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Exit endosulfan

By Darryl D'Monte

India manufactures 70% of the world’s endosulfan, which explains why there has been such a strong lobby against its ban, despite evidence of its health hazards. But India has finally dropped its opposition to a ban on endosulfan, thanks largely to the campaign against the pesticide by Kerala’s people and government

It is not clear what finally prompted the Indian government to drop its opposition to a ban on the controversial pesticide, endosulfan, at the recent Geneva meet of the UN Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and agree to a phase-out, albeit over a protracted period of 11 years. What’s more, India will get financial assistance for phasing out this organochlorine pesticide, which the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Union have both classified as “highly toxic”. This is reminiscent of the provisions of the Montreal Protocol, one of the more successful UN environmental treaties which phased out chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs and funded, to some extent, developing countries to switch to benign substitutes.

In part, the Centre’s volte face may be explained by the hard line taken against the use of this pesticide by the Left Front government in Kerala, a state which has been worst-affected by its spraying. The chief minister himself called for a nation-wide ban, following the precedent set in Kerala as long ago as 2004 and in neighbouring Karnataka in March this year. Andhra Pradesh, in fact, claims it is planning to phase out all pesticides in a few years, a bold step for a cotton- and tobacco-growing state. When the Left Front government threatened agitation, the Centre may have partly capitulated lest it turn into an electoral issue.

Kerala’s Agriculture Minister Mullakara Ratnakaran wants a ban because without it endosulfan can be smuggled into the state. He cites how the Pesticides Act of 1968 came into being: It was after foodgrain was contaminated with pesticide, killing 100 people in Kerala and affecting 800 more that the state appealed to Prime Minister Nehru, ultimately leading to the legislation a decade later.

Kerala has been worst-affected by endosulfan, particularly in Kasaragod district where it was aerially sprayed on cashew nut plantations.

Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar believes that indiscriminate use of endosulfan, particularly through aerial spraying, is responsible for the adverse health impacts. Not the pesticide per se. The Centre believes that a ban will hit the common farmer and agricultural output. At the Geneva meet, India sought exemption for 15 crops till such time as suitable substitutes are found; they appear to cover most of the use of this harmful chemical. According to the Delhi-based NGO ToxicsWatch Alliance: “It is only India, China and Uganda which have asked for exemptions and these are for certain pests on cotton, coffee, tea, jute, tobacco, cow peas, beans, tomatoes, okra, eggplant, onion, potatoes, chillies, apple, mango, gram, arhar, maize, rice, wheat, groundnuts and mustard.”

India manufactures 70% of the world’s endosulfan, which explains why there is such a strong lobby against its ban. The global market is valued at Rs 1,340 crore and half India’s output is bought by farmers in this country. One of the biggest manufacturers is the public sector Hindustan Insecticides, in Kochi.

The Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India has resorted to the ruse of claiming that the European Commission is waging a battle on intellectual property rights on behalf of its global pesticide manufacturing giants like Bayer, which has stopped making endosulfan. It alleges that the EU is pressing for a global ban so that it can sell its more expensive pesticides -- costing 10 times as much -- on the world market. It alleges these “will be damaging to the farm ecosystem as most of these are known to be harmful to pollinators such as honeybees”.

One of the chief spokespersons of an organisation called the International Stewardship Centre, which calls itself an NGO for safe use of pesticides but is a thinly disguised lobby for pesticide manufacturers, is R Hariharan, who happens to be the vice-president, international business, of Excel Crop Care, one of the largest private manufacturers. He is quoted as saying: “The replacement value of endosulfan by a patented alternative is estimated to be in excess of $ 1 billion. As a result, endosulfan today is in the eye of the storm in the battle of ‘patented’ versus ‘generic’ pesticides.”

Only a few days before the Geneva conference, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh -- who is known for his policy flip-flops -- stated that endosulfan would be banned across the country if its adverse impact on health were proved. He argued that it was a broad-spectrum pesticide and there was no other cost-effective alternative to it as yet. He also provided the assurance that he would not be swayed by either the anti-endosulfan or pro-endosulfan lobby. “If there is evidence that the use of endosulfan was affecting farmers, it will be banned or phased out. I will be the first to support the move.”

As it happens, there is a very strong body of scientific evidence against this pesticide, which is why some 81 countries have banned it. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the pesticide in June 2010, stating: “The EPA is taking action to end all uses of the insecticide endosulfan in the United States. Endosulfan, which is used in vegetables, fruits, and cotton, can pose unacceptable neurological and reproductive risks to farm workers and wildlife and can persist in the environment.” Because it is an organochlorine pesticide, it shares properties with two notorious others, DDT and dieldrin, which can lead to what is known as “bio-accumulation” in human bodies. The UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation points, among other side-effects, to “their long-term subtle effects on hormones, the immune system, and reproduction”.

The actual evidence from Kerala is damning. The Plantation Corporation of Kerala, a state government undertaking, started aerial spraying of cashew plantations in Kasaragod district from the 1970s. An agriculture department clerk, Leelakumari Amma, who in 1993 built a house on the edge of one such plantation, found that her son, who was a good singer, began to lose his voice. She too suffered from asthma and back pain which peaked when the spraying operations were on.

She began speaking to her fellow villagers and found that many suffered health problems but were hiding their ailments for fear of being ostracised. In 1997, she tried to lobby the villagers, the panchayat and officials, without much success. However, she was helped in launching a signature campaign and she sent a complaint to the plantation management, local political parties and the agriculture minister. Only some local parties decided to support her campaign.

In 2001, Leelakumari filed for a stay in a local court on spraying of the pesticide; the court granted a temporary halt to the practice. She contacted environmental groups which conducted studies in the area and found that the culprit was endosulfan. The Plantation Corporation had been spraying the pesticide over 5,000 hectares in and around the area where she lived. The results were appalling: there were a whole slew of serious health problems, especially in women and children. There were instances of cancer, reproductive problems, congenital problems such as cerebral palsy, and nervous system disorders.

However, the Plantation Corporation paid little heed to this fledgling movement, as did the government, the state-level political parties and the media. But Leelakumari was not a person to give up easily and her protest gradually became a mass movement throughout the state. In 2003, the Kerala High Court permanently banned the spraying of endosulfan. In 2004, hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the Kasaragod district collectorate, with slogans which read: ‘Endosulfan -- Quit India’. School and college students commemorated the death of pesticide victims on August 16, which is Hiroshima Day. The Kasaragod district panchayat staged a march in front of the Kerala assembly in Thiruvananthapuram, demanding relief for the victims. This led the state government to totally ban its use that year.

The National Human Rights Commission, taking it up suo moto, appointed the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) to study the issue: all the studies invariably pointed to high levels of pesticide exposure. The NIOH noted that there was a significantly higher prevalence of learning disabilities, low IQ, and scholastic backwardness among children, besides serious neurological problems and congenital and reproductive abnormalities among people in the region. The pesticide industry and the plantation corporations mounted a virtual war to disprove the studies, but the high court, fortunately, overruled these vested interests.

The affected villages today have medical facilities, set up by local groups under the aegis of the Endosulfan Spray Protest Action Committee, to deal specifically with health problems that arise from pesticide exposure. The government, on its part, has yet to pay out any compensation or even set up a medical facility. But it has conducted medical surveys and announced a package; the process is at a nascent stage.

The struggle, meanwhile, is not over. The movement is now demanding a total ban on pesticides in cashew plantations; medicare and rehabilitation; financial compensation to victims; a ban on endosulfan not only at the state but also at the national level; and support for organic farming in the villages. This grassroots movement in Kerala has led to the state taking the lead in opposing the continuance of the pesticide and forcing the Centre to change its policy in opposing a ban.

At the Geneva meet, Dr Meriel Watts, a senior science advisor to the Penang-based Pesticide Action Network, Asia and the Pacific, said: “The decision is really a tribute to all those farmers, communities, and activists across the planet that have suffered from endosulfan and fought for this day. It is especially a tribute to the thousands in the state of Kerala, India, whose health has suffered so terribly from endosulfan, to the inspirational leadership of Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan, and to the many other people there who have all fought for their rights and for a global ban on endosulfan.”

At the Geneva conference, the debate over DDT surfaced yet again. The World Health Organisation left it to countries to decide on whether to continue using the pesticide, on the grounds that it was a powerful tool to control the scourge of malaria. This was adopted by the Stockholm Convention, deferring the outright ban. Ironically, the WHO itself a few months ago submitted a report that shows that spraying of DDT in buildings poses a serious risk to human health. In regions of South Africa, where it has been used for many years, instances of miscarriage and deformities in newborns have risen. Children have suffered from convulsions and even died. What’s more, a survey conducted by the Stockholm Convention in 13 countries where DDT is still used found that they were unable to enforce the regulations pertaining to the safe use of this pesticide.

The decision not to ban DDT globally has re-ignited the age-old controversy over whether DDT can be done away with, whether on balance it does more good than harm, and whether there are safe and affordable substitutes. In the 1960s and 1970s, the parameters of the debate were posed, somewhat crudely, on whether it was more desirable to live a longer life with adequate food but long-term adverse health impacts, or die of starvation. This was when the WHO published a poster for India, as one of the biggest consumers of DDT, of a bare female breast with the caption, ‘Milk in these containers is unfit for human consumption’, focusing on how the pesticide had found its way into the fatty tissue of the human body. In Geneva, an NGO called Biovision has drawn attention to its Stop Malaria campaigns in Kenya and Ethiopia, where malaria has been successfully kept at bay with a method known as Integrated Vector (Mosquito) Management. Cases of malaria in the project area in Kenya were reduced by 60%, and in Ethiopia by 70% without any risk to the health of the people concerned.

There has been a flurry of emails on the listserv of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, with most African journalists calling for a ban, while others have pointed to its crucial role in controlling malaria. Nick Nuttall, spokesperson and the UN Environment Programme’s media head, intervened to point out that in so many similar environmental controversies involving people’s health, it was impossible to say with 100% conviction that the presence of any chemical was definitely harmful.

This was the case with the presence of lead in petrol, which has now been banned in most countries. For years, there was a great deal of mis- and disinformation on whether smoking causes cancer, just as there was over the use of asbestos in houses (in these last two cases, the respective industries paid scientists to publish patently false information in peer-reviewed journals to claim that the products were harmless). The way out is to assess the risk and then decide, otherwise known as the precautionary principle. Where people’s health is concerned, the slightest element of risk has to be minimised, if not eliminated. DDT is somewhat different from endosulfan because it controls malaria, which is itself a killer disease and is therefore in another category.

The UNEP is involved in projects in Latin America and Africa where substitutes for DDT are being experimented with. Ten projects, all part of the global programme ‘Demonstrating and Scaling-up of Sustainable Alternatives to DDT in Vector Management’, involving around 40 countries in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia, are set to test non-chemical methods ranging from eliminating potential mosquito-breeding sites and securing homes with mesh screens to deploying mosquito-repellent trees and fish that eat mosquito larvae. The new projects follow a successful demonstration of alternatives to DDT in Mexico and Central America. Here, pesticide-free techniques and management regimes have helped cut cases of malaria by over 60%. Recently, two American experts wrote an editorial criticising such work which, they claimed, was not based on peer review. The UNEP is examining these allegations.

Infochange News & Features, May 2011