IIPM Admission

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Poisonous land: Due to indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides

After Irom Sharmila last year, Anna Hazare wins IIPM's 2011 Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of Rs. 1cr. To be handed over on 9th May

Due to indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, the environment is spewing death and disease in several districts of Kerala

Swarga is a beautiful hilly village in Kasargod, Kerala's southernmost district. But do not go by the name. The place resembles hell. Death, disease and tragedy haunt 15 gram panchayats around the cashew plantations of Kasargod.

In the late 1970s, helicopters sprayed poisonous pesticides on the cashew plantations here to wipe out tea mosquitoes. The operation wiped out much more than just the mosquitoes.

According to official statistics, from 1995 onwards, more than 500 deaths have occurred due to the spraying of Endosulfan in Kasargod district. But unofficial calculations put the number of deaths at 4000 plus since 1978, when aerial spraying started.

For three decades, the Plantation Corporation of Kerala carried out aerial spraying of Endosulfan on their cashew plantations spread over 4,700 acres in Kasargod. Endosulfan is a toxic pesticide banned in many countries.

Villagers residing near the plantations are now paying the price for this disastrous move. Though the spraying was stopped and Endosulfan was banned as a result of a prolonged people's struggle, many people in this area are still battling health issues like physical deformities, mental disorders, cancer, nervous problems, and pregnancy-related complications.

Water sources in this region are totally contaminated. A large number of children and women are among the victims. Diseases, which include childhood blindness, physical retardation and cancer, have been linked to exposure to Endosulfan. Future generations aren't safe either. According to experts, Endosulfan residues measured in cow milk and meat in Kasargod district are over 100 times the permissible level.

As an impact of social pressure and an initiative of Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan, the state government set up a relief and remediation cell for Endosulfan victims in 2007. The cell has so far compensated around 180 families of those who died of poisoning. With the help of the district administration, the cell is now trying to rehabilitate over 3,000 villagers. However, the cell's functioning is hamstrung by inadequate funding and bureaucratic red tape. As in the case of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Plantation Corporation of Kerala has no liability to compensate or rehabilitate the Endosulfan victims.

The demand to ban this killer pesticide is rising all over the world, but the Indian government is reluctant to consider this suggestion. Moreover, ignoring protests, the government strongly opposes the international move to ban Endosulfan, which is already banned in at least in 70 countries. Even after the tragic ramifications, toxic pesticides, including Endosulfan, are still being indiscriminately used in various parts of the state. On the advice of 'agricultural experts', farmers widely use toxic pesticides in plantations and paddy fields, rendering even water and soil poisonous. These pesticides are sprayed in cardamom, tea and banana plantations in Idukki district. A study conducted by Thanal, a Thiruvananthapuram-based voluntary agency, showed that the sale of toxic pesticides in a single block in Idukki district exceeded official estimates for the entire state. The usage of pesticides per hectare in the district was very high compared to the state and national averages. Palakkad district, too, has a higher than average use of pesticide per hectare. The state average is about 343 grams a hectare. The study showed that around 170 pesticide products were in use in Idukki district. Many of them belonged to groups that have high toxicity. Even banned pesticides have reached Idukki and other districts without proper labels or brand names.

Mango plantations of Muthalamada in Palakkad district also use poisonous insecticides, including Endosulfan, which is easily available in Pollachi and other border towns in Tamil Nadu. To skirt around the ban on Endosulfan in Kerala, plantation owners and farmers buy it from the pesticide stores located across the state border. There aren't any concrete measures in place to check this inter-state transportation of toxic pesticides.

In Kuttanad, regarded as the 'nellara' (rice bowl) of Kerala, the situation is extremely alarming. The presence of toxins in human beings, animals, fish, water and the environment is very high. Approximately, 28,000 hectares of paddy fields, spread over the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, are under rice cultivation in Kuttanad.

A study conducted by Thiruvananthapuram Medical College has reported very frequent cases of cancer of the lip, stomach, skin and brain, lymphoma, leukemia and multiple myloma from Kuttanad, linking the same to high pesticide use in the area. 'About 72 per cent of food samples in India have shown the presence of pesticide residues within tolerable levels while in 28 per cent samples they were above the permissible level compared to 1.25 per cent globally,' points out Dr P Indira Devi, professor in agricultural economics, Kerala Agricultural University, who conducted a study of pesticide usage in Kerala.

As at the national level, pesticide consumption in Kerala also has recorded decline in recent years. 'But the intensity of use (quantity per hectare) in the state has increased. In contrast to the national pattern. Fungicide use in Kerala is much higher (at 57 per cent) than the the use of insecticides. This is generally attributed to the higher proportion of plantation crops in the state,' she says.

The study conducted by Dr Indira Devi also reveals that pesticide consumption is the major method of suicides in Kerala. 'Of the 900 to 1,000 suicides/year, 60 per cent are by consuming pesticides. The autopsy reports from government medical colleges in Kerala showed that more than 95 per cent of poisoning deaths were due to insecticides.'

Kerala has a long history of pesticide tragedies. A pesticide tragedy claimed 102 lives and severely poisoned 828 persons in 1958. The incident led to the enactment of the Central Insecticide Act 1968 'to regulate the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution, and use of insecticides with a view to prevent risk to human beings or animals and matters connected therewith.'

But in Kuttanad, Idukki, Palakkad and other parts of Kerala, the worst is far from over.

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