Courage Wins Over Poison

Sunita Narain

I want to tell you today a true story of extraordinary courage, not of one, but of many.

This past fortnight I was in Kasargod, a district in Kerala, splendid in beauty and natural resources, but destroyed by one toxic chemical: endosulfan.

The pesticide was aerially sprayed over cashew plantations for 20 years, in complete disregard for the fact that there is no demarcation between where plantations end and habitation begins. Moreover, it is a high-rainfall region. Thus, once sprayed, the pesticide leached into the ground and flowed downstream. The poison contaminated water and food. It ultimately harmed human beings.

This story is known. What is not known is the human endeavour and personal battles that make up the story of this poisoned land and its diseased people. More importantly, what is not asked is: where does this story end?

Leelakumari Amma is the original heroine of this plot. In the early 1990s, she came to Kasargod — ironically, as an agricultural scientist whose job was to push farmers to use pesticides. When she was building her house, her brother died under mysterious circumstances. But she did not connect the dots. Then she moved in, only to realise that the pesticide spray was poisoning her land and water. She petitioned everyone, asking for help. Instead, she received threats from the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK), the public sector company that owned the cashew lands. In 1998, she filed a case in the local court. The threats became more venomous. But she did not give up. In 2000, the court ordered an interim ban on spraying pesticides. Some months later, the vehicle in which she was travelling was hit by a truck; she lost a leg. Leelakumari Amma told me that this was an accident. Maybe, maybe not.

Around the same time, medical doctor Mohana Kumar, who practised in a neighbouring village, sensed that something was terribly wrong. The incidence of abnormalities and deformities was not normal, he felt. He wrote to the medical fraternity, but to no avail. Next, Shree Padre, a freelance journalist in the village, decided to write an article about the plight of the inhabitants. His email reached Anil Agarwal, director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). In mid-2000, Mr Agarwal decided to send a team to investigate and collect samples of water, soil and blood. The results showed high levels of endosulfan in everything — proving, for the first time, what was only suspected till then. The pesticide, which had been sprayed across the villages for years, was now found just about everywhere. The question still was: what did this mean in terms of human health?

But this evidence was inconvenient for the pesticide industry; Mohana Kumar was served numerous legal notices.

In 2001, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) intervened and asked the Indian Council of Medical Research for a detailed report. The report concluded that there was a significantly higher incidence of abnormalities and disease in populations exposed to endosulfan compared to the control population. So, now, the toxic contamination was identified, and its effect on humans was known.

This study was even more inconvenient for the industry. The gloves came off; the investigators were abused, attacked and vilified. A case against the key scientist, Aruna Dewan, was filed on the very day she retired from government service. She fought back at considerable personal cost. Thanal, a Kerala-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), plays a critical role in the campaign against the pesticide industry’s smears.

As a result, it has taken over 15 years to establish the basic facts. Currently, the Kerala government’s ban on endosulfan prevails. Last year, the Supreme Court banned the manufacture or use of the pesticide in the country. The state has accepted the need to provide compensation to “endosulfan victims”. It now pays a monthly pension of Rs 2,000 to people who are bedridden and Rs 1,000 to those with ailments and disability. The state government now plans to compensate the 4,000 victims it has screened for exposure and disease. Since part of the compensation will be paid by the PCK, liability is established.

Much remains to be done, from rehabilitating the living to providing palliative and specialised healthcare to the very ill. Also, there is a need to cleanse traces of endosulfan persistent in the district’s soil. Besides, the state must explore possibilities of organic farming. The stigma of pesticide contamination has to be wiped clean.

This will happen, I am sure. In the Buds school – the district administration set up seven schools for endosulfan victims – I saw signs of hope. Some 27 children from Padre and Perle village are enrolled here. I saw the teacher hold their hand and teach them how to smile as these children counted numbers and drew flowers. Their laughter filled the room. The physiotherapist told me that he was working hard to make sure these children with special needs could walk. A few steps today — maybe more tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in India’s Business Standard

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One Response to “Courage Wins Over Poison”

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