The Indian state of Kerala government has been ordered to pay the thousands of people whose lives have been permanently scarred by years of routine spraying of the cheap, highly toxic pesticide endosulfan.
Endosulfan is banned in 80 countries. But for more than 20 years, starting in 1973, it was sprayed from helicopters over the cashew crop in the lush, verdant landscape of this northernmost tip of Kerala three times a year.
The first symptoms of its side-effects were detected in the 1990s. Farmers described seeing a pile of dead butterflies near a papaya tree, and other insects dying in droves. Frogs gobbled up the dead insects and died. Chickens that ate the frogs also died. Calves were born with twisted legs. One was born with two heads. Among humans, doctors began noticing congenital disabilities, hydrocephalus, diseases of the nervous system, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and severe physical and mental disabilities. they realised these symptoms were confined to Kasaragod, the sole district where endosulfan was aerially sprayed.
In 2001, following protests, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board ordered the Plantation Corporation of Kerala to stop aerial spraying. That same year, a study by the respected Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi said its analysis strengthened the suspicion “that the Kerala pesticide tragedy is a government corporation’s creation”. In 2004, the Kerala high court banned the pesticide. Finally, in 2011, the supreme court banned endosulfan throughout India.
“It was too late,” says MA Rahman, founder of the Endosulfan Victims’ Support Aid Group. “It had leached into the soil and water. No one told farmers to cover their wells during spraying. Children continued eating the cashew plant flower. Farmers would send cattle out to graze after the spraying.”
A 2008 report by the Kerala Pollution Control Board confirmed Rahman’s theory, showing the presence of endosulfan in water samples collected from sprayed areas. Northern Kerala is full of bodies of water: lagoons, ponds, canals, open wells and 14 rivers. When it rained, the pesticide washed down the hills into the valleys and flatlands where people grew rice, vegetables and fruit for their own consumption.
Kasaragod resident Aisha Shakira lives in Adhur village with her two daughters. Abida, 21, has mental health problems and has been bedridden since she was five. When asked for her reaction to the supreme court ruling that compensation must be paid, Shakira shrugs. “I suppose we can improve our house to make it nicer and more cheerful for my girls. But they lost their childhood and I have had no life. I can’t remember the last time I left the house. Weddings in the family, engagements, births, festivals – I had to miss them all.”
Abu Bakr, is a daily wage labourer. His sons Ashiqi, 24, and Shafiq, 17, need constant attention. Shafiq has cerebal palsy and requires 24-hour care. Ashiqi cannot function on his own. “What I need from the government is a basic income so that I don’t need to worry about working and can devote myself to the boys... The compensation will only go so far,” he says.
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