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Toxic Tours - X: Going bananas in north Kerala

By Shailendra Yashwant

Thanks to the banana chip's growing popularity, the paddy fields of Kerala are being converted into banana plantations that demand the widespread use of harmful chemical fertilisers and pesticides

A farmer loading his truck with bananas in Wyanad

If the coconut and rubber plantations don't get on your nerves after a point, rest assured the banana plantations will. All of Kerala, except for the few biodiversity hotspots in the Western Ghats, is under plantation of some kind or the other, which adds to its overwhelming greenery. Bananas, it seems, is the latest crop that the Keralites are cashing in on at the cost of destroying their remaining paddy cultivation. As the humble Kerala banana chip gains global popularity, the Keralites are riding on its boom and going overboard.

I arrived in Kalpetta, district headquarters of Kerala's Wyanad district, hoping to spend some time in the Wyanad Wildlife Sanctuary and at Kurwadweep island -- two exquisite destinations for wildlife enthusiasts. As luck would have it, before I could escape civilisation for a short sabbatical, a newspaper item about a pesticide accident in the area caught my attention.

The local newspapers had pictures of children admitted to hospital following exposure to pesticides. They called it a pesticides accident but, as I discovered during my investigation, the children were victims of continuous exposure, over a fortnight, to a deadly pesticide called Phorate that is used extensively on banana crops.

I joined Usha and Raju of Thanal, an extremely proactive Trivandrum-based NGO that has done some phenomenal work in the areas of both wildlife conservation and toxic pollution in Kerala. They were visiting the affected areas on a fact-finding, damage-control and pesticide-awareness mission.

The women's ward of the Kalpetta Government Hospital was brimming with 8-14-year-old boys and girls crowded on three beds put together. Most of them were up and about and seemed to be recovering from symptoms of vomiting, giddiness and headache. Some even managed a smile for my camera.

The visibly distraught parents revealed that this was the second time in the last week that they had had to bring their children to hospital. The first time was 10 days earlier. According to the first information report available with Thanal, on July 10, 2002, children arriving at the Kottathara upper primary school complained of an unbearable stench, obviously from the banana fields where workers were busy applying a mixture of fertiliser and pesticide (Umet Phorate 10%) to the soil before planting the banana rhizomes. As the day progressed, and aided by the breeze, the smell became worse and the children started complaining of severe headache and dizziness. Meanwhile, efforts by the school authorities to stop the workers from continuing using more pesticide were met with a firm refusal. The situation soon began to get out of hand as children began fainting; gram panchayat officials were contacted for jeeps to help carry the students to hospital.

On July 17, the children were back in hospital with similar complaints. Doctors confirmed that the symptoms were of acute toxic exposure and, although it was difficult to pinpoint a single chemical or pesticide, they were planning to carry out a detailed analysis. Meanwhile the district administration, including the district collector who visited the hospital, was being apprised of developments. Talk of a fact-finding committee was in the air.

A visit to the site revealed an open valley below the Karinjakannu hills that was being cultivated. Houses dotted its edge. The place, of course, stank of chemical pesticides. The upper primary school building and a madrassa occupied one end of the valley while the rest was under banana, arecanut and coconut plantation. According to a local farmer, the open three-acre field in front of the school is where the banana planting "that could possibly be responsible for the incident," was in progress. He was not willing to say that the use of pesticides had caused the incident. He pointed out that the madrassa was only a few metres away. "How come those students were not affected?" I tried to educate him on wind speed and direction, but he was sceptical. Naturally, I was told much later, he could have been one of the guilty parties.

The caution label on the Umet (Phorate 10% CG) -- encapsulated soil and systemic insecticide, manufactured by United Phosphorus Ltd -- clearly states `Keep away from children....Do not use in situations where there is a possibility of harming bees, birds, animals and fish.... Do not drink or smoke during application', indicating its extreme toxicity. The farmers were certainly guilty of not following instructions and causing injurious harm to innocent school children. It is a different thing altogether that they use no personal protection when applying the deadly stuff; they drink, smoke, throw used packets into river streams and generally pollute the environment without batting an eyelid, in their pursuit of wealth at any cost.

Usha enlightened me about the banana chip boom. Traditionally, the banana chip was an Onam preparation, a savoury that was prepared once a year from a particular variety of banana (known to most of us as the Kerala banana -- the big green one). During the last decade or so, the banana chip decided to offer serious competition to the invasion of multinational potato chips. That led to paddy fields and marshlands being converted for the industrial cultivation of bananas. Soon enough, `wyala nadu', or `land of paddy fields', in Malyalam -- from which Wyanad gets its name -- was being converted into a banana republic.

Such large-scale cultivation automatically entailed extensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to make the investment worthwhile. Incidents similar to the one in Kottathara were reported from many places, although none was so bad as to make newspaper headlines.

The disappearance of jackals and wild cats from the area, and the drop in fish catch reported from the Wyanad district, are also blamed on the extensive use of pesticides and the gradual poisoning of the local environment.

The Kasargod tragedy, where the population of entire villages were seriously affected by the aerial-spraying of endosulfan -- another systemic insecticide -- has kick-started a huge debate on the wisdom of continued use of pesticides. The first round of this battle was won by NGOs representing the villagers of Kasargod, when the courts banned all aerial-spraying of pesticides. But that victory was shortlived as the state government went back on its order of a total ban on endosulfan following pressure from the industry.

Just when the rest of the country had begun to look to Kerala to take the lead in the anti-pesticides campaign and show us the way towards alternatives in organic and natural agriculture, the Kerala government's position put anti-pesticide campaigners into a tizzy. This unfortunate event involving Umet Phorate might just put the larger debate back on the table

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)