Kerala pushes for nationwide endosulfan ban

Written by M Sarita Varma | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: Apr 27 2011, 07:58am hrs
It is an issue that has got the usually fractious polity in Kerala on one platform. Cutting across party lines, the states politicians have called for a countrywide ban on the pesticide endosulfan. While CPI(M) leader and chief minister VS Achuthanandan led a state-wide mass-hunger strike on Monday, opposition leader Oommen Chandy of the Congress met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking redressal of the health hazards let loose in Kasargod, the district worst affected by the pesticide. The Bharatiya Janata Party too expressed solidarity with the anti-endosulfan movement, with senior leader and former Union minister O Rajagopal joining in the Achuthanandan-led fast.

The Prime Minister has offered to see the endosulfan-affected families in Kasargod villages personally during his next Kerala visit, Chandy said in New Delhi after meeting Manmohan Singh. For political reasons, Chandy did not participate in the mass fast in Kerala, but is supporting the cause.

This has come at a time when an international convention is on in Geneva to discuss a demand for ban on persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Under the United Nations Environment Programmes Stockholm Convention, 12 pesticides have been banned for being POPs. The Geneva meet is considering the inclusion of endosulfan in that list. However, India, which is the largest producer and consumer of of the insecticide, is resistant to this idea.

Achuthanandan said that several scientific studies, undertaken by both the Centre and state agencies, had found that endosulfan was a deadly chemical. But, he added, it seems that colleagues have wrongly briefed the Prime Minister about the fatal impact of the pesticide. It was strange that the Centre adopted a stand that people in every state should be affected by the pesticide before considering a nationwide ban, the chief minister said, and wanted India to press for its ban at the Geneva Convention.

The mass fury in Kerala was fuelled this week was when R Chengal Reddy, secretary-general of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association (CIFA), a known endosulfan lobbyist, said that farmers would have been better off but for damned Kasargod. He had also claimed that agriculture minister Sharad Pawar had assured him that there would be no ban on endosulfan.

About 2,000 people in Kasargod are officially chronicled as affected due to aerial spraying of endosulfan in the cashew plantations in the area. But any visitor to the villages like Swargam can easily understand that the actual number of people impacted by the pesticide residues in the soil, plants and air would run to more than 10,000, if those reeling under respiratory diseases like asthma and skin diseases are also counted. Children with stunted brain growth are a common sight in Kasargod, as living proof of the genetically pervasive toxicitity of the pesticide.

The AK Antony government had banned endosulfan in Kerala 10 years ago, but since it is liberally used in Tamil Nadu, the pesticide often gets smuggled in from the neighbouring state. The Karnataka government has also banned the chemical. Andhra Pradesh, where endosulfans chief campaigner Chengal Reddy hails from, is planning a gradual phase-out of the all pesticides.

Plant geneticist Suman Sahai says the Centre is protecting the pesticide manufacturers now. Besides Bayer, Hindustan Insecticides is also manufacturing endosulfan.

The Centres argument is that endosulfan is an economic imperative for farmers and that the government is looking for more proof to be convinced that it is damaging. Would the Centre advise testing endosulfan on 10 people to see if they get brain damaged counters Sahai.

As many as 80 countries, including Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil, have banned endosulfan. A key factor they relied on for this was evidence drawn from Kasargod in Kerala. Ironically, in India, this piece of evidence is yet to work with the government.