"It was the afternoon of May Day. I was on the dais along with the representatives from Kenya and Zambia," says Purushan Eloor, an environmental activist from Kerala and an invitee to the Conference of Parties of the Stockholm Convention on POPS (COP-3), held at Dakar, Senegal from 30 April to 4 May 2007. "I was about to begin my presentation, Living with DDT pollution when I saw Shanmugam Ganesan, and Tirthankar Basu, both members of the official Indian delegation, distributing a bit-notice to the assembled delegates. They reached the dais and gave one to me too. Only after glancing through it I understood why almost all those present were staring at me," continues Purushan, who hails from Eloor, where Hindustan Insecticides Ltd (HIL), the only factory in India that produces DDT, is situated.

The bit-notice turned out to be a fascimile copy of a letter addressed to the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention on the letterhead of Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). The letter contented that DDT is harmless, and that even after five decades no one associated with the production of DDT at Eloor has had any health hazards. The letter went on to damn Purushan as incompetent to speak about the pesticide, and that his campaign against DDT and highlighting of the health hazards are mere ruses to swindle money from UN agencies. The letter further urged that his words should not be taken on record. (click here to see the letter)

Official delegation, or vested interest?

It is important to note, at this juncture in the narrative, that Tirthankar Basu and Shanmugan Ganesan, who circulated the vilifying letter at Dakar Conference are respectively the Assistant Manager of HIL and the General Manager of Excel Industries, a pesticide major and one of the main producers of endosulfan. The official Indian delegation comprised of five members, with Rajnish kumar Vaish, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests leading it. Vijaykumar Trivedi, Counselor, Permanent Mission of India to the UN at Geneva and Chanda Choudhary, MOEF were the other two delegates.

Ganesan addressing the conference

How did two major operators in the POPs manufacturing-sector become part of India's official delegation to a conference which aims to eliminate their production and use? Repeated email queries to Vaish, the head of the delegation, drew a blank. Nonetheless, it is certain that Ministry officials knew that Ganesan's views were completely antithetical to the purpose of the convention - he had also accompanied the official delegation to the COP-3 of the Rotterdam convention held in Geneva in 2006 - and that he had a vested interest. Ganesan was asked to leave the official delegation, but by then the damage had already been done. Later, Ganesan also repeated his claim that environmentalists were citing bird deaths due to DDT, and using this to prevent succour to Africans who are dying in hordes due to Malaria. DDT, he said, does not cause any harm to health and its use should be spread far and wide.

Purushan Eloor's presentation included the result of a survey report conducted by Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samithy (Periyar Anti Pollution Committee), which strongly indicted HIL for the unnatural ailments the people of Eloor, the contamination of vegetables, the fact that HIL is also the producer of endosulfan and how the company has been polluting the Periyar river. Samples of fruits, vegetables, chicken, duck, fish and milk collected from Eloor were tested in the laboratories of the Cochin University of Science and Technology and were found to contain DDT and BHC apart from heavy metals like zinc, cadmium, led and nickel. Purushan concluded his presentation with the plea that the "convention should ensure that the production and use of the DDT should be within the Stockholm Convention provisions and ask for elimination without contaminating people living near a production facility."

In the ensuing discussion, Ganesan accused Purushan of not being aware of 'the ground realities' and also stressed that a 'chromatograph' (which would have convincingly proved the presence or otherwise of heavy metals) was not included in the presentation to substantiate the claims of the survey report. Purushan immediately presented the chromatograph, but by that time both the delegates had left the hall. Most of the participants who spoke condemned the action of the official delegates in violation of UN protocols, and expressed solidarity with Purushan. In the press conference that followed, Purushan explained the situation now at Eloor. There was barrage of questions directed at Purushan as to how a trade union has come up with such a letter and how the members of a country's official delegation could be the purveyors of such villification.

Persistent Organic Pollutants

COP-3 is the third meeting of the parties to the Stockholm Convention. The Stockholm Convention came into force on 17 May 2004 and calls for international action on 12 POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) grouped into three categories: eight pesticides including DDT and endrin, two industrial chemicals and two unintentionally produced POPs-dioxins and furans. The Convention mandates signatory governments to promote BAT (Best Available Techniques) and BEP (Best Environmental Practices), for eliminating the 'dirty dozen' while preventing the manufacturing of new POPs. The Convention also unequivocally decided to reduce and ultimately eliminate DDT. The Convention presently has 144 countries as signatories.

That DDT is harmful to life and nature is accepted world over, barring the few who manufacture it. Scientific research has shown that even low-level DDT exposure carries elevated risks of adverse chronic health impacts.

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Over 450 participants, representing 180 governments, UN agencies and non-governmental agencies attended the Dakar meeting. Purushan Eloor attended the Side Event of the Conference as an invitee of the United Nations Environment Programme, the organisers. "I did not react to the letter during my address, as I had to make a presentation within strict time limits," says Purushan recalling the letter incident.

That DDT is harmful to life and nature is accepted world over, barring the few who manufacture it. Scientific research has shown that even low-level DDT exposure carries elevated risks of adverse chronic health impacts. Identified health effects include higher incidence of undescended testes; poor sperm quality; premature delivery and reduced infant birth weight; miscarriage; reduced breast milk; neurological effects, and nervous system impacts and liver impacts due to occupational exposure to DDT. The production and use of DDT were banned in Europe and North America more than three decades ago. Despite this, studies in the United States have shown that high levels of this compound and its metabolites are still found in the general population.

Viewed from this background, it is a paradox that the World Health Organisation still advocates the use of DDT for malaria vector control. It recommends the use of DDT for Indoor Residual Spraying in malaria-affected areas. And so it is now widely used in African countries. While DDT has been effective in malaria vector control, its long-term implications, now that they are known, cannot be ignored. Hence the Stockholm Convention and the call for BAT and BEP. However, the United States has now come up as a donor country and is promoting exports of DDT to the poor sub-Saharan countries. And India is the biggest - and possibly the only - official provider.

In India, only HIL produces DDT, and that too at its Eloor unit in the suburbs of Kochi in Kerala. It is the biggest producer of DDT in the world and takes pride in declaring that it exports DDT to African countries. (www.hil-india.com). HIL was incorporated in March 1954 for supplying DDT for the National Malaria Eradication Programme. Later on it went into a variety of pesticides and fungicides and endosulfan has a pride of place in its roll of honour.

India has not totally banned use of DDT. It can be used in India for eradication of mosquitoes and it is still being used in the northeastern states for malaria vector control. However, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, and West Bengal have attained considerable success in eradicating malaria without resorting to DDT. This had also been acclaimed by WHO. It is reported that India and China are the only countries that produce DDT. There is persistent demand from environmentalists that India, being a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, should abide by its decisions and phase out the production of DDT. But judging by the blatant and unabashed regulatory capture evident in Senegal, it is clear that the Indian government has its ear firmly tuned only to the producers of the poison. (Quest Features & Footage)