On 24 August, the Chief Minister V S Achutanandan, distributed Rs.50,000 each to the next of kin of 135 persons, who had died of illnesses contracted due to the use of endosulfan. He also assured that the government would chalk out a plan to take care of treatment, food and other needs of the affected persons and that its promise of rehabilitation of victims would be honoured. In comparison with earlier governments, the CPI(M) led Left Democratic Front Government, which came to power four months ago, has shown at least a semblance of consideration for the victims.

"There are many victims, who are immobile and treatment will have to be given at their homes. Then there are others who will have to be treated in Madras or Bangalore, as their cases are too complicated and local medical facilities are not adequate."
-- M.V Balakrishnan Master, Kasargode District Panchayat President.

 •  The living dead
 •  Poison in their veins

Till two decades ago, people of Padre, Perla and many other villages of Kasargode district in Kerala would rush out of their homes in awe and exhilaration at the sound of the 'huge bird' bringing showers from the skies. The villagers were then not aware that what was being sprayed from the helicopter was no nectar, but the lethal poison 'Endosulfan' a pesticide banned by many countries in the world, including Denmark, Germany and Netherlands. This pesticide was extensively sprayed aerially in the cashew plantations of Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) spread over 2209 hectares in various divisions of Kasargod district. PCK started using this pesticide in 1979 and reports of unusual health disorders started coming from places like Vaninagar, Adur, Mulleria, Padre etc. Disorders of the central nervous system, cerebral palsy, mental and physical retardation, epilepsy and congenital anomalies like stag horns etc became very common. There were also many cases of liver cancer, blood cancer, infertility, miscarriages, hormonal imbalances, skin diseases and asthma.

These disorders were traced to endosulfan. Endosulfan is chemically very close to other pesticides that have already been banned in India and are slated to be phased out globally under the Stockholm Convention 2001, to which India too is a signatory. Classified as an organochlorine along with DDT and dieldrin, endosulfan and its breakdown products are persistent in the environment, with an estimated half-life of nine months to six years. It is known to bioaccumulate in humans and other animals, collecting particularly in the liver, kidneys and fatty tissue. There is strong evidence that endosulfan is an endocrine disrupting chemical.

A study conducted in Kasargode by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) confirmed the presence of high quantities of endosulfan in the samples of water, earth, fruits, mother's milk and blood. After mass agitations and several studies by various agencies, the use of endosulfan was banned in Kerala in August 2001. However, the victims, most of whom belong to the weaker sections, were left in the lurch with no perceptible assistance from the United Democratic Front government headed by the Congress party.

Coming back to the LDF's government recent move, even though far from adequate, the payment of compensation to the victims is a great climb down for the government as it has conceded for the first time that endosulfan was the cause of the unusual and lethal health disorders that spread in Kasargode. "The steps taken by the Chief Minister and his promises are a great relief to a society that has been shattered by corporate-poisoning for more than two decades," says Sudheerkumar, the Convener of the Anti Endosulfan Committee. "The endosulfan struggle has reached a turning point," he adds. The stage that has been reached now is the culmination of a tortuous process spread over two decades.

It is interesting to note that the previous governments of both the Fronts that have been ruling Kerala had been apathetic to the misery of those affected. Even the present government which had come to power promising succour for the endosulfan victims, shocked the people of the state when its Agriculture Minister, Mullakkara Retnakaran made a statement in the inaugural session of the new assembly that no endosulfan induced death has taken place in the last five years. That he was forced to retract his statement and also apologise to the victims in the function held for distributing the compensation amount, is another story altogether.

But this had been the refrain of the previous Agriculture Minister, K R Gowriamma (UDF) and also that of her predecessor, Krishnan Kaniamparambil (LDF). The latter appointed the 'Achuthan Committee' to study the impact, if any, of endosulfan. But the minister also asked the committee to submit the report within one month -- virtually an impossible task, as the affected area was spread over the entire district. The committee therefore summoned the affected people to the Collectorate and examined. Almost simultaneously, the agricultural department had authorised the Fredrick Institute, Coimbatore, a private institution, to examine the soil and water as well as blood and breast milk of the inhabitants. Their methods were not transparent and they came up with a negative report. Dr Achuthan went on record that the report of Fredrick Institute was given to the committee not by the Agricultural department, but by a representative of the institute who was accompanied by the representatives of the Pesticide Manufacturers Association.

The Achutan Committee report neither implicated nor exonerated endosulfan. It recommended the ban of only aerial spraying and not a total ban. The Pesticide Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India (PMFAI) immediately held a press conference and demanded the lifting of the total ban. The UDF government obliged and the ban was lifted in March 2002. Certain loopholes in the Insecticides Act of 1968 were also exploited towards this end. The ban on aerial spraying remained. A few environmental organisations approached the High Court petitioning that the pesticide is highly toxic and can harm all species, including human life. Therefore, the order lifting the ban violated Article 21 (the right to life) of the Constitution, they argued. The court upheld the argument and the sale and use of endosulfan was totally banned in the state.

Subsequently, the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), a central government institution, submitted a report that their tests revealed the presence of endosulfan in soil, water, and human bodies much in excess of the permissible limit. The study by CSE followed. However, the state agricultural department was unmoved. The officials maintained that the health issues and deaths were unrelated to the spraying of endosulfan. Gowriamma stated in the assembly that mental and physical retardation and congenital anomalies were due to the prevailing practice of 'marriage of blood relations' in the district and had nothing to do with the pesticide. Even as the district collector reported that at least 50 people have died due to the poisoning by endosulfan, the Agricultural department got ready another report this time by the Mayee Committee in December 2004, which said that no link had been established between the use of endosulfan in the estates of the Plantation Corporation of Kerala and health problems reported in the Padre village.

It is in this murky and rather conspiratorial background that the disbursal of compensation gains significance.

"Paying compensation is not enough," says Shree Padre, a journalist and environmental activist. "What is more important is the rehabilitation of the living victims." M V Balakrshnan Master, the Kasargode District Panchayat President agrees. "There are many victims who are immobile and treatment will have to be given at their homes. Then there are others who will have to be treated in Madras or Bangalore, as their cases are too complicated and local medical facilities are not adequate."

Medical camps were held in 11 grama panchayats by the health department and 224 people have been categorised as critically affected and another 226 as having less than 60 per cent disability. However, Shree Padre says: "The tragedy was spread over 20 villages. Considerable people have died and entire families have been affected. No proper survey has ever been done." It is difficult to identify all the endosulfan victims as they live in various localities spread over a large area. And time is also another factor. All this happened over two decades. In the initial years, the disorders that were observed were not linked to endosulfan.

There are several cases filed by individuals and groups for compensation pending in the Kerala High Court. One of them, filed by N A Nellikunnu, a social worker, and three victims in 2002 was disposed off in July this year. The court directed the government to expeditiously disburse the Rs.50 lakhs set apart in the state budget for the victims. The petitioners had sought compensation of not less than Rs.10 lakhs each and the court observed that if the petitioners are not "satisfied with regard to the quantum of compensation, they may seek their remedy in appropriate forum by leading evidence with regard to the damage to their health or life and seek more compensation." "It took four years for the case to come up for hearing," says Nellikunnu. "One of the petitioners, Kumaran Master died during the pendency of the case. How many more years will we have to wait if we file another case?" he asks.

Despite all that has happened, the Plantation Corporation and the agricultural department have not given up their non-transparent style of operation. The Corporation continued to use weedicides and herbicides after it discontinued aerial spraying of endosulfan in 2001. A Right to Information application unearthed that nearly 13,600 litres of weedicides/herbicides were purchased at a cost of Rs.27.81 lakhs. In the meantime, between 2002 and 2005, the Corporation was seeking organic certification.

There has also been a press report that endosulfan is being used in the Attapady area of Palakkad district despite the ban on it in the state. The allegation has been raised by no less a person than the Deputy Speaker of the Kerala assembly, Jose Baby, who incidentally belongs to the same party as that of the Minister of Agriculture, Retnakaran: CPI. Retnakaran has asked the Director of Agriculture to enquire and report. The attitude and activities of the department in the past cannot but make one cynical about the outcome of the enquiry. Even though Retnakaran has apologised for his faux pas in the assembly, it appears that his department is yet to come around. (Quest Features & Footage)