Monday, May 23, 2011

Into the heart of darkness

In many villages of Kasaragod district, in Kerala, there are numerous children and adults who have been afflicted by life-destroying diseases like cerebral palsy and blood cancer. Locals say that this is the result of the spraying of the endosulfan chemical in the cashew plantations in the area

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Abhilash, 12, is suffering from hydrocephalus (swollen head)

The mud road is rutted. But the driver of the jeep, Ravindra Rai, goes over the humps and crevices with a practiced ease. On either side, there are numerous trees: coconut, banana, cocoa, mango, jackfruit, guava and cashew. A soothing summer breeze is blowing, accompanied by the 'crick-crick' sound of crickets.

The house in Vani Nagar has a red tiled roof. Near the entrance, there is a baby calf, a rope tied around its neck, chewing on green leaves. It is so all pleasant till we see Harshith sitting on a wheelchair in the veranda. He is 18, but looks 12. His legs are pencil-thin. His head hangs loosely over his chest, while spittle is seen at the corner of his mouth. Sometimes, Harshith sticks out his tongue, as he stares blankly into space.

“He was born like this,” says his mother, Jayanthi. Harshith has cerebral palsy. “The medicines are very costly,” she says. “My husband works as a labourer in the cashew plantations. We are in financial difficulty.” But there is a ray of sunshine in this darkness: Harshith's younger sister, Chitra, 12, stands nearby. She is in blooming, perfect health.

In a nearby home, there is Ashika, 10. She has shoulder-length black hair and a sweet smile, but her mother, Kusuma, is holding her in a tight, but warm embrace. The reason is because Ashika is trembling uncontrollably.

“She suffers constantly from epileptic fits,” says Kusuma. “This has happened ever since she was born. I have taken her to many hospitals, but there has been no improvement.” She is a teacher, while her husband works in a hotel in Mangalore.

In the Buds school at Perla, there are 27 students: 12 boys and 15 girls. On a straw mat lies seven-year-old Ayesh, who suffers from cerebral palsy. The most striking feature is the way his eyeballs roll from side to side.

It seems he is unable to control its movement. His mother, Hemlata, says simply, “He is blind. Operations have been done to try to restore the sight, but it has not worked.” On a nearby bench sits Padmaraj, who is 18. He has a paralysed lower body, “but his brain is fine,” says the teacher Mariam Jyothi.

All the students are in varying stages of deformity. “They suffer from mental retardation, epilepsy, asthma, psychiatric problems, and different types of cancers,” says Mariam. There are no classes in the school. Instead, Mariam teaches songs and the students play games. But some of the children have done drawings also.

On small strips of white paper, they have drawn houses and ponds, trees and plants. It has been put up on a board in the dining room.

Meanwhile, Avimash, 25, of Padra village, is also mentally challenged. “He suffers from occasional fits also,” says Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar, a physician who has been practicing in the area for the past 29 years. Recently, a self-help group, Solidarity Youth Movement arranged for surgery on his knee joints. “He is able walk a little,” says Kumar.

Then there is Abhilash, 12, of Karabka village who is suffering from hydrocephalus (swollen head). “From birth he has been like this,” says Dr. Kumar. “He is mentally challenged and is unable to do anything.”

There are so many victims like this in the various villages of Kasaragod district of Kerala. Asked the reason why, the villagers, most of whom are illiterate, say one English word with repeated emphasis: endosulfan.

Here is the history. The government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) owns 4696 hectares of cashew plantations spread over 20 villages. From 1976 onwards, the PCK employed aerial spraying of the chemical, endosulfan, to combat the tea mosquito which was damaging the cashew tree.

Unfortunately, within a few years, health problems were reported among the villagers. “I was alarmed by the rise of psychiatric and neurological problems,” says Mohan Kumar. “Several people had congenital abnormalities, mental and physical retardation, and cancers. These cases were very high in number. I realised that there was something abnormal about this.”

When the local farmers staged a protest because numerous honey colonies were destroyed following the aerial spraying that Mohan Kumar and his friend, the journalist Sreepadre realized that the health complaints could be caused by the spraying of endosulfan.

Sreepadre did research and discovered that in the World Health Organisation literature on endosulfan, it is stated clearly that there are health hazards in exposure to the chemical. People can suffer from neurological problems and all forms of cancer. Endosulfan can enter the human body through water or the food chain.

Sreepadre published an article in a Kannada newspaper. It provoked public interest in the issue. Incidentally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies endosulfan as a highly hazardous pesticide. Later, research by the National Institute of Occupational Health confirmed high levels of endosulfan in the people, water, soil, and vegetation at Kasaragod.

In 1998, following the filing of a suit by M.K. Leelakumari Amma, a government employee, whose brother died because of the possible effects of endosulfan, the High Court banned the aerial spraying of the chemical in Kasaragod, as well as the entire state. The PCK stopped aerial spraying on December 26, 2000.

Meanwhile, till now, there have been 16 government-sponsored studies. Some are by well-known organizations like the Indian Council of Medical Research. But the conclusions have been mixed. While several have stated that endosulfan is the cause, others have said that there is no connection.

“We suspect that those who say there is no link are in the pay of the pesticide companies,” says Narayanan Periya, the chairman of the Endosulphan Viruddha Samaran Samiti (The Committee against endosulfan), an umbrella organization of several groups which are fighting for the cause of the victims.

Narayanan is happy with the recent Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants which has agreed to a worldwide ban of endosulfan by 2012, although India has asked for a grace period of 11 years to enforce it.

Says Narayanan: “I have to be cynical here. This period of 11 years was sought by India to enable the pesticide companies to get rid of their stocks. Meanwhile, more lives are going to be damaged.” And deaths are also taking place (see box).

And there is social damage. “Young girls are unable to get married,” says T.C. Madhava Panicker, president of the Kasaragod People’s Forum. “People are scared that when these girls get pregnant, they might have children with congenital defects.” As media coverage causes fear and alarm, divorces are also on the increase.

“There is a case of a wife who did not explain why she was having fits,” says Panicker. “But when the husband read about the endosulfan issue in the newspapers, he had no qualms about filing for divorce.” Nowadays, when wives get pregnant in Kasaragod, husbands insist on numerous scans. “If there is a slight trace of abnormality in the foetus, they will immediately go for an abortion,” says Panicker.

It is a benighted area. House after house reveals an endless cycle of tragedy. On our way back, driver Ravindra suddenly stops near a cashew tree by the side of the road. He shakes the branches and several cashew fruits fall to the ground. He picks up one and sucks the juice and eats it heartily. Then he gives us a couple. But, numbed by the human devastation we have just witnessed, we are unable to summon up the carefree courage needed to bite into the succulent-looking fruit.

When the bell tolls

According to Madhav Nambiar, the coordinator of the Endosulfan Victims Relief and Remediation cell, at Kasaragod, till 2008, 486 people have died. In 2006, Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan gave Rs 50,000 to the relatives of 133 people. Till 2008, the kin of another 45 people received the same amount.

So who are the people who died?

Santosh, 15, is the son of Chukra Padre. He died of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. His house is a few metres away from the cashew plantation. He drank the water that came from a pond that flows through the plantation. “You can get ill by drinking the water or through the food chain,” says Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar, a physician who works in the area. “He survived for one year after the diagnosis.”

Vasanth Kumar is the son of Kunhappa Naik, Vani Nagar. He had mental retardation and epilepsy from birth. He died at 18. A year later, his father died out of sorrow.

Chaniya Naik, 58, died of liver cancer. He was a labourer and left behind three children. .

Kumaran Master, a school teacher, was the spirit behind the endosulfan agitation. He was 58 when he died of liver cancer. He had been to Mangalore, Bangalore, and Vellore for treatment. “He spent Rs 5 lakh in a bid to get cured,” says Kumar. The family received a compensation of Rs 50,000 from the state government.

Sheenappa Gowda, 55, died of esophageal cancer. He was a non-alcoholic, and did not smoke. “He also spent a lot of money for his treatment in Mangalore and Puttur,” says Dr. Kumar.

Govindan Naik, 32, died of leukaemia at the village of Padre .

Malinga Madival, 60, died of skin allergy problems. He was misdiagnosed, and eventually died of renal failure complications.

What is endosulfan?

Endosulfan is an organochlorine insecticide and acaricide. It has become controversial because of its acute toxicity. By 2011, more than 80 countries have banned it. However, it is still being used in India and China. In fact, India is one of the largest consumers.

Today, endosulfan is regarded as one of the most toxic pesticides. It copies or heightens the effect of estrogens and can be an endocrine disruptor. It causes reproductive problems in both animals and humans. “Genetic mutation is the dreaded complication of endosulfan,” says local physician Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar. “It will be carried to the next generation. There are cases where the second generation has also been damaged.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai, Delhi and Kerala)


  1. Anonymous5:50 AM

    the dude with swollen head is creepy......

  2. Anonymous12:00 AM

    No, the comment from the individual with the empty head and heart is creepy.

  3. Anonymous7:29 AM

    lol pwned