Sun, Feb 19, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Childhoods lost: disabilities and seizures blight India’s pesticide use

The prospect of compensation offers little comfort for thousands of families in Kerala State, whose lives have been shattered by the use of endosulfan

By Amrit Dhillon  /  The Guardian, Delhi

Illustration: Constance Chou

Chandrika Shenoy’s son, Mahesh, lies on the ground beside her on a mat, his limbs twitching as he moans, seemingly in distress.

Following a supreme court ruling last month, the family are waiting to receive the 500,000 rupees (US$7,455) the Government of Kerala, India, has been ordered to pay thousands of people whose lives have been permanently scarred by years of routine spraying of the cheap, highly toxic pesticide endosulfan.

“The compensation cannot give my son his childhood back,” said Shenoy from their home in Kasaragod, Kerala. “Or give me my life back. All it can do is help us provide him with the best care.”

Her face bears the strain of caring for her son for 18 years. Shenoy knew instantly something was different about her son when he was born.

“Mahesh’s face and skin tone were beautiful, but his body structure was not right. He was dull and passive and slept all the time. When, at the age of three, he began to have fits that lasted all night, the doctors at Calicut Medical College said endosulfan was responsible for his condition,” she said.

His thick medical file says he has cerebral palsy with spastic quadriplegia.

Endosulfan is banned in 80 countries, but for more than 20 years, starting in 1973, it was sprayed from helicopters over a cashew crop in the lush, verdant landscape of this northernmost tip of Kerala three times a year.

Farmers heard helicopters roar over the cashew estates — a pleasing sound, as it meant their crops were protected against the tea mosquito bug. They called endosulfan marunnu, which means medicine.

The first symptoms of ill health, among humans and livestock, 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. As activists exchanged notes, they realized 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 Corp of Kerala to stop aerial spraying.

That same year, a study by the 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.”

One woman’s blood showed 900 times the amount of endosulfan permitted in water.

In 2004, the High Court of Kerala banned the pesticide.

“It was too late,” Endosulfan Victims’ Support Aid Group founder MA Rahman said. “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 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.

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