Endosulfan poisoning

Endosulfan poisoning

 All three children of this family in Alankar village near Mangalore are lifetime victims of endosulfan. Photos by Author

Twenty-six-year-old Vidya and her twin brothers Diwakar and Dinesh, 24, of Alankar village on Uppinangady–Subramanya road in Dakshina Kannada district, about 75 km from Mangalore, would have been gainfully employed  or perhaps happily married, had they been like others their age. Instead, they are  confined to the four walls of their house since birth.

Their mother Rajeevi has to fend for them — right from feeding them to their other daily needs. Their future is uncertain. Sadanand, a postman and an activist, attributes their plight to probable use of water or eating fish from the rivulet nearby where trucks carrying endosulfan pesticide were washed many years ago.

Sheelavathi, 43, resident of Aethadka, about 30 km from Kasargod, can speak and think like any woman. But she is  completely paralysed below the neck for the last 30-odd years. She explains her misery: “I was in Class II when  a helicopter passed overhead spraying something (endosulfan), which doused me also. As soon as I reached home, I collapsed. That was the last day I walked. My parents took me to different doctors in vain. My father passed away leaving my mother to take care of me. My only brother too died in an accident sometime ago.”

Her mother Devaki would lock her up in the house and go to work. Of late, Devaki (over 70 years) has not been working. She waits for their relative Shankari to bathe Sheelavathi, who is barely three feet.

These are but two examples from two coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada (Karnataka) and Kasargod (Kerala) out of thousands of victims of endosulfan, a pesticide used by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) since 1978. The purpose was simple: To get high yield from cashew plantations spread over thousands of acres of fertile land across both districts. The result: Thousands of victims suffering from various illnesses, including cancer, asthma, mental retardation, allergy, early onset of menstruation or delayed sexual maturity and impotency among others.

Doctor reveals horror…

The horror tales came to light when Dr Mohan Kumar, a medical practitioner at Swarga in Kasargod district, wrote an article in Kerala Medical Journal about the unusual increase in human and cattle suffering way back in 1996 and subsequently in ‘Down to Earth’ in 2000, establishing a link between spraying of endosulfan and human suffering. “Almost all children born during the ‘endosulfan period’ are suffering from one or other disability, he said. At the same time, a group of post graduate students led by Dr Ravindranath Shanbhag (then professor of Pharmacology in KMC, Manipal) conducted a study and brought 103 patients (out of 400 identified by Dr Mohan Kumar) to Manipal and tested them. To their surprise, the types of diseases matched with scientific literature,  establishing the vital link. Out of them, 23 were mentally retarded, 20 suffered from epilepsy, 43 from mental illness. It is then that  Kerala agriculture minister Krishnan K sought to know why endosulfan affected only Kerala when it was being sprayed in border areas of Karnataka too. “We rushed to areas mentioned by the minister - Kokkada, Patrame and surrounding region - and enquired with residents. A thorough investigation revealed that there were many people with similar deformities, which had not been noticed before,” Dr Shanbhag recalls.

While Kerala government has identified 4,273 victims (including 525 bed-ridden), Karnataka government is yet to identify all victims. While three villages have been surveyed, 27 other villages are yet to be covered.

Social  activists put the figure at several thousand victims in both the districts. Dr Shanbhag says that he has collected details about 6,500 children suffering from various diseases in the affected parts of Dakshina Kannada district alone.

K Shankar, a resident of Kajampady in Kasargod district and former employee of Cashew Project of Kasargod (later Plantation Corporation of Kerala),  alleges that real victims have not been  compensated while those with prior deformities had falsely claimed compensation.

Janaki (52), Pammu (65), Bhagya (65), Madaru (70), Chimploo (68), Aithappa (60) and Ammanni (50) are just a few to name. All of them have worked for PCK and have been victims for the last several years. But till date, they have not received any compensation, alleged Shankar.

Gene analysis must

Dr Shanbhag insists that every boy/girl of marriageable age from the affected areas must undergo gene analysis to prevent defective children being born.

There are at least 1,800 pregnant women in the sprayed areas of Dakshina Kannada district alone, most of whom never go for scanning (from which physical deformities can be identified) before delivery. “The government has to arrange for their scanning,” he asserts.

Sridhar Gowda, who lost his eyesight but is a ray of hope to many victims in Kokkada and Patrame, says the victims are poor and the government must provide compensation as well as monthly pension to meet their medical expenses.

Notwithstanding the global ban on endosulphan, until the government takes firm measures to eliminate harmful pesticides in the market under different names, the numbers of these victims, just a few thousands now, is bound to grow.

When a government enterprise itself sells the dreaded pesticide worth crores of rupees, how effective will a ban be is the million dollar question.

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