial spraying of pesticides should be done very close to the canopy level or that the same pesticide should not be used continuously for such a long time in an area. Copters often flew much above the stipulated three metres above the cashew trees to avoid power lines and thus caused the spread of the highly toxic chemical to a wider area. The water and soil in the villages were contaminated severely. Even the possibility of the bugs acquiring immunity because of long-term exposure was not considered by the PCK.”
Several news reports documented the warning signals—dead birds, frogs and fish in the streams and rivulets; cattle, and wildlife found dead in the plantation areas; and local people experiencing acute Endosulfan toxicity symptoms after the spraying sorties over their villages. But the centre as well as the state as well as PCK ignored and shrugged it off as ‘alarmist studies.’
By late 1990s studies by independent organisations started revealing residues of Endosulfans in blood and breast milk of villagers and its linkages with cancer, and reproductive and nervous system disorders along with psychiatric problems and visual impairment amongst children.
A public outcry and plethora of court cases forced the government to impose a temporary ban which within a year was adjusted to just aerial spraying. However, in August 2002, the Kerala High Court ordered an interim ban on the usage following an epidemiological study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) Ahmedabad, linking the eruption of symptoms plaguing the people in the region to the use of the pesticide.
The interim ban sparked of studies and committees by successive governments in a bid to get a green signal for Endosulfan usage. The question of a total ban on Endosulfan in Kerala continues to swing on the pendulum from one end to the other, with government-appointed committees trying to give a clean chit in opposition to the empirical evidence.
Ironically, even as the opposition to Endosulfan usage is growing world-over the morbidity patterns from other districts like Idukki, Wayanad and Palakkad as well as Dakshina Kannada (in Karnataka) reveals a similar sinister path indicating the increasing usage of the pesticide.
This finding is not startling given the clout which the Indian pesticide manufacturing cartel wields. India is one of the largest producers of pesticides in the world and continues to be the largest producer and user of Endosulfan, with reportedly over 60 manufacturers and formulators involved in its production and sale. Allegations are rife about the nexus between pesticide manufacturing cartel and government and regulatory bodies.
For example, India’s top three manufacturers—among them the public sector Hindustan Insecticides Ltd (HIL), Kochi—together produced 9,500 tonnes of Endosulfan between 2007 and 2008, and 5,500 tonnes of it was used domestically, according to one report.
HIL, ironically, is based in the heavily polluted industrial belt on the banks of the Periyar river, in central Kerala and is a Government of India enterprise. It is today one of the largest producers of Endosulfan in India, manufacturing 1,500 tonnes of Endosulfan (technical grade) and 1,900 kilolitres of liquid Endosulfan a year, both for use within India (not in Kerala) and for export. But there are equally prominent manufacturers of “crop protection chemicals” in the private sector too, such as Excel Industries Ltd, EID Parry and Coromandel Fertilizers Ltd.
Interestingly, even as the Indian government has pulled out all the stops to block the international conventions seeking to ban Endosulfan, an MNC like Bayer has gone ahead and stopped its production this year.
The Endosulfan victims of Kasargod are once more at epicentre of a chemical quake ripping through their lives. And people from Kasargod are hoping in words of Dr Meriel Watts, co-ordinator, Pesticide Action Network Aotearoa, New Zealand, “We can only hope that by then the Indian government will have come to realise the enormous embarrassment to it, that is being caused by its delegate, and by its conflict of Interest: the Indian government owns Hindustan Industries, one of the manufacturers of Endosulfan. This type of conflict of interest is unheard of in international conventions, and India’s behaviour is threatening to wreck both the conventions.”
By Prabhat Sharan